There is only one road that leads into Denali National Park and that would be Denali Park Road. Stretching 92 miles, this road leads to stunning viewpoints, scenic lakes, and numerous hiking trails and campsites. Along the drive, you have the chance to spot all of Alaska’s Big 5, not to mention big views of Denali.
If you plan to visit Denali National Park, there is no doubt that you will be spending at least a little bit of time on Denali Park Road.
In this guide, we cover the best things to do along Denali Park Road, how to use the park buses, where to get the best views of Denali, and sample itineraries to help you plan your time.
Guide to Denali Park Road
Overview of Park Road
Things to Do on Denali Park Road
Highlights & Must-Have Experiences of the Drive
Denali Park Buses: Which One Should You Choose?
How to Get a Permit to Self-Drive the Road
How to Get a Ticket for the Lottery
Tips to Have the Best Experience
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Denali Park Road?
Denali Park Road is 92.5 miles long. It starts in the east, at the park entrance, and heads west, running parallel along the north side of the Alaska Range. Denali Park Road ends just past Kantishna, deep in the heart of Denali National Park.
At the park entrance, you are very far Denali. To see Denali from the front of the park, you either have to hike high (to the Mount Healy Overlook) or drive to mile 9. Even from here, you can just barely see the peak of Denali.
The farther down Denali Park Road you go, the better the experience. Not only do the views of Denali get better, but you also have the chance to spot all of Alaska’s Big 5, go on some of the best hikes in the park, and journey deeper into the heart of this park.
For most of its length, Denali Park Road is only open to the transit and tour buses that are run by the National Park Service or the backcountry lodges. Private cars are only permitted to drive to mile 15, unless you have a special permit.
The bus trips that run along Denali Park Road typically take a full day. Speeds are low and with frequent stops for wildlife sightings, it takes as much as 7 hours to drive the entire road one-way. But don’t let that discourage you. It’s a beautiful drive and one you won’t forget.
Stony Hill Overlook
Exploring Denali Park Road: Our Experience
We spent a lot of time on Denali Park Road.
On our first day in Denali, we rode the transit bus to Eielson Visitor Center, spent a few hours hiking, then returned to the front of the park. It was an awesome day and we were extremely fortunate to have crystal clear skies.
Two days later, we rode the Backcountry Lodge bus to Kantishna, repeating much of the drive, but it was still wonderful. This time we had cloudy skies, which is quite common in Denali. We spent a day in the backcountry and then returned to the front of the park by bus.
With our remaining days in Denali, we explored the front of the park, hiking the trails and driving back and forth on the 15 mile stretch between the Visitor Center and Savage River, and taking a flightseeing tour.
Riding out to Eielson was our favorite experience in Denali National Park. It even beat flightseeing. Seeing bear, moose, and wolf, hiking the trails at Eielson, and seeing Denali in all her splendor from Stony Hill Overlook was unforgettable.
We learned a lot about the park, and Denali Park Road, and have a lot of information to share with you.
Things to Do on Denali Park Road
Below is an elevation profile of Denali Park Road, a map of Denali National Park, and the list of things to do along Denali Park Road. This list starts at the park entrance and ends at mile 92.5, the end of the road.
Elevation profile of the road (courtesy of the National Park Service).
How to Use This Map: Click the tab in the top left hand corner of the map to view the layers (points of interest and the walking route). You can click the check marks to hide or show layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each point of interest.
If you click the star next to the title of the map, this map will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.
Horseshoe Lake Trail (Mile 1)
This easy, 2-mile round trip trail winds around a beautiful lake. Along the way you can also see a beaver dam and have great views of the Nenana River. See the full hike here.
Denali Visitor Center (Mile 2)
At the Denali Visitor Center, talk to park rangers about road and trail conditions. The train station and Kantishna Air Taxi are all located nearby. You can also go shopping in the park store or grab a bite to eat at Morino Grill.
