See “the real Denali” dressed in winter white. Families can snowshoe, ski, drive and meet America’s only canine rangers in Alaska’s national park.
By Erin Kirkland
Residents of the Last Frontier would like to make one thing perfectly clear: “Alaska is not closed in the winter.”
This is an important message because most curious would-be winter visitors harbor the belief that Alaska’s popular summertime destinations like Denali National Park shut their front gates once Labor Day weekend passes.
Denali and the small communities around this 9,492-square-mile national park are wide open during the non-summer months, welcoming adventurous families with a plethora of recreation options, as long as said families are prepared for the large, yet interesting differences between summer and winter.
While it is true that many aspects of Denali popular with families – traditional campgrounds, shuttle buses, ranger-led programs and concession services – are closed between mid-September and May; their absence also allows the park to shine from October to April.
The Best of Denali in Winter
Denali National Park staff make adjustments to accommodate winter guests, and the sometimes wild weather, so visitors should alter their expectations of what park staff will and will not provide during this quiet season of independent exploration.
With the main Denali visitor center shuttered, operations move to the nearby Murie Science and Learning Center, across the parking lot but still within the entrance area. Open and staffed 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, this cozy facility provides important information and is a fun stop for inquisitive kids.
Additionally, this is the place for a warm-up in front of a roaring stove, access to restrooms, water and a place to learn more about the park. Pick up maps and books, see a film about the park’s history and unique weather patterns, or borrow a pair of snowshoes for exploration anywhere your feet can travel. The Alpenglow, the park’s official newspaper, gives options for hiking, snowshoeing, camping, or nordic skiing within park boundaries and includes a list of important information for winter’s occasional extreme weather.
Just outside the Murie Science and Learning Center lies a multitude of easy to moderate trails suitable for anyone interested in wandering the greater entrance area. Popular destinations include Horseshoe Lake, a recently completed loop around this serene landscape dotted with beaver habitat, and Taiga Trail, a short hike around the backside of the Science and Learning Center. While the trails are not groomed, we found them more than adequate for simple snowshoeing, skiing and hiking, thanks in part to this year’s low snowfall.
Into Denali’s Winter Backcountry
In the past, the park road was plowed only to Mile 3, where headquarters and the sled dog kennels are. But in 2014, the Park Service decided that if weather allowed, plowing the road to Mile 12 at Mountain Vista Rest Area, just short of Savage River at Mile 15, could lead to more winter visitors.
This is the perfect place to ski or snowshoe the pseudo-backcountry without venturing too far from a main road; Denali peeks out from behind barren hills, and caribou and moose frequent the roadside as they browse treeless shrubbery.
Two main trails are accessible from Mountain Vista, and both are easy for children with basic nordic ski skills to navigate. Beginning snowshoers should enjoy them too.
- The Mountain Vista Trail is a 0.6-mile hike to a view point and picnic area. Watch for sled dog teams as they enjoy this flat, fast trail. Kids may enjoy guessing the animal tracks crisscrossing the snowy surface.
- Across the road from Mountain Vista lies Savage Cabin Trail, an interesting 0.8-mile loop leading to the cabin itself, built in 1924 as a cook shack for Savage Camp, the first tourist structure in Denali National Park. Also serving as a ranger patrol cabin, it’s the perfect place to park the skis or snowshoes for a front-porch picnic.
Back at Mile 3, don’t forget to stop by the sled dog kennels for a visit with the National Park Service’s only canine ranger force. An integral part of patrolling the park during winter months, Denali’s sled dog teams spend much of the snowy season making runs between Wonder Lake, headquarters and everywhere in between, carrying supplies and rangers on multi-day camp-outs as part of what many staffers say is the best job in the world.
Good to Know
Where to Stay
- Healy lies 10 miles north of the park entrance and has a few options for overnight accommodations. Try the Totem Inn and Restaurant in downtown Healy or Denali Lakeview Inn on scenic Otto Lake. Rose’s Cafe is on the Parks Highway. Both the cafe and the Totem Inn serve kid-friendly meals with plenty of local flavor.
- In McKinley Park, five miles south of the park entrance, Tonglen Lake Lodge offers four luxury “bed and breakfast”-style rooms during the winter season.
- Riley Creek Campground is the only camping facility open during the winter in Denali National Park. Tenters and RV campers should remember that there is no water, electricity or food services nearby. They should be completely self-sufficient. There is a pit toilet restroom open. Camping is free.
Where to Rent Gear
Alaskan Outdoor Gear Rental has everything an adventurous family needs for a winter camping experience
How to Get There
- Flying? Aim for Anchorage to minimize stops en route, or Fairbanks if you’d like to be closer to Denali itself.
- Driving? Prepare your rental car and your kids with emergency supplies should conditions become difficult. Pack sleeping bags, food, water and a shovel and check Alaska’s 511 road conditions website before leaving home. Cell service is spotty in many areas, particularly beyond the park entrance area.
- Train-ing? The Alaska Railroad offers weekly service to Denali National Park (with select midweek dates also available). This scenic 4-hour trip is the perfect way to see a wintery Alaska.