Denali National Park

Denali National Park sees more than 590 thousand visitors each year

Centered on Denali, the tallest mountain in North America, Denali National Park is serviced by a single road leading to Wonder Lake. Denali and other peaks of the Alaska Range are covered with long glaciers and boreal forest. Wildlife includes grizzly bears, Dall sheep, Porcupine caribou, and wolves.


You could study the geology here for weeks!

Denali National Park and Preserve covers more than 6 million acres and features a vast and varied geological landscape. The park protects large portions of the long, arcuate Alaska Range—including Denali (“The High One” in the native Athabaskan language), which has the greatest vertical relief of any mountain on Earth. The active tectonic processes of southern Alaska are still uplifting the mountains along the Denali fault system. Countering this uplift are weathering and erosion of the highlands by wind and water.

Accreted Terranes
Like much of Alaska, the Denali area is composed of accreted terranes—where the Pacific plate, acting like a conveyor belt, has been bringing bits of islands, the ocean floor, and slivers of other continents northward to for hundreds of millions of years forming a “jigsaw puzzle” of these terranes. The compositions, structures, metamorphic grades, and fossils of these terranes set them apart from neighboring rocks separated by discrete faults. The terranes are covered with more recent sedimentary deposits, and are studded with igneous intrusive rocks.

Denali Fault System
The Denali fault system is a 2,100-km- (1,300-mi)-long structure, trending from the Yukon border southwest toward the Bering Sea. The entire system connects with the Queen Charlotte fault and the Fairweather fault of southeastern Alaska toward British Columbia, forming a significant piece of the transform fault boundary between the Pacific and North American plates. The great arcuate system of northward-convex transcurrent faults that sweeps across Alaska is one of the most distinctive geologic features within the state (Moore et al. 1994).

Glaciers and Glacial Landforms
Glacial ice covers a significant amount of the surface area of Denali National Park and Preserve; glaciers carve through thousands of meters of sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rocks exposed within the park, creating wide U-shaped valleys and transporting vast amounts of sediment. These glaciers flow over 40 km (25 mi), descending more than 4,500 vertical meters (14,800 ft) from the highest peaks of the range to the lowland hills below. Glacial landforms in the park include:

U-Shaped Valleys
Hanging Valleys
Braided Rivers
Glacial Lakes
Glacial Deposits

Paleontological Resources
Denali National Park and Preserve contains many fossiliferous geologic units. Most of these are from the warm shallow seas present throughout much of the late Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. Some of the accreted terranes traveled north from lower latitudes where marine life flourished. Fossils include invertebrates (as the dominant type), marine mollusks, insects, plant debris, and abundant trace fossils.

Thousands of trace fossils of fish, pterosaurs, theropods, hadrosaurs, birds, and terrestrial and aquatic invertebrates are preserved in the Cantwell Formation, making this one of the best-preserved Late Cretaceous polar continental ecosystems in the global paleontological record (Brease et al. 2009).

Slope Processes and Erosion
The geologic processes of erosion are prevalent at Denali National Park and Preserve. Glaciers are remarkable agents of erosion, and sheet runoff, streams, and rivers all carve channels and valleys into the landscape. Topography provides opportunities for erosion (P. Haeussler, USGS, geologist, written communication, November 2009). When unconsolidated sediments—such as slope deposits, glacial till and moraines, and alluvium, as well as altered and/or deformed bedrock—are exposed on moderate slopes, the potential for erosion and mass wasting increases. Some volcanic and sedimentary units are quickly altered to shrink-and-swell clays (minerals that swell when water-saturated and shrink upon drying). This constant change in volume undermines the integrity of the rocks.
Also see, Denali—Landslides & Debris Flows

Abandoned Mineral Lands
In 1903, gold was discovered in the area of what is now Denali National Park and Preserve (Norris 1998). Past mining activity was focused in the Dunkle Mine area in the Chulitna Terrane of the Alaska Range, the Mt. Eielson/Copper Mountain district (in the 1940s), and the placer gold deposits of the Kantishna Hills region of the YukonTanana Terrane in the northern foothills area of the park (Van Maanen and Solin 1988; Metz et al. 1989). Mining interests included precious metals such as gold and silver, base metals (copper, lead, antimony, zinc, tungsten, arsenic) and coal (Metz et al. 1989).

NPS AML sites can be important cultural resources and habitat, but many pose risks to park visitors and wildlife, and degrade water quality, park landscapes, and physical and biological resources. Be safe near AML sites—Stay Out and Stay Alive!

