Parents who choose Alaska for a family vacation are looking for wilderness, wildlife, and wonder, and with any luck they’ll find all three just five hours north of Anchorage. Denali National Park and Preserve is one of the state’s most popular national parks among some of the most rugged territory Interior Alaska offers. It takes planning to enjoy a kid-friendly stay in Denali, but there, young visitors are treated to myriad opportunities focusing on nature and the Last Frontier.
Getting to Denali National Park means driving a rental car or hopping aboard the Alaska Railroad for a scenic ride north from Anchorage (6.5 hours) or south from Fairbanks (3.5 hours). Upon arrival, settle in to overnight accommodations that range from rustic to luxurious and prepare to meet the residents of Alaska’s favorite national park.
If camping out is out of the question, rest assured there are many options for lodging in Denali National Park. The cruise lines reign supreme here, with Princess Cruises and Tours as a major player. Grande Denali Lodge is located on a high bluff overlooking the entire Nenana Canyon area, and is a great place to relax after a busy day. The cozy, classic Denali Cabins are located a short distance from the park entrance, and, conveniently, across the street from the 229 Parks restaurant.
Make your first stop the Wilderness Access Center (WIC). Here, make reservations for shuttle bus transportation deeper into the park (private vehicles are only allowed the first 17 miles of the park road), pick up backcountry permits, and gather important information about hiking the park. Follow the paved trails about a mile to the Denali Visitors Center, where kids will enjoy the interactive exhibits while adults get a map, learn about ranger-led walks and talks, and pay park admission.
Just north of the visitor center is the smaller but equally-impressive Murie Science and Learning Center, a facility that serves a dual purpose as an education hub for visitors of all ages, and a wintertime visitor center once the summer season comes to an end.
The Denali National Park entrance area stretches about five miles from the Parks Highway to the headquarters area, and families often spend the bulk of their time here, hiking, biking, and enjoying the activities created just for them. The Sled Dog Kennel presentation occurs daily during the summer months, and is a great way to introduce kids to the only canine ranger force in the entire park service system. Take a shuttle bus or drive yourself to the small parking lot near the headquarters, and take a walk around the beautiful, historic buildings.
If longer hikes are on the schedule, drive the park road toward Mountain Vista Trailhead and wander the mostly flat trails with great views of Denali on a clear day. Savage River Campground is located here, as is the Savage Cabin, a historic cabin used during the winter by backcountry rangers working the park.
Drive a few miles more to Savage River, the terminus for all private vehicles and the site of fabulous hikes and a chance to relax by the cold, clear waters.
Shuttle Bus riders can park here and catch a bus further into the park, but be aware that the ride out and back, a distance of 90 miles, is long and often bumpy, making it difficult for young children. If you go, pack food, water, and warm clothing as Denali’s weather can and does change frequently.
Kids will also enjoy the nationwide Junior Ranger program, where completion of an age-appropriate booklet of activities and facts earns a youngster his or her own honorary ranger badge, presented at the Denali National Park Visitor Center.
It is worthwhile to note that there are no grocery stores in the greater Denali Park area, so travelers wanting their own food should stock up in Talkeetna, Cantwell (if heading north from Anchorage), or Healy (if heading south from Fairbanks).
Otherwise, meals can be enjoyed at 49th State Brewing in Healy, where craft beer meets hearty food fit for mountaineers. Nearer the park entrance, find Prospectors Pizzeria and Alehouse to fill up on Italian fare and excellent salads. For Sunday brunch, 229 Parks is one of the best. It’s also regularly featured in international publications as one of the most creative places to lift a fork, especially in this remote section of Alaska.