Learn of early settlers, watch wildlife along the hillsides, and enjoy beautiful wildflowers paired with views of North America’s highest mountain.
Denali is one of America’s most unique and remote national parks and is located more than 100 miles from any major city—though that term is used loosely in Alaska. Factoring in preserves and wilderness areas, the park encompasses more than 6 million acres, including the tallest mountain in North America: Denali (20,310’). With snow covering some areas year-round, peak season typically begins in April and extends into early October, making it the best time to hike one of the park’s many established trails. Even better, Denali is one of the few parks where off-trail travel is permitted, making it a popular destination for experienced climbers and mountaineers as well. For those looking for the classic Denali experience, this guidebook showcases seven of the top day hikes to enjoy during your visit to the park.
Whether you drove, flew, or took the train, the main visitor center is the hub for anyone visiting the park. After passing through the entrance station, you are greeted by two classic hikes, the Rock Creek Loop and the McKinley Station Loop. The Rock Creek Trail links the visitor center to its headquarters where you can grab a ticket for one of the park’s scheduled sled dog demonstrations. As the only national park with sled dogs, this hike should top your list, but give yourself at least two hours to reach the kennels from where you parked.
If you’re looking for an easier family-friendly hike, the McKinley Station Loop is a great alternative full of “historic buildings remains, geological features, the railroad trestle, and Riley Creek," according to the park. In contrast, the rugged 5-mile trek up the Mount Healy Overlook Trail begins from the same trailhead and is “widely regarded as the best hike in Denali,” according to writer Greg Heil.
As the longest maintained path in Denali, the Triple Lakes Trail is a top pick for a long day hike or overnight trip, with options to shuttle or hike out-and-back. Southbound, the trail begins by crossing two bridges over rushing creeks before wandering through an effervescent spruce forest bound for the lakes. Established first-come, first-serve campsites are available near two of the three lakes as long as you obtain the appropriate permits beforehand.
For some of the best wildflowers and guaranteed views of wildlife, the Horseshoe Lake Trail is another go-to. You can reach the trailhead from the campground, visitor center, or any other parking lot in the vicinity. Spring and early summer offer an incredible selection of wildflowers, while beaver, moose, fox, and bear can often be sighted nearby. An overlook with a bench comes early into the hike if you’re looking for a short walk, though the entire 2.2-mile loop offers plenty more views and an observation area overlooking a beaver dam.
After entering the national park, the main road continues for nearly 90 miles as it wanders into the backcountry. Private vehicle travel is limited to the first 15 miles, with that mile marker doubling as the trailhead for the Savage River Trail. This short hike offers spectacular views of the river, and off-trail travel is a popular option for photographers looking for a unique perspective of the canyon. Though this hike is a worthwhile trip by itself, the drive to the trailhead will leave you with just as many memories.
The last hike to make this list is the Tundra Loop at the Eielson Visitor Center, about 65 miles from the park’s entrance. Though the trail can be casually walked in under 30 minutes, the views of the Alaskan Range are incredible, and wildlife sightings are frequent across the barren landscape. After a long bus ride to reach this visitor center, it’s an excellent option to stretch your legs and to soak in some epic views.