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Hiking Denali National Park: What you need to know

by | Mar 30, 2017 | Alaska, Hike | 0 comments

Hiking Denali National Park is a great place to see bears


Want to see a bear in the wild? Of course you do. Just don’t get too close! Add rutting moose, herds of caribou and wolf packs and you get the picture.

Hiking Denali National Park is not to be missed


There is something for everyone, whether that’s an epic backcountry journey or a world class day hike. The perfect escape into pure wilderness.

When hiking in denali national park you will be able to see north americas highest mountain

Denali Mountain

Cast your eyes on Mt Denali, the highest peak in North America. Unfortunately sightings can be hit and miss due to the unpredictable Alaskan weather.



There are no trails when hiking in denali

No trails

Make your own! Battle through the bush, walk in up the stream or tackle the scree slopes.

There are no routes when hiking in denali

No routes

All routes are personal, a ranger may give you some guidance but the final decision is up to you.

There are no designated campsites when hiking in denali

No designated campsites

Camp anywhere in your unit, as long as you can’t be seen from the road.

This is unadulterated wilderness; expect to make around a mile an hour navigating yourself across rivers, bushwhacking and backtracking to avoid the bears. Add to this sub-zero nights, carrying all your own food and sourcing water and this is not for the faint hearted.

However, those that take on the challenge are richly rewarded with a private front row seat to untouched natural beauty.

Backcountry Options

You’ve decided that hiking Denali National Park is for you and want to tackle the backcountry. Great! Next question, how?

There are 3 main ways to tackle it.



Pick a unit and camp there every night, then day hike from that location. This has the benefit of doing the minimum possible hiking with your full pack on and getting a more in depth experience of one area.



Choose a different unit to sleep in each night and hike between each unit during the day. This allows you to see more of the park but keeps you away from the busy road and keeps you submerged in the experience.



Use your camper bus pass (valid for the duration) to move between units.  This allows you to see a huge range of the park but does break up the experience.

Which ever way you tackle it make sure you abide by the leave no trace principles to keep this magical place pristine.

How to get a permit for Denali backcountry

Before you set off into the wild, there’s the one little formality of securing a permit. These are obtained from the Backcountry Office within the park. This registers your intentions, gives you some crucial last minute lessons and assigns the units you will be sleeping in. You are not allowed to go backcountry hiking in Denali National Park without it. Each step must be done in person by each member of your group.

You must watch a safety video before hiking denali national park

Step 1 - Safety Video

Safety videos include tips on animal safety, leave no trace principals and river crossing. Can be watched at either the Wilderness Access Centre (7am-7pm) or the Backcountry Office (9am-6pm).

You must fill out a worksheet before hiking denali national park

Step 2 - Worksheet

Fill your worksheet in completely (excluding unit selection). These include emergency contacts, intended duration and identifying traits (tent colour, height etc.).

You must talk to a ranger before hiking denali national park

Step 3 - Talk to Ranger

The ranger delivers an additional safety talk and then you decide which units you want to camp in. This depends on your preference and availability.

You must book a bus ticket if you are hiking denali national park further away units

Step 4 - Book a bus

If you plan on hiking the closer units you will be able to get the free shuttle bus or even hike there. If you plan on going further afield you will need a camper bus pass. These can be purchased from the Wilderness Access Centre.

Tips for getting your permit faster

The sooner you get your permit, the faster you can choose a unit and the more likely your preferred unit will be available.

  • Watch the video the day before or at 7am in the Wilderness Access Centre
  • Arrive 30 minutes before the Backcountry office opens
  • Know which units you want to head to and have some back up choices


The area available for hiking Denali National Park is separated into 87 different units.

Of these units have quotas

  • Cannot be pre-booked, assigned on first come first serve basis
  • You can hike in any unit but you must camp in your assigned one
  • Your tent must not be visible from the road
  • You select every unit you wish to spend the night in on the first day

What to consider when picking a unit

Units tend to be split by geographical features such as a ridge line, river or the road. Some units are more beginner friendly whilst others are only recommended for the more experienced.

You should assess each unit based on your skills and preferences for the following factors.

River crossings are a regular part of hiking denali national park

River Crossings

Do you know how to safely cross a river? Are you confident? If not, choose a route with no major river crossings. Rivers are much wider west of the Eielson Visitor Center.

when hiking denali national park if you pick a unit with small quotas you are less likely to see anyone else

Unit quotas

To minimise the chance of seeing other people, choose units with small quotas. This may not be possible if you are a big group. Also units with bigger quotas mean more help is at hand, if required.

When hiking denali national park you must consider your access to water

Access to water

How easy will it be for you to find water? If you are going on a prolonged trip, ensure you plan in refill points or you could end up carrying a lot of weight in water.

How long do you want to spend on the bus before hiking denali national park

Time on bus

The bus journey can last over 6 hours if you select the units furthest away. If you only have a few days, do you want to spend 12 hours on a bus?

Mosquitos will be a constant companion when hiking denali national park


Some units are far buggier than others, so check the descriptions for slow moving water or marsh. Make sure you remember your head net.

when hiking denali national park you must consider how far the road is away

Distance from the road

The road is your main way out, if you are several days hike away and you get hurt, what do you do? For beginners, staying close to road can provide a level of comfort.