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Native American History

There is a dense Native American History at Denali National Park

Park History

The natural sandstone formations make this location amazing to visit.

On the 26th of February each year, we celebrate Denali’s birthday. In 1918, a year after the park’s founding, National Park Service’s Acting Director, Horace Albright, ran into Charles Sheldon in Washington, DC. Albright was curious about Mount McKinley National Park and how the proposal for the park originally developed. Sheldon told Albright that he would provide a written statement about the park’s origin but urged him to write Harry Karstens and get his recollection.

Karstens’ response to Albright’s request for the history of the park’s origin essentially corroborates what was later published in Sheldon’s memoir The Wilderness of Denali—the idea for the national park was inspired by Sheldon’s 1906-08 visits to the region; however, it also reveals some interesting twists and an apparent attempt at some revisionist history by Alaska Governor Thomas Riggs. The passages below are transcriptions of original letters that are available through the National Archives in College Park, Md.

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The best things to do in Denali National Park




Bird watching

Northern Lights

River walking

Bus Tour

Visit Kennels

Glacier Walk


There are dozens of species of wildflowers at the park in spring

This subarctic wilderness is home to more than 1,500 species of vascular plants, mosses and lichens. They form the foundation of the park’s ecosystems and define the habitat characteristics for all of the more famous and recognizable denizens of Denali National Park such as moose, wolves, eagles, caribou and grizzly bears. Without the rich and diverse vegetation communities that blanket the park landscape, this area would be entirely barren of animal life. Therefore, preserving the precious botanical resources of the park is central to conserving and maintaining the entire intact subarctic ecosystem here.

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Animal Life

Wildlife in the park is abundant

Denali’s abundant and diverse wildlife are just as famous as its tallest mountain, Denali, which towers above the landscape at 20,310’ tall. In truth, although the park’s namesake is a mountain, Denali was the first national park created to protect wildlife. Now, this park is home to 39 species of mammals, 169 species of birds, and 1 lonely species of amphibian.

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Hiking Trails

The best hiking trails in Denali National Park

Some of these trails are utilitarian—they travel alongside the Denali Park Road and connect the visitor center with other important facilities in the entrance area of the park, such as the park sled dog kennels, Riley Creek Campground and the Denali Bus Depot. Other trails offer a departure from the immediate surroundings of the park’s only road, allowing you to seek a bit of solace and quiet, while still having an obvious, established path to follow.

Trails Not Near the Park Entrance

A few trails exist deeper in the park, beyond the first three miles of the Park Road. You can find them in the map above by scrolling to the west-south-west.

Savage River Area
Located around Miles 13-15 on the Denali Park Road, you can either drive to Savage River and park for the day, or you can board a free bus, called the Savage River Shuttle, at any entrance area facility.

The 2-mile long Savage River Loop is a mellow walk along the river. The surface is uneven and rugged in areas, but there is no significant elevation change.

The more strenuous Savage Alpine Trail runs more than four miles, and connects the Savage River area with Savage River Campground. Use the Savage River Shuttle to travel back to your starting point if you need to pick up a car, or use it to return to the park entrance if you have no vehicle; or, you can walk about two miles along the park road.
This area is not accessible in winter. Winter begins when snow falls, typically late September or early October. Learn more about the Savage River area

Eielson Visitor Center
Located at mile 66, you can reach this center by any shuttle bus traveling to Eielson or beyond. On a clear day, the entire area offers magnificent views of Denali.

The Tundra Loop is around a third of a mile through alpine country, very close to the visitor center. A spur trail leads an additional quarter of a mile, one-way, off the Tundra Loop.

The Thorofare Ridge Trail is a very steep hike of around 1,000 feet. The trail is a bit less than one mile one-way, up Thorofare Ridge. The views are particularly impressive on clear days!

The Gorge Creek Trail descends 600 feet to the Gorge Creek and Thorofare River bars, with access to numerous dayhiking opportunities and backcountry camping units. A creek crossing may be required if you want to hike past the end of the trail.
Bus service to Eielson occurs from June 1 to mid-September each year.

Wonder Lake
Located at mile 85, you can reach Wonder Lake with either a Wonder Lake or Kantishna shuttle bus. Bus service to Wonder Lake occurs from June 8 to mid-September each year.

There is one trail in this area, called the McKinley River Bar Trail, leading from Wonder Lake Campground to the McKinley River. It is 2.5 miles one-way, with negligible elevation gain. The trail travels through spruce forest and past several small ponds, offering chance to see water fowl and terrain which is different from much of the park. It is plagued most of the summer by mosquitoes, so bring a head net.

