Denali National Park is the size of Vermont.
It has some maintained trails, but none are more than 10 miles.
The heart of Denali lies in its wilderness, vast and wonderful. The best way to experience it is to hike off-trail.
This guide is here to help you get out there.
How to Hike Denali
The idea of a backpacking trip in Denali (Or anywhere in Alaska) can be intimidating, since most of us do all of our hiking in the lower 48 states. After all:
- Denali has no backpacking trails
- It’s Alaska
You should get over these fears, because Alaska is amazing!
Special considerations need to be made when planning a trip up here, but the same can be said for all the National Parks.
Keep scrolling down the page for information about recommended hikes, permits, the bus system, dealing with wildlife, and more.
It’s true that there’s no trails in the best of Denali’s backcountry. That may turn a lot of people off, but the navigation is easy! The terrain is usually wide-open, so you can see the surrounding landscape for miles and miles.
The park road makes going off-trail simple.
Most backpacking trips begin and end from the main Park Road. The road generally runs from east to west, and there’s a reliable system of buses that is constantly driving along it.
The buses will drop you off literally anywhere along the road, and they’ll also pick you up anywhere. The road is your lifeline – all you have to do at the end of your hike is find your way back to it.
Elsewhere in the United States, you have to backpack for miles and miles to seek out a rewarding destination. In Denali, the rewards begin immediately when you step off the bus.
The 5 Best Trails
If you’re still hesitant about getting deep into the park and just want something more simple, that’s okay! Here’s the best of the trails that Denali has to offer.
You can access all of these with your own vehicle.
1) Triple Lakes – 9.3 miles
It’s also technically possible to backpack on this trail. It’s located in “Unit 1” of the National Park, and a permit is required for all overnight backpacking. More about getting a permit can be seen down the page.
2) The Savage Alpine Trail – 4 miles
Considering that it’s a maintained trail, this one-way hike (possible to connect via a free shuttle bus) provides the best opportunity for a wilderness experience. It’s common to see wildlife out here, like Dall Sheep and Grizzly Bears.
You can add the adjacent river loop to your day, bringing the hike up to 5.7 miles.
3) The Mount Healy Overlook Trail – 4.5 miles round trip
With wonderful views of the entrance area, the Overlook Trail has a great progression of thick boreal forest that eventually climbs to alpine heights. You can test yourself and get into some true backcountry by continuing beyond the end of the trail, toward the summit of Mount Healy.
4) The Thorofare Ridge Trail – 0.8 miles, but steep!
Also known has the Eielson Alpine Trail, this steep trail climbs almost 1,000ft above the Eielson Visitor Center, deep within the National Park. It has some of the best views of any of the maintained trails in Denali, and provides wonderful opportunities for further exploration.
The main drawback is that it’s an 8-hour round-trip bus ride the trailhead. If you only have one day in Denali, however, this is a wonderful way to spend it!
5) The Sugarloaf Mountain Trail – 4.3 miles
Technically outside the boundaries of the National Park, Sugarloaf Mountain is perhaps the most strenuous and best hike on this list. Following a steep, established trail to the west of the Park’s entrance, it climbs to great heights with spectacular views – a local favorite.
Maps & Guides
The Denali Guidebook by Ike Waits is your most indispensable resource for choosing a hike in Denali, especially if you’re going to be in Alaska for an entire summer (seasonal employees, I’m talking to you!).
The Trails Illustrated Map of the park is a great resource for pre-trip planning, especially to get a comprehensive grasp of the entire park and the layout of its various units. Otherwise, the scale is too condensed for navigation in the field.
The official Park Service website has its requisite information, including a useful description of every individual backcountry unit. It’s easy to miss – scroll down to the bottom of their page and expand the menu.
You can right-click (or download) the following maps to see larger versions of them.
Here’s a map that shows Denali’s entrance trails:
This next one gives you an idea of the layout of the entire park:
Here’s a map that shows the backcountry units for the entire park:
Finally, here’s a zoomed-in version of the map above. This one is more practical, as it focuses on the backcountry units that border the park road.
Choosing a Backcountry Hike
You’ll find that the rangers in the Backcountry Center are exceedingly cautious about recommending specific hikes or itineraries, so don’t count on them too much if you go in without a plan.
I recommend doing some wilderness day-hiking in Denali before any overnight trips. Day hikes will give you a familiarity with the terrain and a basic understanding of how things work with the bus system along the park road.
Here’s 4 wonderful, off-trail day hikes:
- Tattler Creek and Sable Mountain (5 miles)
- Over Cathedral Mountain & down the Teklanika River (7 miles)
- Mount Thorofare (5 miles)
- Primrose Ridge and Mount Margaret (7 miles)
Going up Mount Healy via Bison Gulch is also a great day for intrepid hikers.
Park rangers will encourage you to plot your own routes, but Denali does have a handful of classic backpacking trips, which I’ll list below.
If you’ve never been to Alaska and you’re looking to dive head first into one of the these trips, that’s okay. Just be sure that you’re comfortable with the following skills:
- fording rivers
- off-trail navigation
- backpacking in grizzly bear country
5 Suggested Backpacking Routes
These routes are “just the tip of the glacier.” As always, check out The Denali Guide to really open your eyes to everything that’s available.
