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Denali National Park: 10 tips to make the most of your visit

A young grizzly bear forages along the Teklanika Tundra Wilderness Tour in Denali National Park. | Susan B. Barnes Photo

In 1917, about 2.1 million acres of Alaskan wilderness was designated as Mount McKinley National Park by President Woodrow Wilson, 42 years before Alaska even became a state in 1959. The park was renamed Denali National Park in 1980, at which time it nearly tripled in size. Today, the park encompasses just over six million acres, or 9,492 square miles, inclusive of the park, wilderness and preserve lands, and of course Mount Denali, North America’s highest point at 20,310 feet above sea level. That’s a lot of area, especially considering that the entire state of New Hampshire is 9,351 square miles, and Massachusetts comes in at 10,555 square miles.

Within the park, visitors (nearly 561,000 in 2015) will find six campgrounds, 35.5 miles of official trails and 92 miles of roadway (Denali Park Road), but it’s only open seasonally – more on that below. With such an expanse of area to explore, and most of it wilderness, we checked in with Jennifer Harris, who’s worked seasonally in Denali for 25 years, for a few tips (in no particular order!) to make the most of your visit.

All aboard the Alaska Railroad to Denali National Park. | SUSAN B. BARNES PHOTO

All aboard the Alaska Railroad to Denali National Park. | SUSAN B. BARNES PHOTO

Denali National Park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, but it is in Alaska, so keep that in mind when travel planning — snow falls early in this part of the country.

1. Ride the rail: Traveling to Denali National Park can be half the fun. If you’re spending a lot of time in Alaska and are renting a car, the park is about 240 miles north of Anchorage, and 120 miles south of Fairbanks, with wide open roads in between. A car isn’t really a necessity once you arrive in Denali, however, so consider taking the train right to the park entrance instead. Alaska Railroad’s “Denali Star” connects the park to Anchorage and Fairbanks, and makes a stop right at the entrance of Denali during the summer season (mid-May through mid-September). Not only that, but the hours-long train rides will provide spectacular views of the Alaskan landscape from the two-level domed cars, with plenty of wildlife spotting opportunities along the way.

2. Catch a bus: The Denali Park Road is the only road found in all of the park, and only the first 15 miles can be driven by private vehicle during the summertime (mid-May through early-September); beyond those first 15 miles, the road turns to gravel and you’ll need to bike or hike into the park, or take a bus. In addition to shuttle buses that you can hop on and off on for hiking and adventuring on your own (lower price with little narration, if at all), tour buses will take you deep into the park during the summertime, with certified interpretive guides/drivers who provide narration so you can learn about the park and (hopefully) spot wildlife along the way. There are three tours to choose from, and they vary in length from five to 12 hours, traveling between 17 and all 92 miles of the road and back (the shuttle bus goes the length of the road, too). The Tundra Wilderness Tour (seven to eight hours and goes at least 53 miles into the park) has been in existence since 1923 in one form or another; a shortened version of the tour (Teklanika Tundra Wilderness Tour) is available in the spring and fall when the full-length tour isn’t running.

3. Win the lottery: A Road Lottery is held annually for people who are interested in driving the entire 92-mile Denali Park Road on their own once the park’s bus tours end for the season. In May, the lottery opens for entry (a non-refundable lottery entry fee applies) for the opportunity to win a permit to drive the park road in September. The drawing is held in June and winners are notified by email, complete with the date of their permits and information on how to plan for their trips. As with any lottery, there’s risk involved – if Denali Park Road is closed due to weather on the day the permit was issued, there aren’t any do-overs.

4. Spot wildlife: If you take a bus tour of Denali, chances are pretty good that you’ll see wildlife along the way, including bears, moose, caribou, wolves and Dall sheep. Keep in mind that the wildlife is wild, and the park is enormous (9,492 square mile), so there’s plenty of space for them to roam. And if it’s a cloudy day, while that may not make for the best pictures, it’s fantastic for wildlife viewing since the temperatures tend to be cooler. Aside from the bus tours, wildlife such as moose are commonly spotted in the more populated areas of the park, near visitor centers and walking trails, for example. Always be aware of your surroundings.

5. Go to the dogs: Denali National Park is the only national park with a working team of sled dogs that help rangers protect the park and its wildlife. In the summertime, the sled dogs and their handlers give demonstrations to show how the teams work together, and you can stay afterwards to meet and snuggle the dogs. In the wintertime, the teams go to work patrolling the park and its backcountry, which is inaccessible if not for the sleds.

6. 30 percent: When visiting Denali National Park, don’t be discouraged if you never spot the peak of Mount Denali 20,310 feet above sea level – it’s estimated that only 30 percent of all park visitors catch a glimpse of the summit.

7. Fly high: One nearly-assured way to see the peak of Mount Denali is to take a flight seeing tour of the park in a small plane or helicopter. From this vantage point, you’ll not only see the sweeping landscape below – and maybe even wildlife roaming about – but the mountain ranges and perhaps even climbers endeavoring to reach the summits. For even more adventure, land on a glacier for a few hours, or even an overnight stay.

8. Walk with dinosaurs: In the summer of 2005, a three-toed dinosaur track (theropod) was discovered near Igloo Creek in Denali National Park, the first evidence of dinosaurs found in the area. The 70 million year old fossil was spotted by a University of Alaska Fairbanks student who was attending a field study with her professor just about 35 miles west of the park’s entrance. Some of the fossils found since are on display at the Murie Science and Learning Center in Denali.

Views of the Alaskan landscape as seen from the train on the way to Denali National Park from Anchorage. | SUSAN B. BARNES PHOTO

Views of the Alaskan landscape as seen from the train on the way to Denali National Park from Anchorage. | SUSAN B. BARNES PHOTO

9. Give back: Managing 9,492 square miles of park lands takes a lot of work, as you can imagine, and every year volunteers donate more than 60,000 hours to the park. During your visit to Denali National Park, you can give back a bit by spending some of your time volunteering with the park. Volunteer projects may include helping to build trails, gathering seeds, assisting in research and even picking dandelions.

10. Denali Square: With only camping available in regards to accommodations within the park, you will need to look elsewhere if you’re staying overnight in Denali. One popular spot is McKinley Chalet Resort and the new Denali Square. In addition to rustic-yet-comfortable ad spacious lodge-style rooms, Denali Square has casual restaurants in which to refuel, live entertainment and learning programs to occupy free time, and an artists-in-residence program to take home a Denali-inspired piece of art to remember your time in Alaska.

For more on Denali National Park and to help with trip planning, download the free Chimani app to your smart phone to easily navigate your way around the park, with our without cell phone service.

Susan B. Barnes, Special for USA TODAY