Denali National Park’s scenic highway is one of the most beautiful roads you’ll probably never drive. It plunges 92 miles into the Alaskan wilderness, and with every mile, park visitors come closer and closer to the big one — Denali, or Mount McKinley if you prefer, the highest mountain in North America. You’re almost guaranteed to have some unforgettable wildlife encounters along the way. So why on earth will you probably never drive it?
Because you’re not allowed, that’s why. After the first 15 miles, private vehicles are restricted on the road (with the exception of a few days each September, when the winners of a lottery are allowed to drive it). Beyond Savage River at Mile 15, the pavement turns to dirt, and only park-approved shuttle buses are allowed. I’ll show you what to expect on one of those buses, on a separate page. Here, we’ll take a look at those first 15 miles, which are open to everyone.
I arrived at Denali National Park in late May, after a long day of driving up from the Kenai Peninsula. But, in late May, it can be “late in the day” with hours of sunlight remaining. I still had a few hours of exploring, so I decided to drive as much of the road as I could. And the next day, after my shuttle bus tour of the entire road, I did the drive again.
The road begins by gaining some elevation. Once you leave the park’s facilities behind (the train station, visitor center, transportation center, and so on), you’re instantly plunging deep into the wilderness. The most dominant feature in your view will be the Alaska Range of mountains, with the most impressive peaks on the south of the road. The Alaska Range includes Denali, although most of the mountains along this part of the road are in the 5,000-foot range (while the road is between 2,000 and 3,000 feet).
The mountains to the north of the road are closer than those to the south. In fact, you’re driving on their lower slopes. The road stays above the bottom of the valley, traveling just slightly up the side of those hills.
That means, you get some outstanding views of the mountains to the south, whenever there’s a break in the trees. And these mountains are beautifully lit, very late and very early in the day, since the sun sets and rises in the north (around the start of summer).
An occasional gravel-covered dry wash area doesn’t just provide a nice glimpse of the mountains…
… it also gives you a good chance to spot wildlife, like this bull moose. This guy was one of several moose hanging out in this area, each time I drove by.
Others were even easier to spot. One mama moose really liked to hang out on the road…
… and caused some minor traffic jams on a couple of occasions. Cars would stop and wait…
… and the family would eventually wander off the road and into the brush.
Keep in mind, moose are very big, and can be very dangerous if they decide that you’re a threat. Stay in your car and shoot photos out the window.
In addition to the moose, I also spotted this porcupine near Savage River Campground. This stop is at mile 13 on the Park Road, meaning you just have a couple more miles to go. But, of the 15 miles that you’re allowed to drive, these final two are the best.
It’s in this area that the landscape really starts to open up, giving you spectacular views.
The road makes several scenic turns in this area, and there are few trees in the way, so you can see everything that surrounds you.
You might even get lucky, and catch a glimpse of the mountain itself. It was late in my second day at Denali that The Big One finally made a brief appearance among the clouds. At this viewpoint, the mountains in the foreground are probably just a few miles away, while Denali is likely 70 miles or more. It’s hard to get a sense of it in the picture, but in real life, when you see it, there’s something unreal about it.
Savage River is your turnaround point. There’s a parking lot and some pit toilets here, and you can walk down to the river and check out the scenery.
Surprisingly, when I was here, the only wildlife I spotted was seagulls. Yeah, seagulls. It seems strange, but they’re common here at Savage River.
This outcropping of rock towers above the parking area. You’re free to climb up to it for a better view, if you’d like.
Looking back, you can see my lonely vehicle in the parking area. I was the only person here, around 9 o’clock at night on a rainy evening. Indeed, this was far from a perfect evening, and my shuttle-bus ride the following morning wasn’t going to be perfect, either. But you don’t need a bright, sunny day to enjoy Denali National Park. I’ll show you what I found, on the next 51 miles of the road, on the next page.
There are a couple of trails in the Savage River and Campground areas, and a couple more at Eielson Visitor Center (accessible only by shuttle bus). If you make it all the way out to Wonder Lake, there’s one established trail there, from the lake to the McKinley river.
Because of the weather, I didn’t hike most of these trails, but if and when I go back, I’ll give you a full report. I did some limited hiking at Eielson, and I’ll tell you about those trails on that page. I also spent some time hiking the road itself, which is a lot more fun than it sounds.
You’re also free to hike off-trail, almost anywhere in Denali National Park. But before you do, make sure you’re ready to survive in the wilderness, and prepared to handle any wildlife encounters.