Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory

Camping in Alaska’s Spectacular Denali National Park

By Charles Shugart Jr.

Denali National Park and Preserve is how it appears on the map, but the name of the mountain is Mt. McKinley (sometimes called Denali by the locals—just to keep you guessing). The word "Denali" comes from the Athapascan Native Americans. It means "Great Mountain", or perhaps High Mountain; it’s hard to find out the exact meaning. That’s okay, either will get you there.

The park is a wonderful Alaska camping destination because of Mt. McKinley, the alpine tundra, and the chances to see and photograph wildlife. There are a few trails, but mostly there are opportunities to wander over the trail-less tundra. Before doing so, however, I urge you to discuss the matter with park rangers at the visitor center. This is grizzly country, and it’s important that you understand what to do and what not to do. The bears aren’t a problem. In fact, Denali’s safety record is excellent. That’s because the animals have no reason to be aggressive towards humans. Also, the park service makes sure hikers and campers understand the behavior of grizzlies and other wildlife.

Most visitors to the park travel in the taiga forests, which consist of small, scattered groups of spruce trees. At slightly higher elevations you’ll find tundra. Above that are rock, snow and ice, plus wind and extreme cold. The tundra is a marvelous place—a treeless landscape of mosses, lichens, wildflowers, berries, and dozens of other low-growing plant species that make it a living carpet.

Denali is worth several days of sightseeing because you never know when Mt. McKinley will show its lovely self. Plus, you want to see the wildlife. Travel within the park is not a simple and carefree matter, though. There are restrictions on automobile use along the one road. Without those restrictions, all the activity and noise of thousands of vehicles would soon drive wildlife away, and few visitors would see them. So, you must take a tour bus or the shuttle bus. This is jokingly referred to as “The wildlife roams free and the people are in cages.” But the system works very well.

My suggestion is to take the shuttle that goes all the way to Wonder Lake. Most of the amazing photographs you’ve seen—with a lake in the foreground and Mt. McKinley in the background—were taken there. These are long rides, but they are worth every bump in the road. Make sure you’ll be able to catch a bus for the return; an 80-mile hike back to your car may be farther than you want to walk. Even though the shuttle drivers do not narrate, they stop long enough for you to look at and photograph whatever wildlife appear, and they will answer questions (they know why you’re on the bus). Try not to get the last bus for the return trip, however; the driver may be in more of a hurry than you want him or her to be. True, photographing out an open bus window presents problems, such as handholding a 300mm or 400mm lens. Even worse, what if the wildlife is on the wrong side of the bus? For most of us, we just have to deal with it. But it’s an excuse to take more than one trip—and that’s a good thing. Narrated tour buses are excellent, but they don’t go far enough into the park for serious sightseers and photographers of Alaska camping.

Big Animals

On these trips you’ll have chances of spotting Grizzlies. Some people find lots of them. Some don’t find any. It’s a matter of luck and multiple trips. If you get a good look at one, take pictures like crazy. In years past we said that film was cheap compared to the other costs of travel. In the age of digital cameras, taking pictures is free. And here’s a tip: don’t delete any photographs until you get home. Look at all of them on your computer monitor and then decide.

On one trip our shuttle driver had to stop because a 500-pound grizzly was about to cross the road. The great bear paid us no attention whatever. Ursus horribilus was on a summer-long quest for food, and he had a destination in mind.

Moose are the largest members of the deer family are big! An adult male can weigh more than 1200 pounds and stand seven-feet tall. Females are smaller, but not much. Toward the end of summer, bulls will have maximum growth of their antlers. I was lucky one September; while driving my car toward the Savage River Checkpoint I saw two prime males among the spruce trees. Pulling over, I watched as they approached each other, side-to-side—literally “sizing each other up.” The two of them looked equally huge to me, and apparently they also thought so. In what seemed to be slow motion, the bull moose faced each other, lowered their antlers, and began pushing. The intensity quickly accelerated as they dug in with their hind legs, each shoving mightily. In a few short minutes one apparently proved his superior strength, and his opponent disengaged and turned to walk away. Walking too slowly, it seemed. The winner pronged him in the butt and then ran him off. There weren’t any females around, but if the two bulls met again during the rut they would both remember their earlier jousting match and today’s winner would likely get the ladies.

Often Caribou are spotted wandering over the tundra. Although they are much smaller members of the deer family than moose, the huge antlers of adult males are quite impressive. Females have small antlers; they’re the only female deer that have any at all. By the way, North American caribou and European reindeer are the same species.

Dall sheep are the northernmost of the four kinds of bighorn sheep found in North America; Desert, Rocky Mountain, and Stone Mountain are the other species. Dall sheep are white coloration and tend to live on steeply sloping mountainsides where they can more easily escape from their predators—wolves and grizzlies. Sometimes the wild sheep come down to the road to natural salt licks. And to pose for pictures.

Wolves also live in Denali National Park, but they are shy and seldom seen by visitors. Also, they require large territories to survive. If you see a wolf, consider yourself lucky. If you get a good photograph, you are extremely lucky.
Shuttle bus drivers will not open the doors near animals but they will, if requested, drive a couple of hundred yards more and let you off. Later, you flag down another shuttle bus. This is one way to “beat the system” and have more time to do your photography. Be advised that any animal large enough to harm you should be treated with great respect.

Big Mountain

Mt. McKinley is 20,320 feet above sea level. It’s the highest mountain in North America, and it’s way up north, near the Gulf of Alaska and it gets a lot of snowfall. There are many glaciers, as well as year-round snow. The mountain is so enormous it develops its own climate. When it shows itself, McKinley towers above all else and is lovely indeed. Seeing the mountain is not guaranteed, however. That’s yet another reason to spend some time in the national park.

For all practical purposes, there is only one way you can get close to Mt. McKinley (even the dirt road doesn’t come within 40 miles of it). And that’s by going flightseeing on one of the rare clear days. It’s cost intensive but extremely thrilling.

Where to Stay

RVers note: Once you’re in Alaska, getting to Denali National Park is a snap. Drive the George Parks Highway #3 from either Anchorage or Fairbanks. Finding a place to stay is not so easy, though. Plan in advance and make your reservations early.

There are several RV campgrounds near the park entrance that provide hookups. Denali National Park is very popular in summer; that’s why advance reservations are so important. If you choose to camp outside the park, you’ll want to disconnect and go exploring.

Camping within the park boundaries is a bit different, and advance reservations are even more important. Just inside the park entrance is Riley Creek Campground, with 147 sites (no hook-ups). Savage River Campground is deeper into the park. Both permit RVs, so you can disconnect and go exploring, although a couple of miles further than Savage is the checkpoint—beyond which you can’t drive unless you have a reservation at Tetlanika Campground. Okay, now it gets tricky. If you camp at Tetlanika, you can drive there but you cannot use your vehicle until you leave. While camped, your motorized transportation will be the shuttle buses, same as everyone else.

When to go to Denali? The preferred time for Alaska camping is June, July and August are preferred by most people. The weather is at its best, all the plants are in full summer mode, and wildlife is at its most visible. September offers prime antlers among the moose and caribou, wild berries are ripe, and the tundra becomes a carpet of gold, orange and red. Plus, the lower angle of the sun brings out the texture of the land. But, it may snow (perfection doesn’t come without a price).

As long as you’ve invested so much time getting to our northernmost state, why not spend a few days enjoying Denali? It’s called the Great Mountain for a reason.

Find an RV park to stay at on your next visit.