Denali Sled Dog Kennels (Mile 3.5)
The sled dog kennels house the sled dogs that are used to patrol the park for much of the year, when Denali National Park is snow covered. These kennels are open to the public and you can meet the dogs.
First View of Denali (Mile 9)
The farther down Denali Park Road you go, the better the view of Denali. The front of the park is located rather far away from this mighty mountain and you get your first glimpse of it at mile 9.
First View of Denali on a hazy morning (at 300 mm focal length, so it is very zoomed in).
To see Denali, you need clear skies. And at this point, you can just barely see the tip of it rising above the closer mountains in the Alaska Range.
Mountain Vista Picnic Area (Mile 13)
This picnic area is the location of two hiking trails. The Mountain Vista Trail is a very short, easy loop with views of the nearby mountains. The Savage Alpine Trail is a 4 mile strenuous hike with views of Denali. It’s one of our favorite hikes in Denali National Park and well worth the effort to hike up to the viewpoints.
This is also the location of the Savage River Campground.
Savage River (Mile 15)
At this point, Denali Park Road crosses the Savage River. Beyond the bridge, you must have a permit if you want to keep driving your own vehicle, or you must be on one of the park buses.
Just before crossing the bridge, there is a parking lot and restrooms. From here, you can hike the Savage River Loop Trail or the Savage Alpine Trail. The Savage Alpine Trail is a 4 mile one-way hike that starts at the Mountain Vista Picnic Area and ends here. Or, simply hike out-and-back from this parking lot, enjoying the views from the overlooks, making it a 4 mile out-and-back hike (info coming soon).
View of Denali and Denali Park Road from the Savage Alpine Trail
Savage River bridge
Beyond Mile 15
Beyond the Savage River Bridge, you either need to be on a park bus, staying at Teklanika River Campground for a minimum of 3 days, or have a permit to continue the drive. At this point, the road becomes gravel and stays that way to the very end.
There is a ranger station here where you will show your permit.
Sanctuary River Campground (Mile 22)
This is one of two campgrounds in Denali that are first-come first-serve (no reservations can be made in advance). There are 7 sites and it is only open during the summer months.
Teklanika River Campground (Mile 29)
This campground has 53 sites. If you are staying here for at least 3 nights, you are permitted to drive your own vehicle here. If you will be staying less than 3 nights, you can only get here by park bus. Once here, your vehicle must remain parked and you will use the park buses to get around.
Teklanika Rest Stop (Mile 30)
This is the first stop along Denali Park Road, for those on a transit or narrated bus. This large rest stop has lots of restrooms and a nice view of the Teklanika River.
Igloo Creek Campground (Mile 35)
This small campground has 7 tent-only sites and they are first-come first-serve. Get here by camper bus.
Sable Pass (Mile 39)
From the Teklanika Rest Stop, Denali Park Road climbs 1,500 feet to Sable Pass, one of the highest points along the road.
View of the road winding up Sable Pass.
Polychrome Pass (Miles 44 to 46)
This is the most thrilling section of Denali Park Road.
From Sable Pass, you will descend slightly, cross a river, and then climb up into the rust and charcoal colored mountains. The gravel road winds along the mountains and it is a bit of a white-knuckle drive. Basically, you are traveling right along a cliff with a huge drop off to the valley down below. If you are afraid of heights, sit on the right hand side of the bus if possible.
Denali Park Road Closure at Pretty Rocks
This part of Denali Park Road was constructed over a rock glacier. In recent years, the glacier is melting, causing the road to slump. For the past few years, gravel has been added to the road almost every day, to build it back up. In the summer of 2021, the road was sliding down as much as 14 inches a day and it just got to be too much for road crews to keep up with the landslide.
In August 2021, the road was closed at this point. Currently, engineers are brainstorming options to reroute the road around this pass. Construction is not expected to begin until 2023 and it remains to be seen if Denali Park Road will be open beyond this point in 2022.
