Visiting Denali National Park With Kids

We visited Denali National Park with our four kids, and we all had a great time. The National Park is huge with stunning views and a lot of wildlife.

Dad and daugther looking out over Denali National Park on the Savage Ridge Trail

You can only drive 15 miles into the park with your own vehicle. From there, you will have to get on a tour or the transit bus to go further into the park.

This means it takes some planning to see the park but it is worth it! Plus there are a variety of things you can do in the main area of the park that you can drive to.

Facts About Denali National Park

  • Denali became a National Park on February 26th, 1917, but was first called Mount McKinley National Park and covered around 2.1 million acres.
  • In December 1980, it was renamed Denali National Park.
  • Its size almost tripled, now covering 6 million acres.
  • 4.7 million is part of the park, and 2.1 million is federally designated wilderness.
  • The park is 9,492 square miles. In comparison, the state of New Hampshire is 9,351 square miles!
  • The National Park has 35.5 miles of official trails and 92 miles of road (Denali Park Road) – but the public can only drive 15 miles into the park.
  • The Denali Visitor Center is 1,746 feet above sea level. Denalis South Peak (the highest point in North America) is 20,310 feet above sea level.

Getting To Denali National Park

Horseshoe Lake Trail view

You cannot visit all the Alaska National Parks by car, but luckily, you can visit Denali by car, making it an easier park to visit in Alaska.

By Car – Denali National Park has only one entrance, at Mile 237 on Alaska Highway 3, also known as the George Parks Highway.

It is 120 miles south of Fairbanks, 240 miles north of Anchorage, and 12 miles south of Healy, the nearest year-round community.

By Plane – If you want to fly in and visit Denali you will most likely fly into Anchorage (ANC) or Fairbanks (FAI). From there, you will need to get to Denali by train, car, or bus.

It is not uncommon for people to fly their own plane into locations in Alaska as well.

By Train – The Alaska Railroad connects Anchorage and Fairbanks and runs right through the Denali entrance. The train depot is only a 5-minute walk from the Denali Visitor Center.

Other Options – A variety of tours run from Anchorage or Fairbanks. These tours will pick you up and bring you to Denali, and they will provide transportation.

We took a two-month road trip from Wisconsin to Alaska with our RV to visit Denali National Park. We recommend this option, as the trip through Canada was beautiful! But it is going to take time and a lot of driving!!

Denali National Park Overview

Denali National Park Road Map
Photo credit: Denali National Park Service

You can only drive 15 miles into the park (unless you are staying at the Teklanika River Campground – but even if you are staying there – there are driving restrictions).

There are plenty of things to do within the 15 miles. But if you want to get deeper into the park you will have to take bus (more on that below).

Normally you can go 92 miles into the park on a bus. But there was a landslide that took out part of the road and it is going to take years to fix it. So for now you can go 43 miles into the park to the East Fork area.

There are not any big cities around Denali National Park but you will find restaurants, stores and a brewery not to far from the entrance.

Best Things To Do In Denali National Park

East Fork Transit Bus

#1 Bus Into The Park on The East Fork Transit Bus

We are all for seeing as much of a National Park when you visit so we knew we would have to do the Bus into the park – since you can’t drive yourself there – if we wanted to get deep into Denali National Park.

Normally you can go 92 miles into the park on a bus. But there was a landslide that took out part of the road and it is going to take years to fix it. So for now you can go 43 miles into the park to the East Fork area.

There are 3 different bus options:

On the Wildlife and Narrated tours you have a guide and they talk to you on the whole trip.

The East Fork Transit is a transit bus. BUT it goes on the exact same route as the tour buses, the bus driver stops when you see an animal – they actually encourage this and tell you to loudly yell STOP when you see one.

And the bus drivers have microphones and do their own version of a tour. But this isn’t required so they may not talk at all.

Our Experience On The Transit Bus

We took the transit bus, it was way cheaper. Especially for a family of 6 when 4 of us are under 15 and are free!

We had a great time on the transit bus. Our drivers were all great and stopped any time we yelled Stop. Plus, the other passengers were fun, too. I think that was because you didn’t have to sit quietly and listen to the guide talk.

This meant the passengers could talk more and made things more rowdy – which was fun, especially since you were on the bus for a long time.

We have not done the other tours, but I can say that we would recommend the East Fork Transit. If you want all the information and really enjoy tours, go for it.

The East Fork Transit takes about 2 1/2 hours to get from the Bus Depot to the East Fork Area and about 2 1/2 hours to get back.

There is no bathroom on the bus (the tour buses either), but you do stop 1 hour in and again at the East Fork Transit, where there are bathrooms.

On our ride, we saw so many animals!! Multiple grizzly bears, multiple caribou, Multiple dall sheep, and a beautiful fox. We didn’t see a moose on this trip, but we know that it is another popular one that people see.

It was also hilarious listening to the other people on the bus yell out when they saw an animal. We had a really excited group in front of us and when we saw a bear they started yelling and were so excited. We loved it!

