Family Vacations to Denali National Park and Denali State Park, Alaska

Mount McKinley, Denali National Park, Alaska
Mount McKinley (PhotoDisc)

Denali National Park and Denali State Park Highlights

  • Enjoy the views aboard the Alaskan Railroad to Talkeetna or Denali National Park.
  • Hike along rivers and to lakes in Denali National Park.
  • Go for a wild (or mild) ride on the whitewater of Denali national or state parks.
  • Meet sled dogs in Denali National Park.
  • Take a flightseeing tour over a massive glacier.

North America's highest peak, 20,230-foot Mount McKinley, seems to split the sky of the vast Alaska interior. Known as "Denali"—the Great One—to early Athabascans, the mountain dominates the Alaskan Range and is the stunning focal point of six-million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve. This dramatic landscape contains snowcapped mountains, glaciers, frozen tundra, spruce forests, and lakes where grizzly bears, moose, wolves, and Dall sheep roam. It's a place where families could spend a week and harvest a lifetime of experiences.

Typically visitors, except for mountain climbers and those on flightseeing tours from Talkeetna, enter Denali National Park through its north side. A popular way to reach this entrance is to board one of the Alaskan Railroad's bubbletop observation cars out of Anchorage, about a seven-hour ride. Although private vehicles are not allowed beyond mile 15 of the park road, shuttle buses make regular stops.

The first thing to do is to check in at the park visitor center, where ages six to 12 can snag a Denali Discovery Pack containing crayons, tips on identifying trees, a mold to make animal tracks, plus a journal to record their observations. In addition, the park offers a free Junior Ranger Activity Guide for ages nine to 14 and ages four to eight. Upon turning in completed booklets, kids receive a Junior Ranger badge. Kids can find out more about Denali's geology and wildlife as well as that of Alaska's other parks at the Murie Science and Learning Center, which offers educational programs in summer.

Denali National Park has several family-friendly hikes. The two-mile round-trip Savage River Trail begins at mile 15 and has picnic tables, while the 1.4-mile round-trip Horseshoe Lake Trail takes in the scenic lake. Rangers also lead three- to five-hour Discovery Hikes. At the daily sled-dog demonstrations, meet the charismatic animals and watch them work with trainers. On the Nenana River, choose either a wild Class III-IV raft trip or, on another section, go for a mild and scenic Class I-III float. Sing-alongs and storytelling are part of the Alaska Cabin Nite Dinner Theatre at the McKinley Chalet Resort.

For families who don't relish a seven-hour train ride, or have limited time to spend enjoying Denali's vast outback, disembark the Alaska Railroad at Talkeetna, about a three-hour ride from Anchorage. Talkeetna has a ranger station and is the gateway to Denali State Park, a prime place for hiking and fishing. Legend has it that Talkeetna, a small town with a large spirit, served as the inspiration for Cicely, Alaska, in the hit television series Northern Exposure. From Talkeetna, it's a 75-minute drive to the Mt. McKinley Princess Lodge, whose deck faces mighty Denali. From the lodge or from Talkeetna, you can book raft trips, guided hikes, and flightseeing tours. From the air, look down on a glacier and gawp at the massive river of blue ice slit with crevasses and dotted with turquoise pools. Weather-permitting, you may even catch sight of the spectacular snowy peak of Denali itself.

Tip: Be sure to bring insect repellent. Alaska residents jokingly refer to the mosquito as the "state bird."

Recommended Side Trips: Anchorage, Inside Passage cruises's resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 23 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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