Another view of the road at Polychrome Pass
This is where the landslide is occurring. On a daily basis, road crews were adding more gravel to the road, until it got to be too much to keep up with.
Denali Park Road is closed at mile 42. Therefore, the remainder of Denali Park Road might be inaccessible in 2022. I recommend checking the National Park Service website for updates on this road closure.
Polychrome Overlook (Mile 46)
Transit and narrated tour buses stop here so you can get out, stretch your legs, and enjoy the view. Walk the trails into the hills behind the parking lot for a better view.
View from Polychrome Overlook
Toklat River (Mile 52)
This is another rest stop on Denali Park Road. There are restrooms, a small park store, and antlers you can pick up and hold…they are surprisingly heavy and they make for a great photo!
Toklat River Rest Stop
Stony Hill Overlook (Mile 62)
This is one of the best places in the park to snap a photo of Denali. Denali looks absolutely massive from this viewpoint. If you can get Denali Park Road with a bus on it, you really get a sense of how enormous this mountain is.
Stony Hill Overlook
On a cloudy day, your view could be more like this.
Eielson Visitor Center (Mile 66)
From Eielson Visitor Center, you have a spectacular view of Denali. And from here, you can take your pick from three hiking trails.
Eielson Visitor Center
Thorofare Ridge Trail. 2 miles out-and-back, 1,000 feet of elevation gain, 1 to 2 hours. For jaw-dropping views of Denali, this short, steep, very strenuous hike takes you up into the hills behind the Eielson Visitor Center.
Thorofare Ridge Trail
Gorge Creek Trail. 2 miles out-and-back, 600 feet of elevation gain, 1 to 1.5 hours. From Eielson Visitor Center, this hike descends down to Gorge Creek and the Thorofare River bar. The views aren’t as good as they are from the Thorofare Ridge Trail, but it is a little bit easier. If you only have the time or energy for one hike, we recommend the Thorofare Ridge Trail…it’s worth the effort.
Gorge Creek Trail
Tundra Loop Trail. One-third of a mile round trip, minimal elevation gain, 30 minutes. This short, easy trail is nice if you want to stretch your legs without doing a full hike. The views don’t change a whole lot from what you get at the Visitor Center, since the trail is just down the hill from the building and bus stop.
How Long Does It Take to Get to Eielson? When we did this, we rode the transit bus to Eielson and it took 4.5 hours. Returning the park entrance is usually faster, since you stop less for wildlife sightings. The ride from Eielson to the park entrance took 3.5 hours. Adding in time for hiking and a trip out to Eielson can take 9 to 12 hours, a long day, but it was my favorite day in Denali National Park.
Wonder Lake Campground (Mile 85)
Between Eielson Visitor Center and Wonder Lake, Denali Park Road gradually descends. To your left you will have views of the Alaska Range. To your right, you will pass kettle ponds and there’s a good chance you will see beaver in these ponds.
For this 20-mile stretch of road, the view doesn’t change too much. But if you are lucky to do this with clear skies, you will have an awesome view of Denali.
Alaska Range (Denali is hidden behind the clouds).
At mile 85, you reach the turn-off for Wonder Lake Campground. This is the closest campground to Denali (Denali is just 26 miles away at this point). There are 28 tent-only sites that must be reserved in advance.
Beyond Wonder Lake Campground, Denali Park Road runs alongside Wonder Lake. Unfortunately for us, we did this on a cloudy day, so we never got to see those amazing views, but hopefully conditions will be better for you.
Wonder Lake on a cloudy day
Wonder Lake on a clear day. JacobLoyacano/shutterstock.com
Kantishna (Miles 90 to 92)
Several lodges are located near the end of Denali Park Road. These include Camp Denali, Kantishna Roadhouse, Skyline Lodge, and Denali Backcountry Lodge.
We spent two nights at Denali Backcountry Lodge. The food and the accommodations are wonderful, but they are expensive. We used their free bikes to cycle on Denali Park Road to the McKinley Bar Trail which was a lot of fun. There are also several other hikes that you can do in the area.
