Going to Denali Next Summer? It's Not Too Soon to Make Some Essential Reservations

Denali National Park scene.

The drive in Denali National Park is hard to beat for scenery on a nice day--but you need a ticket for the bus! Photo by wendyn56 via Flickr.

The recent winter weather may have you thinking more about travel to Florida or Arizona instead of Alaska, but if you're considering a trip to Denali National Park next summer, it's not too soon to make reservations for the park bus system or campgrounds.

Yes, I know it's still December, but operators are standing by to help you with those arrangements...although this time of year they're based in Arizona instead of Alaska.

The transportation concessioner for Denali National Park and Preserve is now accepting advance reservations for the 2009 visitor season for shuttle buses and several campgrounds in the park. Reservations can be made online or by phone, mail, and fax—details are provided on the park website. Be sure to note deadlines for reservations, especially those made by mail or fax.

Links on that same web page will provide a map of the park road and a summer '09 shuttle schedule. If you aren't familiar with the area, both items will be valuable tools in planning your visit.

Approximately 65% of the shuttle bus seats and all of the campsites in the Riley Creek, Savage River, Teklanika River, and Wonder Lake campgrounds can be reserved in advance. The remaining bus tickets are made available for walk-ins two days before the date of the trip.

Although spontaneous travel (with no reservations or firm itinerary) can be a fun experience, it's a long way from home to Alaska for most of us. You'll have to decide if being assured of a ride into the park on the days you'll be there fits your travel preferences, but I found the advance reservations to be a real plus during a visit there in 2007.

The Denali Park Road is the only road in the park, and extends 91 miles from the park entrance to its terminus in the old mining community of Kantishna. With few exceptions, private vehicles are not allowed beyond mile 15, so a seat on a bus is a must for most visitors.

The mostly-gravel road traverses boreal forests and sub-arctic tundra, and provides excellent opportunities for viewing wildlife—and the scenery. My one experience with the shuttle bus ride two year ago was very positive. Our driver was extremely knowledgeable, the bus was surprisingly comfortable, we had outstanding chances to see and photograph wildlife, and I was able to enjoy the view instead of having to watch the road.

The park website includes details to help you decide which bus trip meets your needs, and provides a 2009 bus schedule. You'll need to choose between a shuttle bus, a narrated bus tour, or—if you're tent camping in the park—a camper bus. There are also free entrance area shuttle buses available in the park’s entrance area to facilitate visitor travel between the various visitor service buildings.

It's important to note that the park road is opened in stages as snow removal and drying of the road is completed. Bus trips into the interior of the park don't begin until May 20, 2009, and only go to Toklat (mile post 53). Trips to Wonder Lake (mile 86) and the end of the road at Kantishna are scheduled to begin on June 8, 2009, and end on September 17th. Yes, I know it sounds a bit confusing, so download the park road map from the link on this page.

It's hard to predict what effect the economy will have on travel next year, especially to more distant places like Alaska. My advice based on our single trip to Denali—go ahead and assure yourself of a seat on the bus or a spot in a campground as soon as you have your trip's dates nailed down.

If nothing else, a reservation can save you some valuable time once you arrive in the park. Your hours at Denali can be much better spent enjoying the scenery instead of waiting in line for someone to say, "Next, please," or worse yet, "Sorry, we're all sold for tomorrow."

Comments

Happy holidays to the team and all the readers of the Traveler!

Reading this probably excellent advice for those who make travel plans and stick to them, I'd like to ask how feasibly it would be these days to go to Denali in a more chaotic style. I never was in Alaska but slightly more than ten years ago, I was just one week from buying the air ticket when unfortunately something happened that made me cancel the plans. Back then I was certainly the spontaneous traveler, since then I got a bit older and only slightly wiser.

So how about I arrive with decent equipment at the park, walk to the backcountry information desk and tell them that I would like to do a three day/two night backcountry trip in some spectacular part of the park and spend two or three nights at the Wonder Lake campground plus maybe one night in one of the campgrounds in the entrance area. The order of the activities is open according to availability. Would that be even possible? Can one do great trips outside the actual park instead?

Or has visiting Denali become something like a packet tour, preplanned, prepayed and with full preview in a catalog?

MRC -

A good question, and one which may be a bit hard to answer, given uncertainty about how much the economy may impact travel to distant locations such as Denali next year.

Perhaps some of our readers are Denali veterans, and will offer some suggestions. If I'm able to get some opinions from the park on your question, I'll post them here.

The park service and concessionaire will lead you to believe that the only options are those listed on the park website. For anyone considering a tour you might look at the establishments in Kantishna at the end of the park road. One to multi-day options are available and overall these are a more personal, more relaxed, more informative way to experience Denali than the concessionaire tours. If you are interested in backpacking you will have to get a permit to do so in the park--although Denali State Park and some areas bordering DNP are also possibilities. Depending upon the time of summer and the specific areas one might want to visit in the park one may have to have the luxury of patience and time to secure the necessary permits. I have been blessed to live and work in and near Denali for many years. It is a great place to spend time but does take some planning to do so. Again I would recommend looking at options beyond the shuttle and Natural History and Tundra tours.

So many years ago I was there I cannot give you a certain answer, but I do believe that there is room for someone who has the spontaneity you desire.

My feeling is that you can be certain of being able to go somewhere in the park. As far as camping at Wonder Lake - maybe yes and maybe no. In other words, if you are going to be truly spontaneous you may also have to be flexible. Aside from campgrounds filling up, there is always the possibility of certain areas being closed for various reasons, including nesting, bear activity, or other "acts of god". In these instances, some areas can be closed even if you have reservations.

But Denali has the dual identity you seek - some room for the wayfarer, and some room for the planned (packaged) tour. Why not aim for something in-between if you can (for your first trip). Book in at Camp Denali (look up the url yourself if you are so inclined... I am not advertising the place). There you can have the proximity to Wonder Lake and a certainty of accomodations. Then take a few days after that and see where you can go in the park. After several summers there I can guarantee a great trip no matter where you hike. I especially loved the idea of very few trails (none actually in most places). You will get used to wet socks and boots that go squish squish as you trudge through the moss.

Good luck!

Pete

A happy new year to all the team and the readers.

Thanks Pete, that is what I hoped to hear. That it is possible to experience the park without planning several months ahead. Probably one will not be able to do exactly what one prefers on a weekend in August but from all I know the park is so spectacular that pretty much everywhere you can experience something special.