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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.
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.
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.