Denali Backcountry Lodge
To get to the backcountry, on average it takes 6 to 7 hours to travel from the park entrance to Kantishna by bus.
End of Denali Park Road (Mile 92.5)
Denali Park Road ends at mile 92.5. If you are spending the night in one of the backcountry lodges, you can hike or bike to official end of the road sign.
The Highlights of Denali Park Road
That’s a long list of things to see and do. And that’s really just part of it. During the drive, you will also stop frequently to see Alaska’s Big 5: moose, bear, wolf, caribou, and Dall sheep.
It’s a beautiful drive and I know that the idea of spending over 8 hours on a bus might not sound like fun (it didn’t to us before we did this), but it’s absolutely worth it. We loved Eielson and the drive to get here, particularly around Polychrome Pass and Stony Hill Overlook.
If you have the time in your itinerary, I recommend spending one day on Denali Park Road and going out at least as far as Eielson.
Here are what we think are the top experiences along Denali Park Road:
- Spot Alaska’s Big 5 (entire drive)
- Go hiking at Eielson (Mile 66)
- Stony Hill Overlook (Mile 62)
- Wonder Lake (Mile 85)
- Polychrome Pass & Overlook (Miles 44 to 46)
- Spend the night in Kantishna (Mile 92)
- Savage Alpine Trail (Mile 15)
- Go hiking in the front of Denali National Park (Mile 2)
Moose on Denali Park Road
Denali Park Buses
Unless you have a permit or a campsite reservation, the only way to go beyond mile 15 on Denali Park Road is to take a bus. And there are several buses to choose from.
Check the National Park Service website for updates on the bus schedules, because of the road closure at Polychrome Pass. All of the buses listed below might not be available.
Transit buses serve as hop-on hop-off buses. If you want to get off somewhere along Denali Park Road, go hiking or exploring, and get back on the bus later in the day to get back to the park entrance, this is the bus that you want.
These buses aren’t narrated, unless you get a driver who opts to point things out along the drive.
There are several options for transit buses. Basically, you are choosing how far down Denali Park Road you want to go. The farther you go, the more you pay and the longer your day.
Here are your options. Get updates and pricing on the National Park Service website. This is also where you will reserve your seat.
- Toklat River (mile 53)
- Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66)
- Wonder Lake (mile 85)
- Kantishna (mile 92)
The green bus is the transit bus and the brown bus is the narrated tour bus.
Narrated Tour Buses
On a narrated bus, a trained naturalist drives the bus and points out animals, geologic features, ecosystems, etc.
These buses are not hop-on hop-off. They have several stops they make along the drive, each lasting 10 to 30 minutes, but you cannot go off on your own, do a hike, and then later hop back on another narrated bus. The bus you take from the park entrance will be the same bus that takes you back to the park entrance.
If you want to go hiking at Eielson, or at another spot along Denali Park Road, then you need to take a transit bus.
There are three narrated bus options.
Natural History Tour. This bus goes to Teklanika at mile 27. This tour focuses on the history and cultural background of Denali National Park. This bus tour takes 5 hours round trip.
Tundra Wilderness Tour. This bus goes to Stony Hill Overlook at mile 62. From here, you get an awesome view of Denali but you will not go out as far as Eielson. This bus tour takes 8 hours round trip.
Kantishna Experience. This bus goes to the end of the road at mile 92. It’s a long day (about 12 hours) but if you want to experience all of Denali Park Road, including Eielson, this is the tour to take.
Get updates and pricing on the National Park Service website.
If you are camping in the backcountry (beyond Eielson Visitor Center), you can ride the camper bus. These buses are only for those who will be camping in the backcountry. You cannot ride a camper bus and use it like it is a transit bus.
If you plan to stay in one of the lodges at the end of Denali Park Road (the Backcountry Lodge or the Kantishna Roadhouse), you will ride on one of their buses to get to the lodge. It takes about 6 to 7 hours to travel from the front of the park to the mile 92.
