Most of Denali National Park is unspoiled wilderness. Unlike other large National Parks like Yellowstone, visitor impact is limited to a small area. The park does not offer a large number of improved hiking trails but is an incredible playground of backcountry and mountaineering opportunities, the vast mountains of the Alaska Range, and countless glaciers.
To reduce visitor impact during the weather shortened Alaskan summer access to the park by private vehicle is restricted to the first 14 miles of the 88 mile park road. The US National Park Service runs a shuttle bus that can be picked up at the visitors center located on the eastern edge of the park, the only entrance into Denali. Every year the National Park Service sponsors a lottery, and 1,600 lucky people earn the right to drive their private vehicle the full length of the park road.
Because of the travel restrictions and there only being 291 improved campsites within the entire park reservations are all but required to visit Denali for almost any activity. Visiting for only a day (which can be 23 hours in late June) does not do Denali justice. 100% of campsites, all 300 rooms of the in park lodge and 65% of shuttle bus seats are on a reservation basis. If you arrive without shuttle bus reservations you may have to wait one to two days to get on, and finding a campsite without reservations will be even harder. Even if you plan only to day hike within the park, having an advanced shuttle bus reservation will greatly enhance your visit.
The shuttle bus service offers a number of routes. You can take an eight-hour round trip to the Eielson visitor center, located about 15 miles north of the summit of Mt. McKinley. You can also take an eleven-hour round trip to Wonder Lake, the most remote improved campground in Denali. If you take the US National Park Service shuttles, you can get off at a number of stops and explore. Commercial tours are also available however they do not allow you to get off and on mid-trip and generally run for a shorter period of time. A boxed lunch is provided on commercial tours.
Recreational vehicle camping is only allowed at Teklanika, Savage and Riley campgrounds, all located within the first fourteen miles of the park. Wonder Lake, Igloo and Sanctuary has special bus service and Morino is walk-in camping only.
Denali's 6.1 million acres is rich with wildlife. Bald eagles, grizzly bears, moose, Dall sheep, and caribou are plentiful throughout the park. Moose and grizzly bear encounters are possible and rather common even in the improved sections of the park. Special consideration needs to be taken when camping in the park to prevent bear encounters.
You will not find a better place for backcountry or mountaineering in unspoiled wilderness. Backcountry camping and mountaineering are allowed within the park, but specific permits must be applied for well in advance. Mount McKinley 18,000 feet rise above the surrounding terrain is the tallest in the world, surpassing even Everest in total elevation gain during a summit assault. Special training and equipment will be needed to conquer Mount McKinley, but less strenuous adventure awaits out in the vast expanse of Denali backcountry when all points lead to adventure.
More exotic adventures are available through a number of area outfitters. Aerial tours, horseback trips, and rafting tours down the frigid Nenana River are all available just outside of the park's east entrance. Denali National Park and Preserve even sports two airstrips allowing private pilots to fly into the park. If you want to do more hiking but prefer to stay on improved or marked trails, a trip to adjacent Denali State Park is in order, offering many miles of improved hiking trails on the southern side of Mount McKinley.
When the snow starts to fly the fun doesn't end at Denali. Cross country skiing, sled dog mushing, snow shoeing, snowmobiling (or snow machines as they are called in Alaska) are all available activities within the park. You won't find a finer place in the United States to see the Northern Lights, or a night sky unspoiled by ambient light, warmth, humidity or pollution in the air.
Weather at Denali can be very extreme. In the summer plan for 60° F. and damp conditions. In the winter, the temperature can fall below -40° F. making things downright inhospitable. The key to a successful visit to Denali National Park and Preserve is reservations far in advance, at least three days to explore, and plenty of film in Alaska's unspoiled wilderness.