Outdoor Activities and Guided Tours in Denali National Park and Preserve

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Outdoor Activities and Guided Tours

Multisport Outfitters

Denali Outdoor Center. One of the oldest operators in Glitter Gulch (the area right in front of the park entrance), Denali Outdoor Center can take you rafting in Class IV rapids, kayaking, put you on a mountain bike, and then get you a cabin so you can sack out and recover from your day. Prices for white-water rafting and inflatable kayak trips (which include instruction and all equipment) start at $89; bike rentals cost $25 for six hours, tours cost $57. Lakefront cabins on Otto Lake run $92 per night, or just stay at the campground for $12 per person. Mile 0.5, Otto Lake Rd., off Mile 247 Parks Hwy., Healy, AK, 99743. 907/683–1925 or 888/303–1925. www.denalioutdoorcenter.com.

Flightseeing

A flightseeing tour of the park is one of the best ways to get a sense of the Alaska Range's size and scope. Flightseeing is also the best way to get close-up views of Mt. McKinley and its neighboring giants, and maybe even stand on a glacier, all without the hassle of days of hiking and lugging food and gear.

Most Denali flightseeing is done out of Talkeetna, a small end-of-the-road town between Anchorage and Denali, and the operators will offer several tours, including a quick fly-by, a summit tour, a glacier landing—something for everybody. We suggest you take the longest, most detailed tour you can afford, so you don't go back home wishing you'd had a chance to see more.

Tours and Outfitters

K2 Aviation. Specializing in flightseeing and glacier landings in the Alaska Range, K2 Aviation's prices range from $205 (for a 1-hour flightsee) to $390 (for a 120-minute flightsee with a glacier landing). 14052 East 2nd St., Talkeetna Airport, Talkeetna, AK, 99676. 907/733–2291 or 800/764–2291. www.flyk2.com.

Sheldon Air Service. Owned by a family with more than 80 years experience landing on mountains and glaciers, Sheldon runs flightseeing trips and provides flight support to climbers. The Denali Grand Tour flightseeing trip lasts 90 minutes and costs $375 per person. A glacier landing adds 30 minutes to your flight and costs an additional $75. 907/733–2321 or 800/478–2321. www.sheldonairservice.com.

Talkeetna Air Taxi. Fly with Talkeetna Air Taxi for breathtaking exploration flights close to massive Mt. McKinley, as well as glacier landings. See Ruth Glacier and the South Face ($205, or $290 with glacier landing); the base camp ($265, or $350 with glacier landing); or the Grand Denali tour ($305, or $390 with a glacier landing). 14212 E. 2nd St., Talkeetna Airport, Talkeetna, AK, 99676. 907/733–2218 or 800/533–2219. www.talkeetnaair.com.

Hiking

You can have one of North America's premier hiking and wilderness experiences in Denali with the proper planning: know your goals; consult park staff before setting out to learn Leave No Trace and bear etiquette; carry proper clothing, food, and water; and don't try to cover too much ground in too short a time.

Most of Denali is trail-less wilderness, so you have to make your own way across the landscape. Distances in the wide-open tundra can be deceiving; what looks like a 2-mile walk may in fact be 6 miles or more. Main lesson: be conservative in route planning. Also deceiving is the tundra: though it looks like a smooth carpet from a distance, it may have bogs and thickets of willow, and the tussocks can drive you insane as you try to avoid twisting your ankles into pretzels. You won't walk through the park at the speed you're used to hiking most places in the Lower 48. Besides the distractions of drop-dead gorgeous landscape, the territory is simply rougher and more varied here than most places down south. Plus it's a good idea to plan for animal delays here. Remember, moose, bear, caribou—pretty much anything with fur—have the right of way.

A big draw for more experienced hikers and backpackers are the foothills and ridges accessible from the park road. As long as you don't go deep into the Alaska Range, it's possible to reach some summits and high ridges without technical climbing expertise. Stamina and physical fitness are required, though. Once up high, hikers find easy walking and sweeping views of braided rivers, tundra benches and foothills, and ice-capped mountains.

Nature Trails and Short Walks

The park offers plenty of options for those who prefer to stay on marked and groomed pathways. The entrance area has more than a half dozen forest and tundra trails. These range from easy to challenging, so there's something suitable for all ages and hiking abilities. Some, like the Taiga Loop Trail and McKinley Station Loop Trail, are less than 1½ miles; others, like the Rock Creek Trail and Triple Lakes Trail, are several miles round-trip, with an altitude gain of hundreds of feet. Along these paths you may see beavers working on their lodges in Horseshoe Lake; red squirrels chattering in trees; red foxes hunting for rodents; sheep grazing on tundra; golden eagles gliding over alpine ridges; and moose feeding on willow.

The Savage River Trail, farthest from the park entrance and as far as private vehicles are allowed, offers a 1¾-mile round-trip hike along a raging river and under rocky cliffs. Be on the lookout for caribou, Dall sheep, foxes, and marmots.

The only relatively long, marked trail for hiking in the park, Mt. Healy Overlook Trail, is accessible from the entrance area; it gains 1,700 feet in 2.5 miles and takes about four hours round-trip, with outstanding views of the Nenana River below and the Alaska Range, including the upper slopes of Mt. McKinley.