There are three free bus lines that operate in the summer months. If you will be visiting Denali without a vehicle, these buses, plus the transit and narrated tour buses, allow you to visit the entire park.
Savage River Shuttle: This bus connects the Denali Visitor Center and Bus Depot with the Mountain Vista Picnic Area (mile 13) and Savage River (mile 15). This shuttle is recommended when visiting Savage River (because there are limited parking spaces) and when hiking the Savage Alpine Trail point-to-point.
Riley Creek Loop Shuttle: This bus does a loop around the entrance area, connecting Riley Creek Campground, the Visitor Center, the Bus Depot, and trailheads for Horseshoe Lake and Mount Healy Overlook.
Sled Dog Demonstration Shuttle: If you want to watch a sled dog demonstration, this shuttle is the best way to get there. Board at the Visitor Center 45 minutes before demonstration time.
Driving Denali Park Road: How to Get a Permit
If you want to drive beyond mile 15 on your own, you will need to reserve a Denali Park Road Timed Entry Ticket. With the permit you can drive as far as mile 30. Past this point, you must be on a park bus.
Permits go on sale in mid-April for the entire summer season. Learn more and book your ticket on Recreation.gov.
Denali Park Road Lottery
For four days in September, the entire length of Denali Park Road opens to private vehicles, with two conditions. #1, you must have a lottery ticket. And #2, you can only drive as far as the weather allows. During years of early snow or ice, you might not be able to travel past mile 15 (Savage River).
Lottery tickets go on sale in May. If you win the lottery, you will be charged $25 (this is in addition to the park entrance fee). Dates that the road lottery event vary by year but typically it takes place in mid-September.
Learn more on Recreation.gov.
View of Eielson Visitor Center, Denali, and Denali Park Road from the Thorofare Ridge Trail.
Sample Denali National Park Itineraries
If you have one day in Denali and you want venture into the heart of the park, take either a narrated tour or transit bus to Eielson Visitor Center, Wonder Lake, or Kantishna.
If you have one day in Denali and don’t want to spend that time on the bus, drive or take the Savage River Shuttle to Savage River. Hike the Savage Alpine Trail for a view of Denali or hike the Savage River Loop. Spend the afternoon at the front of the park, doing more short hikes and/or visiting the Sled Dog Kennels.
If you have two days in Denali National Park, take a tour or transit bus to Eielson, Wonder Lake, or Kantishna on one of these days. Spend the other day in the front of the park, hiking the trails between the entrance and Savage River.
If you have three days in Denali National Park, follow the itinerary above and spend some more time near the park entrance on day 3. Or, spend two nights in Kantishna, the best way to immerse yourself in the wonders of Denali National Park.
Tips to Have the Best Experience
Book the earliest available bus that you can. The earlier you start, the more time you get to spend hiking or get off at more than one point, if you take a transit bus. We took the 7 am bus to Eielson.
Bring food and water. No food is provided on the transit bus but snacks are provided on some narrated tours (confirm this before you go). You are allowed to eat and drink on the buses. In fact, this is preferred to eating at the rest areas. The scent of food attracts wildlife, so we were encouraged to do all of our eating and drinking while on the bus.
If you plan to go hiking, bring bear spray. It is possible to encounter bear throughout Denali National Park & Preserve.
Sit back, relax, and enjoy the experience. It’s an awesome experience to venture into Denali National Park. Take lots of photos, keep an eye out for bear and moose, and we hope you have a great time!
The top of Denali see from Sable Pass (277 mm focal length).
Frequently Asked Questions
When is Denali Park Road Open?
These dates can vary a little bit year by year, but in general, Denali Park Road is open from the end of May through the second week of September. The full road may not completely open until early June.
For updates on road conditions, and the status of the road closure at Pretty Rocks, visit the National Park Service website.
Should I Book My Tickets in Advance?