Trail Details
Note that some trails are loops, and so a round-trip time and distance is offered. Other trails are not loops by themselves, and so the time and distance numbers are for a one-way hike. Add multiple one-way trails together to estimate a larger loop (e.g., a loop combining the Rock Creek and Roadside Trails).
An additional wrinkle is that not every trailhead is at a visitor center or road. In those cases, you might need to add a bit more time (e.g., the Meadow View Trail is only a third of a mile long, but to get to either trailhead you must hike along one of a couple different trails from the visitor center).

Bike Path – Travels right along the Denali Park Road, between the entrance and the visitor center. Little elevation change. The surface is well-compacted gravel. 5% maximum grade, 10′ width. 45 minutes one-way from the Denali Visitor Center 1.7 miles, one-way

Horseshoe Lake Trail – A popular trail that descends to, and travels entirely around, a lake. The surface is five feet wide, with uneven soil with rocks and roots. It begins with a short, steep uphill to a bench overlooking the lake. The trail then descends 250′ steeply to the shore of the lake. The trail grade averages 5% with sections up to 20%. 2 hours round-trip from its trailhead (add about 30 minutes if starting/ending at the Denali Visitor Center) 2 miles, round-trip (add about 1 mile round-trip if starting/ending at the Denali Visitor Center)

Jonesville Trail – A steep shortcut from Riley Creek Campground to the Canyon, the business district outside the park. It has a surface of compacted gravel. From west to east, it drops about 150 feet. 10 minutes one-way from either trailhead 0.3 mile, one-way

McKinley Station Trail – Descend from the visitor center to Hines and Riley Creeks, and pass under the Alaska Railroad trestle. The trail is compacted gravel. It has an 8.5% grade maximum, dropping ~100 feet in the process via one long, gently sloping hill. The trail is 5′ wide. 1 hour one-way from the Denali Visitor Center 1.6 miles, one-way

Meadow View Trail – A very narrow trail (about 30″ wide) overlooking a meadow, forming a short connection between Rock Creek and Roadside Trails. The trail is relatively level, but has a steep drop to one side. 15 minutes from either trailhead 0.3 mile, one-way

Morino Trail – A short trail through spruce forest. Good for a quick walk while waiting on a bus or train. 15 minutes one-way from its trailhead 0.2 mile, one-way

Mount Healy Overlook Trail – An increasingly steep hike out of the forest and into the alpine country, with potential views of Denali, if skies are clear. The trail surface is rough soil with rocks and roots. Eventually becomes very steep, maxing at a 25% grade. Generally 24″ wide. 2 hours one-way from the Denali Visitor Center 2.7 miles, one-way

Oxbow Loop Trail – This rustic trail contours along the west bank of the Nenana River, offering views from high above the river. The trail wanders in and out of spruce forest and eventually drops down to the edge of the river. This trail provides walk-in access to a gravel bar on the Nenana River, which might be useful for rafters.

Note: The trailhead is located on the east side of Highway 3, about 7 miles south of the park entrance, near a bridge over the Nenana River. 1 hour round-trip from its trail-head 1.5 miles, round-trip

Parks Hwy Bike Trail – Paved path alongside Highway 3. 30 minutes one-way 1.0 mile, one-way
Roadside Trail Travels uphill from the visitor center to the sled dog kennels and park headquarters. Runs generally uphill from east to west, up to a 15% grade; generally 36″ wide. 1 hour one-way from the Denali Visitor Center 1.8 miles, one-way

Rock Creek Trail – Occasionally steep trail through forest. Similar route to Roadside, but a bit longer and much quieter, as it’s farther from the road. Runs generally uphill from east to west, up to 15% grade; generally 30″ wide. 1.5 hours one-way from the Denali Visitor Center 2.4 miles, one-way

Spruce Forest Trail A short trail through spruce forest. Good for a quick walk while waiting on a bus or train. 0% grade change, with a width of about 5 feet. 20-minute loop 0.2 mile, one-way

Taiga Trail – A short, forested trail mainly used to access Horseshoe Lake from the visitor center. The surface is gravel, with open steps across ditches. Grade is about 5% with sections up to 15%, 24″ wide. 45 minutes one-way from the Denali Visitor Center 0.9 mile, one-way

Triple Lakes Trail – Denali’s longest trail, with bridges over two creeks and great views of three lakes. The surface is a mix of compacted gravel, soils, rocks, roots, and sections of planks over marshy ground. The trail is up to 20% grade at times, generally 24″ wide. Note: The southern trailhead is located on the west side of Highway 3, about 7 miles south of the park entrance, near a bridge over the Nenana River. 5 hours one-way from the Denali Visitor Center 9.5 miles, one-way