Bears are one of the best parts of hiking denali national park


Animals can be seen in any unit but traditionally there are units which have a highly probability of sightings. For example, grizzlies are more commonly seen in the middle third of the park.

You must consider the terrain when hiking denali national park

Terrain and Gradient

Are you comfortable with continuous bushwhacking or do you want a gravel bank by the river to walk on? Are you fit enough to continually climb up and down?

You will need good navigation when hiking denali national park

Navigation skills

If your navigation skills are not as strong as they should be, select a unit with handrails such as rivers or valleys to assist you.

Day Hiking Options

Most day hike trails are situated near the entrance of the national park.

The most popular track is the HorseShoe Lake Trail, a 3 mile roundtrip (expect to take between 1-1.5 hours).

For a full list of day hikes refer to the national parks website.

However, it is possible to day hike within the park the following ways.

Catch the bus

If you avoid the tour buses and opt for a normal shuttle bus, you have the ability to hop on and off at each stop. This gives you access to some of the day hikes in the park.

There are ranger led hikes which run from Eielson Visitor Centre and the Wonder Lake Trail is a popular 2 mile easy hike (one way).

Tip – ensure you finish your hike in enough time to get the last bus 


Teklanika River Campground is 29 miles into the park. You are allowed to drive your own vehicle in if you stay for a minimum of 3 days. The maximum distance you can usually drive is to mile 15. From here it is possible to day hike within the national park.

Denali Bus Rides

You have 3 main options:

  • A tour bus, driven by a trained naturalist who narrates the drive. You stay on the bus the whole day.
  • Hop on hop off shuttle, these buses will stop for wildlife sightings. The knowledge of the drivers varies per bus but most are quite experienced.
  • Camper, these can only be booked with a backcountry permit or Tek campsite booking. They are the same as the shuttle but the back rows have been removed for more baggage space.

A bus ride should not be missed. It is without doubt the most likely way to see wildlife.

You will cover a lot of miles.  We did around 60 miles in 4 hours on the bus and averaged just over a mile an hour when hiking in Denali.

This is also the safest and most likely way you will have a close bear encounter. They do not seem to care about buses.



  • Toklat River – 6.5hours
  • Eielson Visitor Centre – 8 hours
  • Wonder Lake – 11 hours
  • Kantishna – 13 hours

Budget Tips

  • Skip the tour bus – the shuttle or camper bus can be half the price of a tour.
  • Backcountry – there is no nightly fee for backcountry whereas a campsite pitch can be $25.
  • Free events – check the schedules, going to visit the huskies is free and cool
  • Pick a close unit – if you hike the units closest to the entrance you can take the free shuttle bus or hike
  • Roadside camping – free car camping is banned within the boundaries of the park, drive to the border. There are rest sites 10 minutes south where you can camp.



Unit choices should be based on experience. Do not jump in at the deep end in Denali. You will not be saved by other hikers on the trail. We saw no one during our whole time there.


The wildlife is what makes walking in Denali awesome, be respectful of it not afraid. Tweet this

The safest approach is to make plenty of noise whilst hiking and to never sneak up on an animal.

Ensure you store all food and rubbish appropriately in bear cans. When they were made mandatory in the park, negative bear encounters dropped 90%.

If you see a bear/wolf and it has not seen or smelt you do not approach it, slowly back away to a safe distance (3 football pitches).

Never run away from a predatory animal (wolf or bear) you will trigger their hunting instinct. If a moose charges, you run to the closest tree (obstacle) and put it between you and the moose.

By following the above you should not experience a bad bear encounter, for more safety tips please see this article, it is also recommended to carry bear spray.

Moose are often found when hiking denali national park

Packing list for hiking Denali National Park

The best backpack for hiking denali national park

Osprey Atmos

Hiking Denali national park was the first big trip I had used my Atmos on and it was absolutely perfect for the trip. Emily also loves the female version, Aura.

Bears can are provided when you are hiking denali national park

Bear Cans

Bear cans are provided by the Backcountry office. When they were introduced negative bear encounters reduced by 90%. They are pretty important.

  • Tent
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Sleeping Bag Liner
  • Roll Matt
  • Cooking equipment/stove
  • Food (take an extra days worth)
  • 1litre Nalgene
  • Water Bladder
  • Sun Protection
  • Bug Spray
  • Base Layer
  • Fleece
  • Waterproof
  • Trekking Trousers
  • Hiking Socks
  • Underwear
  • Camp Clothes/Shoes
  • Essential Items
  • Dry Bags
  • Toiletries

Planning on hiking Denali National Park? Let us know. Already been? Make sure to leave some tips in the comments section. 

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About The Author

Strategy consultant by week, explorer by weekend. His first ever hike was a 9 day thru-hike at Torres del Paine and it was love at first hike. He now sleeps better in a tent than a bed. He would rather drive for 2 hours down a country lane than sit for 2 minutes in traffic. He has been known to lead driving safaris in areas without wildlife with a Justin Bieber soundtrack.

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