The Ranger Knows

Guided Hikes

In addition to exploring the park on your own, you can take free ranger-guided discovery hikes and learn more about the park's natural and human history. Rangers lead daily hikes throughout summer. Inquire at the visitor center. You can also tour with privately operated outfitters like Denali Park Resorts.

Kayaking and Rafting

Several privately owned raft and tour companies operate along the Parks Highway near the entrance to Denali, and they schedule daily rafting, both in the fairly placid areas on the Nenana and through the 10-mile-long Nenana River canyon, which has stretches of Class IV–V rapids—enough to make you think you're on a very wet roller coaster. The Nenana is Alaska's most accessible white water, and if you don't mind getting a little chilly, a river trip is not just a lot of fun, it's also a fantastic way to see a different side of the landscape.

Tours and Outfitters

Denali Outdoor Center. This tour operator has a respected reputation among locals for its scenic rafting trips on the Nenana River and splash-filled trips down the Nenana River canyon's rapids where no river experience is necessary. One of the most challenging trips is a two-hour paddle in inflatable kayaks. They are easy to get out of, stable, and self-bailing, but if you're not used to paddling yourself, you're going to have sore arms. The company also teaches white-water kayaking. All gear is provided, including full dry suits, something you'll appreciate in the splash. Budget travelers can rent canoes or kayaks on Otto Lake for $8 an hour. Camping sites ($12 by the lake), rental cabins ($92) with Wi-Fi in the laundry-shower room, and mountain-bike tours and rentals are also available. Plus, there's a free local shuttle from hotels, lodges, the Alaska Railroad depot, the Denali visitor center, and Otto Lake. There are two locations, the Healy office on Otto Lake Road and the Canyon office on Parks Highway. Mi 0.5 Otto Lake Rd. for main office, Mi 238.9, Parks Hwy., Denali National Park, AK, 99755. 907/683–1925 or 888/303–1925. www.denalioutdoorcenter.com.

Denali Raft Adventures. This outfitter launches its rafts several times daily on two- and four-hour scenic and white-water trips on the Nenana River. Gore-Tex dry suits are provided. Guests under the age of 18 must have a release waiver signed by a parent or guardian. Contact the company for copies before the trip. Courtesy pick-up at hotels and the train depot is available within a 7-mile radius of their location. Mile 238.6, Parks Hwy., Denali National Park, AK, 99755. 907/683–2234 or 888/683–2234. www.denaliraft.com.

The Stampede Trail

Mountain Biking

Mountain biking is allowed on the park's dirt road, and no permit is required for day trips. The first 15 miles of the road are paved. Beyond the Savage River checkpoint the road is dirt and gravel, and during the day the road is busy with the park buses, which can leave bikers choking on dust. The road can get really sloppy in the rain, too. The best time to bike is late evening, when the midnight sun is shining and buses have stopped shuttling passengers for the day. When biking on the road, you need to be aware of your surroundings and observe park rules. Off-road riding is forbidden, and some sensitive wildlife areas are closed to hiking. The Sable Pass area is always closed to off-road excursions on foot because of the high bear population, and other sites are posted due to denning activity or recent signs of carcass scavenging. Check current conditions at the visitor center before heading out. Denali Outdoor Center rents mountain bikes by the hour, half day, or full day. They also conduct guided 2- to 2½-hour tours on trails near the Otto Lake center, which come complete with bike, helmet, water bottle, and shuttle service.

Mountaineering

Alaska Mountaineering School. This outfitter leads backpacking trips in wilderness areas near Talkeetna and elsewhere in the state, including the Brooks Range, and glacier treks that can include overnighting on the ice. It also conducts mountaineering courses that run from 6 to 12 days, expeditions to Mt. McKinley (figure on at least three weeks; prices from $7,000) and other peaks in the Alaska Range, and climbs for all levels of expertise. A novice course, which should be enough to get you comfortable in the mountains, will run a bit over $2,150. AMS also offers treks for photographers; they run a seven-day photography workshop into Denali with both a pro photographer and a hiking guide leading the way ($2,500). While you're in Talkeetna, check out the AMS mountain and gear shop on F Street. 13765 3rd St., Talkeetna, AK, 99676. 907/733–1016. www.climbalaska.org.

Winter Sports

Snowshoers and skiers generally arrive with their own gear and park or camp at the Riley Creek Campground at the park entrance. Dog mushing can also be done with your own team, or you can contact one of the park concessionaires that run day or multiday trips.

Tours and Outfitters

Denali Dog Sled Expeditions. Owned by the couple behind Earthsong Lodge, Denali Dog Sled Expeditions is the only dogsledding company that has the National Park Service okay to run trips in Denali National Park. And, mid-winter, the park will feel like it's all yours. The company specializes in multi-day trips of three to 10 days ($2200–$7500). Early in the season and between trips, they also offer day trips of one to four hours ($125–$325); call ahead to check availability. Denali Dog Sled Expeditions also offers cross-country skiers dogsled team support for multi-day winter cabin and hut trips in the park. Mile 4, Stampede Rd., 17 miles northwest of Denali National Park, Healy, AK, 99743. 907/683–2863. . www.earthsonglodge.com.

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