How to See Alaska's Best Known Park

It's little known that for its first 55 years Denali National Park could not be accessed by car. Foreseeing an influx of visitors once the Parks Highway opened in 1972, it was decided that the park itself would remain closed to personal vehicles in order to preserve it as a wild space. It wasn't difficult to do, because even today there is just one road into the park proper. And even today the only way to drive it is aboard a park bus.

Denali Park Road map from the National Park Service.

Multiple types of daily bus tours run in Denali Park during the summer. Here's what they have in common: Tours are guided by a driver/naturalist who narrates throughout the tour. Buses stop for wildlife sightings (guests stay on board for their safety and that of the wildlife). Rest areas are visited every 60 to 90 minutes. Tour season dates and distances are subject to change due to road conditions. The Park Road goes through some wild, remote country. And finally, these tours are different from transit buses, which are non-narrated shuttles. You can visit the park service site for more details on transit buses.

And here's what makes each unique.

Kantishna Wilderness Trails Tour

  • Duration: 13 hours
  • Turnaround: Kantishna Roadhouse at Mile 92
  • Operating Dates/Rates: Season runs early June to September. There is no child rate for this service, and children must be at least six years old to participate. Check current rates and dates here.
  • Highlights: Best chance to see wildlife and Denali. Comfortable buses with sliding picture windows. Midday break at the Kantishna Roadhouse, a historic lodge near the original early 1900s-era roadhouse. Enjoy a hearty lunch and time for a short hike, gold panning, or sled dog demonstration. Begin the return trip refreshed. You can also make your return via an add-on Denali flightseeing excursion.

Waiting on a caribou in Denali National Park.

Denali Backcountry Adventure

  • Duration: 13 hours
  • Turnaround: Denali Backcountry Lodge at Mile 93
  • Operating Dates/Rates: Season runs early June to September. There is no child rate for this service. Check current rates and dates here.
  • Highlights: Comfortable bus with sliding picture windows. Best chance to see wildlife and Denali. Pass by Fanny Quigley's cabin on the way to lunch at the Denali Backcountry Lodge. Option for gold panning or a guided nature walk before heading back on the bus or add-on flightseeing trip.

Winding Denali Park Road after the Toklat rest stop.

Tundra Wilderness Tour

  • Duration: 8 to 9 hours with morning and afternoon departures
  • Turnaround: Stony Hill Overlook at Mile 62 (after May 31) or Toklat River at Mile 53 (before May 31)
  • Operating Dates/Rates: Season runs late May to mid-September. Child rates apply to children under the age of 16. Check current rates and dates here.
  • Highlights: Bus outfitted with coach style seats. Bottled water and a snack box included. Good opportunities to see park wildlife and possibly Denali. The morning or afternoon departures leave time for additional park-area activities.

Perfect weather day at Denali Park's Stony Hill on a Tundra Wilderness Tour.

Denali Natural History Tour

  • Duration: 5 hours with morning and afternoon departures
  • Turnaround: Teklanika River at Mile 29
  • Operating Dates/Rates: Season runs mid-May through mid-September. Child rates apply to children under the age of 16. Check current rates and dates here.
  • Highlights: Explore the vibrant human history of Denali. Stop at Savage Cabin and Primrose Ridge for presentations about Alaska Native cultures, miners, explorers, and mountain climbers. Although not the focus, the tour does stop for wildlife sightings. Good option for early summer season travelers.

Best Denali Bus Tour for...

Your best bets depending on your travel campions, interests, and timeline.

Best Denali Bus Tour for Families
The Tundra Wilderness Tour offers the best opportunity to see wildlife without the full-day time commitment. The tour also offers child rates for kids under 16.

Best Denali Bus Tour for Photographers
Both the Kantishna Wilderness Trails and Denali Backcountry Adventure tours operate buses with large picture windows that slide open sideways. Also, the longer duration gives you the best chance to photograph wildlife and Denali Park's dynamic landscapes.

Best Denali Bus Tour for Travelers with Limited Time
Although we recommend spending at least two nights and one full day in the Denali Park area, if you just can't swing it but still want to get beyond Mile 15 then the Denali Natural History Tour is your best bet.

Tour buses winding through Polychrome Pass in Denali National Park.

And Finally, How to Make the Most of the Experience

  • Although the longer tours include a snack and/or lunch, bring your own snacks and water to enjoy along the way. There is no food for purchase at rest stops inside the park.
  • Pack extra camera memory cards and batteries. You're going to take A LOT of pictures.
  • Wear comfortable outdoor clothes and pack layers. Don't forget your rain jacket.
  • Bring binoculars so that you really take in all that wildlife and all those mountains.
  • Sit on the left side of the bus. Views are wow-worthy from both sides, but the left side has some especially beautiful scenery.
  • Get comfortable and take it all in. These tours are long, but there's so much to marvel at along the way. Enjoy the journey!

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At Alaska Tour & Travel, we specialize in building custom trips for every timeline, personality, and budget. If you'd like to have an Alaskan plan your Alaska trip, give us a call at 800-208-0200.

Posted on February 12, 2020 in: Alaska Parks, Best Things to Do