As a general rule, I tend to prefer the hikes on the south side of the road – these are more likely to bring you up close and personal with the dramatic scenery of the Alaska Range.
1) East Branch of the Toklat River – 20 miles – unit 9
This is a good one for beginners, simply following a river valley upstream to its terminus at a glacier.
2) Upper Teklanika River to the Savage River – 35 miles – units 5 & 6
A classic hike to cover some distance in Denali’s backcountry – connect the headwaters of these rivers via the scenic Refuge Valley. This is a strenuous, time consuming hike for experienced backpackers with solid route-finding skills.
3) Cabin Creek via the East Fork and Main Toklat River – 16 miles – units 31 & 32
Connects the wildlife superhighways of the Toklat River on the north side of the road, via the pass north of Cabin Peak. If you have extra time, go for the summit!
The Eielson Loop alone is spectacular, but Anderson Pass is a wild hike to the crest of the Alaska Range!
This was one of my all time favorite backpacking trips, and I don’t say that lightly.
5) McGonagall Pass – 38 miles – unit 20
McGonagall is Pass is the ultimate backpacker’s destination – a white whale for many a Denali aficionado. The historic first ascent of the mountain was done via this approach.
Without a packraft, the treacherous ford of the McKinley River makes this most viable as a late-season trip (late August or early September). Go here to see an interesting trip report, or here for the NPS description of Unit 20.
Bonus – Stampede Trail to the Magic Bus
Though not exactly an off-trail adventure, this 40-mile round-trip hike is technically outside of the National Park.
This isn’t an especially scenic hike (when compared with others in Denali), but the destination speaks for itself. Experience the place where Christopher McCandless infamously lived and died – subject of a well-known book and movie.
Getting a Permit
The backcountry permit system is refreshingly ruthless and simple:
- Permits are only issued in person, and all members of the party need to be present.
- Permits are first come, first served. There are no reservations. If your first night of camping will be on Monday, June 21st, then the earliest time you can be issued a permit is when the Backcountry Center opens on Sunday, June 20th.
- Permits are free, but you’ll likely have to buy a bus ticket.
Like many National Parks, Denali is geographically divided into separate use-areas, or Units. When you book a permit, you reserve a specific unit for a specific date. So for a 5-day trip you might have the nights of August 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in Unit 32, and then August 4th in Unit 33.
You’re allowed to camp anywhere within the geographic borders of the Unit, so long as your campsite is out of sight of the Park Road. Specific areas are often closed because of wildlife activity.
It’s best to travel to Denali without your heart set on a specific hike – if you do, then you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. Have a Plan B or a Plan C. Just go in with an open mind, because some units can fill up quickly.
Rangers like to say that all of Denali is spectacular, so there are no “best” places to go. That sounds unlikely, but it really is true!
It’s all awesome!
Day Hiking does not require a permit.
Before being issued your permit, the rangers will require you and all the members of your party to watch a 30-minute video. It’s extremely informative and teaches you basically everything you need to know about hiking in the Park. After the video, they’ll give you a brief “Safety Talk,” which verbally confirms the information presented in the video.
If you’re hoping to get your permit early in the morning when the Backcountry Center opens, then it’s best to watch the video on the previous day.
Bear Cans and Maps
You’re required to borrow one of their bear resistant food containters (Free of charge). If you have your own bear can, you must bring it with you and have it approved by the rangers.
If you borrow one, it will be this model. They’re relatively heavy.
I brought my own bear can to Alaska – this model is approved and is significantly lighter.
Finally, they carry all of the corresponding USGS topographic quad maps in the Backcountry Center, and I recommended getting the ones you’ll need from there. A large map on the wall shows the unit boundaries, so the routine is to buy your map there and immediately mark the boundaries on it with a provided highlighter.
I just love the feeling of having a fresh National Park Backcountry Permit in hand!
But there’s one more thing left to do – go next door and get yourself a bus ticket.
The Bus System
The Park Road is 92 miles long, coming to a dead-end at Kantishna. Private vehicles are only allowed as far as 15 miles up the road, to Savage River.
To travel beyond Savage River, you’ll need to use the park’s bus system. All the buses, as long as they have space available, will drop you off or pick you up from any point along the road.
Next door to the Backcountry Information Center is the “Wilderness Access Center” (WAC), which is basically just the main bus station. All the buses load and unload their passengers here, and it’s also where you can buy your tickets.
To get a bus ticket you’ll have to show your receipt that says you paid your general National Park entrance fee, which is only payable up the road at the Visitor Center.
There’s a class system of three different bus groups
- Tour Buses
- The Backpacker’s Bus – “non narrated”
- The Shuttle Bus – “non narrated”
“Tour Buses” are not intended for taking hikers into the park, so we’ll focus on the other two buses. The “tour bus” drivers, will, however, pick you up if they have space on their exit run.
The Backpacker’s Bus
Backpackers with an overnight permit simply need to get a ticket for the “Camper Bus.” This bus is intended only for backcountry hikers and people staying in the campgrounds, so you must be in possession of an overnight permit to get a ticket. The Camper Bus departs 3 or 4 times daily, beginning at 7am. The cost of a Camper Bus ticket is $43.50.