Mountain Vista Trail – Located at Mountain Vista Rest Area, at Mile 13 of the Denali Park Road. Can be accessed by the free Savage River Shuttle and private vehicle, with ample parking available. The trail has a 5% maximum grade and is 6 feet wide. 30-minutes, loop 0.6 mile, round-trip

Savage Alpine – Connects Savage River and the Mountain Vista day use areas. Parking available at either end. Use free Savage River Shuttle to return to your vehicle. Considered strenuous, the trail has steep sections up to 25% grade and is generally 24″ wide. Three hours, one way from Mountain Vista Trailhead 4 miles, one-way

Savage River Loop – Located at the Savage River at Mile 15. Very limited parking available. Can be accessed by free Savage River Shuttle. On the western half of this loop, the first quarter-mile of the trail is around 2 feet wide and very flat; gradually the trail narrows and has more impediments like rocks and uneven surfaces. 90 minute loop 2 miles, round-trip

Tundra Loop – From the Eielson Visitor Center, at Mile 66 of the Denali Park Road, this short loop explores alpine tundra. Negligible grade change and generally two feet or wider at all times. 15 minute loop 0.3 mile, round-trip

Thorofare Ridge Trail – From the Eielson Visitor Center, this switchback trail climbs to a ridge for high, scenic views of Denali and a vast expanse of tundra beyond. One hour, one way from Eielson Visitor Center 0.8 mile, one-way

Gorge Creek Trail – The Gorge Creek Trail descends 600 feet to the Gorge Creek and Thorofare River bars, with access to numerous off-trail dayhiking opportunities and backcountry camping units. A creek crossing may be required if you want to hike past the end of the trail. ~ 90 minutes round trip ~ 2 miles, round-trip

McKinley River Bar Trail – From a road junction approaching Wonder Lake Campground, this trail passes through wet meadows and enters spruce forest, and ends at the McKinley River 90 minutes, one way from its trailhead 2.4 miles, one-way

Hiking Off Trail

Denali is nearly the size of Massachusetts (or just over half as large as Switzerland), and most of the park is devoid of human-made trails.

The idea of hiking in the wilderness, with no trail to follow, excites some hikers and confuses or intimidates others. However, the nature of Denali’s Park Road and bus system, and the terrain itself, can make trail-less hiking more approachable than it may seem at first blush.

Where to Go?
This is a question that only you can answer. Every person will want something slightly different out of their day hike, and the sheer size of Denali prevents any one spot from being “the best.” Some people will want to hike up into steep terrain to gain big views, while others will prefer a stroll along a river. Some people don’t mind pushing through thick brush for part of a hike, while others will want to avoid anything more than shrubs and small bushes.

Starting an Off-Trail Hike
A good strategy is to take an early shuttle bus into the park, traveling to either Eielson Visitor Center or Toklat River, and scouting the terrain from the Park Road. On your return towards the park entrance, you can tell your driver to let you off at whatever area looked most appealing. (Buses going to Wonder Lake and Kantishna probably take too long to incorporate a decent hike into your day).

Ending an Off-Trail Hike

After your hike, you need only return to the road and wave down any passing shuttle. You can get a copy of the latest bus schedule upon arriving in the park, or you can download a schedule to bring with you. While uncommon, the first shuttle or two that you try to re-board may be full, so prepare for a worst-case scenario of waiting an hour for a ride. Many hikers will carry a book, or will browse through their digital photos just taken during the hike to make the potential wait go by quicker.

Key concepts:
• Use the shuttle bus to travel into the park
• Spread out while hiking on fragile tundra. Walk on durable surfaces and always travel with a map and compass
• Stay alert: Watch for wildlife and weather. To avoid bear encounters, make lots of noise. While resting, face different directions
• Know how to cross a river safely. The crossing point should be wide and braided. Unclip pack straps and think about where you may wind up if you take a fall.


In a trail-less wilderness like Denali, you will dictate your route. By avoiding terrain traps like pockets of spruce forest and alder, you can make navigation easier. Tree-line in Denali is generally around 3,000′ above sea level, and much of the 92 mile Park Road travels near or above that level.

Above tree-line, you will find either brushy tundra, with plants that may slow your travel but allow you to see over them, or alpine tundra, with extremely short vegetation that offers no impediment to your speed or your visibility. In many parts of the park, you will find that the Park Road stays in your view, even after several miles and several hours of hiking.

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