On your ride you will be on the look for the Big Five: bear, Moose, Caribou, dall sheep, and Wolf. The wolf is one of the harder ones to see, so many people don’t see it.

East Fork Area

East Fork area hiking

Once you reach the East Fork area, the bus stops, and you can get out and hike in the riverbed. There is also a port-a-potty here and a bus that stays there, which you can get in and sit on to get out of the cold once your bus leaves.

The bus only waits about 15 minutes, so if you want to spend more time here, you get on the next bus that comes and has room for you. They run about every 30 minutes.

We did get out and walked around on the river bed and caught the next bus.

Unlike most other National Parks, Denali encourages off-trail hikes. This means you can just pick anywhere in the park and go on a hike. However, because trails are not defined, you might have to shove branches and bushes out of your way as you hike.

On the bus ride you can ask your bus driver to stop anywhere along the drive. They will let you out, and you can go hiking. As I mentioned above, there aren’t many defined hikes in the park, but if you want a recommendation, ask the bus driver where he thinks you should go.

Our driver recommended the Cathedral area and said to hike in the natural drainage area. We opted not to do this with a group of 10 since we weren’t sure if the next bus would have room for us.

In hide sight, I do think that we were not able to get the full Denali National Park experience since we could not go the whole 92 miles back. There is a lot you miss when you can’t do the second half of the trip.

If you have an option to plan your trip in the future when the road is open I would recommend it. For us, we didn’t have a lot of flexibility, and this is when we needed to go. I don’t regret going – but do wish we could have had the chance to get all the way back to mile 92 when we visited.

If you want to learn more about this experience check out this post on Denali National Park.

RELATED: Riding The East Fork Transit In Denali National Park


There are defined hiking trails that you can access by car or from the Visitors Center. Many of the hikes are among the trees, which I didn’t prefer since you can’t see the gorgeous mountains.

But the 2 that take you up a mountain were my favorite! The Savage Ridge Trail and the Mt Healy trail. They were challenging hikes, but they were worth it.

#2 Hike The Savage Ridge Trail

Savage Ridge trail hike - Craig and Melia looking out at the mountains.

For the savage ridge trail you drive to the Savage River area and you can park there or at the Mountain Vista trail and do the hike from there. There is limited parking so you may want to take the park shuttle bus.

The hike takes up up the side of a mountain if you do it from the Savage River area via rocky steps. Before you are walking along the ridge of the mountain you climbed. It got really windy and cold up there!

You continue to walk along the mountain, be sure to turn around and look for Denali!

#3 – Hike The Mt Healy Trail

Cannon on the Mt Healy hike

Mt. Healy is a summit trail that has you summiting Mt. Healy. You are going up for almost the whole 2.7 miles of the first half of the hike to the summit. It is through a forest, but there are multiple glimpses of the mountains.

When you reach the top the views are breathtaking!! It was a very challenging hike but it was well worth it.

#4 – Horseshoe Lake Trail

Horseshoe Lake beaver dam

The Horseshoe Lake Trail offers a picturesque journey through woodlands, across train tracks – which does still have trains that use it so make sure to look both ways – and up numerous steps to a vantage point overlooking the lake.

The trail then descends to a loop around the lake, featuring a detour to an impressive beaver dam.

The loop continues along the lake’s edge, showcasing its remarkable clarity, and concludes by retracing steps to the Visitor Center.

This hike is ideal for families seeking a scenic, easy hike with minimal elevation gain.

Rock Creek and Roadside Trail

Rock creek trail

I am going to put both of these hikes together since they can be walked as a loop. Or you can take the Rock Creek trail from the visitor center to the sled dog kennels and take the roadside trail back.

Rock Creek

The trail meanders through the forest the whole time so you don’t really get any epic views. With the name being Rock Creek I was hoping we would be walking along the creek but that wasn’t the case.

You can hear the rushing water but you never really get close to it. I told my kids it was a pretty flat trail but they would totally disagree and say there was a good amount of climbing.

It wasn’t anything like the more strenuous hikes but we did walk uphill for a good part of the trail. The trail takes you to the sled dog kennel which I have to say I always like a hike that has an end goal!

From the sled dog kennel you could take the same hike back or opt for a different view by going on the Roadside Trail.

Roadside Trail

The Roadside Trail was also through the forest most of the way and didn’t offer much when it came to views. It was as the name states next to the road so you did have traffic noise.

Both of these trails were fine. Nothing special but a good way to get out and exercise our legs on our way to the Sled Dog demonstration versus taking the bus or our car there. Of course the kids would disagree and say we should have just taken the bus.

#5 – Sled Dog Kennel

Sled dog kennel

Denali National Park’s sled dog kennels showcase their sled dogs during summer demonstrations.

Visitors can meet the dogs, learn from rangers about their roles and care, and witness a mock sled run. The energetic dogs, integral to park operations, display their training and strength in a 30-minute presentation, complete with historical context and a chance to interact closely.