Day Hiker’s Bus
Day Hikers should get a ticket for a regular (Transit) Shuttle Bus. There’s significantly more options for shuttle bus tickets. They depart a lot more often than the Camper Bus, and they go various distances up the road before turning around.
Shuttle bus tickets and pricing are based on their turn around points, listed below:
- Wonder Lake
It’s not advisable to do a day hike anywhere beyond Eielson, because just getting to Eielson one-way is a 4-hour ride!
Weather and Timing
The weather in the small town of Healy, Alaska should give you an idea of Denali’s current conditions and monthly trends.
A Short, Rainy Season
The season generally begins in late May and ends in early September.
There’s a chance of significant snowstorms at both ends of this window.
Some years are especially rainy, so be prepared to be wet and cold.
Since most of the best hikes in the park involve fording dangerous rivers, it’s best to get the timing right – especially if you have your heart set on a specific destination.
For example, the Stampede Trail is best done very early in the season (late April or early May), when the high snowpack is still frozen, OR very late in the season (September), when most of the season’s snow has already melted.
Examples of other trips with big river crossings are Anderson Pass and McGonagall Pass – these are best done in late August or early September. Early season trips on these two hikes are less likely to be successful – by the time the park road opens, it’s usually too late to be fording the respective rivers.
I arrived in Alaska in early May. Everything was brown, and the mountains were covered in snow. I left for the season in late September. By then everything was brown again, and there was snow. What I’m saying is that Spring, Summer, and Fall come and go rapidly in Denali.
Dealing With Moose & Grizzly Bears
The rangers will tell you everything you need to know about hiking in grizzly country when you get your permit, but I’m going to go over some of that here anyway.
First of all, it should be noted that Denali was established as a National Park in 1917. It covers a chunk of land that’s equal in size to the whole state of Vermont.
Only one person has been fatally attacked by a bear in the entire history of the Park. The attack occurred in 2012 along the Toklat River, and the victim was a lone male from San Diego.
His camera was recovered after the incident, and the evidence is clear from his photos that he likely approached the bear and lingered near it (Within 50 yards) for a while, taking pictures. His initial photos show the bear grazing and acting non-aggressively, essentially minding its own business.
Moose are statistically more dangerous than bears. I couldn’t find any confirmation of this, but a ranger told me me that about a dozen or more people have been trampled and killed by moose over the years. They are massive animals and have no hesitation about charging puny little human beings. Females with calves are particularly dangerous, and the males are especially moody during mating season in the Fall.
The general rule of thumb is to stay 25 yards away from a moose and all other wildlife (Except bears, stay a quarter-mile or more away from them). If a moose lowers its head and its ears go back, then it’s not happy and is probably about to charge. If you see this, RUN!
If you have to run from a charging moose, use your size and agility to your advantage, running in a zig-zag motion like you’re dodging bullets. Moose are big and gangly, and sharp turns are difficult for them. Duck and dive behind trees into the thick woods until it loses interest and no longer sees you as a threat.
The opposite is true when dealing with bears – DO NOT RUN FROM THEM! For a lot more specifics about how to behave in bear country, please see this full article I wrote on the subject.
How to Ford a River
Denali is a primitive place with wild, glacial rivers. There are no bridges off the Park Road, so hikers are left on their own to cross the rivers.
The park’s rivers are often swift, deep, and bone-chillingly cold. River crossings are the #1 most dangerous component of hiking in the Denali. So here’s a few tips on crossing them:
- Use at least one hiking pole and keep at least two points of contact with the bottom of the river at all times (3 is even better!).
- Keep your shoes on!
- You won’t be able to see the bottom of the silty, glacial rivers, so be cautious of sudden changes in depth.
- Unbuckle the hip belt and sternum strap of your backpack. If you lose your footing your backpack can pin you underwater, so you’ll need to be able to remove it quickly.
- Take your time and find the widest and most well-braided place to cross the river.
- If your trip involves a serious river crossing, try to time your itinerary to do the crossing in the early morning. Most rivers in Denali are at their highest levels on hot afternoons when the glaciers are melting.
- Likewise, be wary of rain and snowmelt. Even the smaller rivers will rise rapidly after periods of rain.
- Finally, if the water is too high and too scary, then don’t do it! Wait for the water level to go down or find another way back to the road, even if it means a few extra days. Staying on itinerary isn’t worth risking your life!
My Additional Trips
Most of my hikes in Denali have been linked to throughout the article. Here’s a few more photos and accounts of trips that didn’t make the cut for “best of” or “suggested,” etc.
I’d always wanted to go to Alaska, and the best opportunity finally came in the Spring of 2014 when I took a seasonal job near the vast expanse of Denali National Park. From early May through late September I would call Healy, Alaska my home, and upon arrival I could finally say that I’d been to all 50 states.
This index chronicles my experiences throughout a bright summer in the land of the midnight sun, a season that felt like one long day with as much adventure crammed into the 40-hour work weeks as possible. No sleep ’til Brooklyn… or… September!