Yes. This is a popular activity and tickets sell out in advance. As soon as you know your dates of travel, book your transit or narrated bus tickets.
In a perfect world, you could watch the weather and schedule this for a time when clear skies are in the forecast. Unfortunately, tickets will most likely be sold out if you wait to the last minute. It’s better to reserve your tickets and hope for clear skies than to completely miss out on this opportunity.
Here is the link to the National Park Service website so you can book your tickets.
Should I Take a Transit Bus or a Narrated Bus?
If you want to get off and go hiking, take the transit bus. You can spend as long as you like at each stop, getting on a return bus later in the day.
If you have no desire to go hiking and just want to take in the view, the narrated bus is a better option.
The narrated bus stops for a quick visit at Eielson, but it is not enough time to hike the trails here. You basically will have enough time to take some photos, use the restroom, refill water bottles, and visit the Visitor Center.
There are minimal differences between the buses, other than the color. The transit buses are green and the narrated buses are brown. Both are giant school buses with better suspension and rugged tires. The seating in the narrated buses look slightly more comfortable than the transit buses.
There is nothing fancy about these buses, so don’t expect plush seats or a smooth ride. In fact, it’s the complete opposite of this. It’s a dusty ride in a rattling bus, but that’s all part of the adventure.
Where is the Best Place to Sit on the Bus?
On the ride from the park entrance, the best place to sit in on the left hand side of the bus (another way to say this is to sit on the same side of the bus as the driver). This gives you the best views of Denali. It also gives you views of the drop-offs on the cliff section of Sable Pass and Polychrome Pass (so if you are afraid of heights and there’s room, pop over to the right side of the bus for this section, or close your eyes).
On the drive back to the front of the park, the right side of the bus is the best place to sit. However, you are now heading away from Denali so you won’t get to see much of it on the return drive.
Can I Bike Denali Park Road?
Yes, you can. The transit buses can carry bikes, so you can use the transit bus as a hop-on hop-off bus as you cycle the road. The NPS website has lots of great info about biking Denali Park Road. Just note that bikes are not permitted to go past the road closure at Pretty Rocks.
What’s the Best Way to Experience Denali Taking into Account the Road Closure?
If you don’t have your Denali trip planned yet, consider saving your visit to 2023 or later. In my opinion, one of Denali’s best experiences is going to Eielson or beyond, and if you can’t do that, I think it is worth postponing your trip.
However, if you already have your Alaska itinerary planned, you can still have a nice experience. Hike the Savage Alpine Trail for a great view of Denali, hike the trails in the front country of the park, and consider taking a flightseeing tour for arguably one of the best views of Denali.
There is an airport in Kantishna, so it might be possible to fly into Kantishna and explore Denali Park Road from here. I say “might” because I am not sure what kind of tours the NPS will be running along Denali Park Road in 2022.
If you have any questions about things to do along Denali Park Road or how to plan your visit, or if you want to share your experience, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information about Alaska
EIELSON, DENALI: 5 Reasons Why You Should Visit Eielson Visitor Center
BEST DENALI HIKES: Top 10 Hikes in Denali National Park
TRIPLE LAKES TRAIL, DENALI: How to Hike the Triple Lakes Trail
MOUNT HEALY OVERLOOK, DENALI: How to Hike the Mount Healy Overlook Trail
MCKINLEY BAR, DENALI: How to Hike the McKinley Bar Trail
KATMAI: 8 Amazing Things to Do in Katmai National Park
KENAI FJORDS: Ice Climbing on the Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park
WRANGELL – ST. ELIAS: Wrangell – St. Elias National Park Flightseeing Tour: What to Expect & Is It Worth It?
COLUMBIA GLACIER: Columbia Glacier Kayaking Tour: The Ultimate Guide
ANCHORAGE TO VALDEZ: Driving Anchorage to Valdez: Best Things to Do, Map & Photos
SEWARD HIGHWAY: Driving the Seward Highway: Best Things to Do, Map & Photos
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