This unique experience highlights the traditional and ongoing use of sled dogs in the park, offering an insightful and entertaining look at a vital part of Denali’s wilderness management.

When we walked up to the kennels you could hear the dogs hollowing! And when they got ready to do the mock sled race the dogs were going crazy!! They couldn’t wait to get hooked up and head out on the trail.

Prior to the presentation, you can also go into the kennel area to pet the dogs – if they want to come over by you.

Interpretive Science Center

Kids working at the Interpretive Science center

This was a bit disappointing as it was extremely small and there wasn’t much there. But there were a few hands-on things and information to read. Plus, an area with crayons and coloring sheets.

There was going to be a family-friendly presentation on trees. But it was going to last an hour, and we didn’t have the time to stay since we wanted to go on a hike.

I didn’t rank this one as I felt it was somewhere you could skip.

#6 – Visitor Center

We always go to the visitor center at the National Park, and they usually have a good-sized display area. This was the case in Denali! They had a replica of the mountain range so we could see what it looked like from above and what the park was like.

There was also a large display with animals and a variety of signs and information to read.

They also had a park movie and junior ranger books for the kids.

Each time we parked here we were able to get parking and it wasn’t an issue.

#7 – See Denali

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. When you can only get 42 miles into the park. Denali is a mountain in a mountain range that you are looking at from a long distance away.

We saw it a couple times on our stay in Denali. 1 was when we were on the bus and someone yelled there it is. We hadn’t been able to see it all day due to the clouds.

The other time was when we were hiking the Savage Ridge Trail. We turned around and the same thing the clouds had moved and we could see it.

The 3rd time was when we were in Talkeetna.

Now, none of these times was a perfectly clear day. There were always clouds so it made it hard to totally see it. Since the clouds and the snow mixed with each other.

Supposedly only 30% of people who come to Denali see it at all. So we will take what we got!

#8 – Fly Over Denali

We did not do a fly over of Denali but we heard from multiple people that this is an amazing experience! It is not cheap. So if it is something you want to do be sure to save up for it.

#9 – Summit Denali

I had to add this on here. Not because I recommend anyone does it. BUT when we were in Talkeetna we ran into a couple that had just summited Denali. The experience they shared with us and the emotion and excitement they had made me have to add it to this list.

If you are a hiker, and know how to summit mountains (it takes a lot of training), you should definitely look into this experience.

#10 – Visit Talkeetna

Talkeetna is a small town located about 3 miles from Denali Visitor Center. But is another spot where you can see Denali.

The town has a hippy vibe to it with unique stores and a main street that you can walk down and stop to shop, eat or listen to music in the park.

When To Visit Denali National Park

We visited in the beginning of June. It wasn’t cold but it wasn’t hot. Which was perfect for all the hiking we did. I really think predicting the perfect time to visit is impossible.

We had heard last year it rained all June and they had a beautiful July. This time we had beautiful sunny weather in early June. You just don’t know what you are going to get.

That being said – you do want to visit in the summer. So we would say June – August is the best time to go.

Where To Stay

We drove our RV to Denali and stayed in the Riley Campground. It was great! We were right in the National Park and close to the visitor center.

There were no hookups in the campground and a lot of trees – so if you can figure that out with your solar (and the limited generator hours) we say go for it!

There is a nice camp store where you can get drinks and ice cream plus souvenirs.

4-Day Denali National Park Itinerary

Family picture on top of Mt Healy

Here is our 4-day Denali National Park Itinerary. We were on a 6-week road trip, so our trip included downtime to do some work, hang out at our RV, and enjoy a campfire. If you needed to, you could shorten this to a 3-day itinerary.

Note that even if you can’t go back 92 miles into the park, the East Fork Transit Bus is a long trip – you can definitely get up early and do something in the morning before getting on the bus if you would like.

But if you are like us you will be tired when you return – something about being on a bus all day does that to us!

Arrival Day 1:

  • Savage Ridge Trail
  • Dinner: 49th State Brewery

Day 2:

  • Park at the Visitors Center
  • Hike on the Rock Creek Trail to get to the Sled Dog Demonstration
  • Hike back on the River Road Trail
  • Eat Lunch outside the Visitor Center area – either your picnic lunch or buy lunch there
  • Horseshoe Lake Trail
  • Head back to enjoy your campsite and have dinner at your camper

3rd Day:

  • East Fork Transit Bus – this is a full day event so be prepared for that and bring snacks!

Day 4:

  • Mt Healy Trail.
  • Get Ice Cream At The Mercantile to reward yourself for a well-done hike!

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Top 10 things to do in Denali National Park with kids! Denali is a great family travel destination and there are a lot of fun things to do when you visit from hiking to sled dogs and hopefully animal sightings! Make Denali one of your places to visit in the USA and if possible do it as a USA road trip and explore Canada on your way to Alaska. Family Travel Summer Bucket list!!

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