The Greatest Gamble in the NPS: The Drama of Denali
Denali National Park is far and above Alaska’s most popular national park. Visitors flock from all over the world, and no one, save for the few Alaskans who trickle in, has an easy route to get there. And as hard as people work to get there, visiting Denali is undoubtedly one of the biggest risks in the entire National Park Service.
Once visitors arrive to the park, they seem to be on edge. People meticulously check the hourly weather reports, harass park rangers and volunteers, crane their necks, wait for hours in the pouring rain, rush around, and then wait some more. They let out frustrated sobs in front of strangers. They leave the park disappointed.
And for what?
Most park visitors come for one reason: seeing Denali. The High One. North America’s Ceiling. Formerly known as Mount McKinley, Denali is the tallest peak in North America and on almost everyone’s bucket list.
This would all be fine and there would be no one sobbing in public if it weren’t for the statistic that rangers try hard to advertise: only one-third of all visitors to Denali actually catch a glimpse of the mountain during their stay. One-third! So many people who are focused on this list item alone leave the park disappointed. Cue the tears.
When we approached the park, our last of 59, we fully accepted the fact that we probably wouldn’t see the mountain. The weather forecast called for rain and clouds and more rain during our entire 6-day stay in the park. We packed our rain gear and a deck of cards and headed out on the camper bus all the way to the back of the park to stay for two nights at Wonder Lake Campground.
The bus ride took about 6 hours with stops, and although we didn’t get rained on much, we couldn’t see much past the bus windows into the distance. We slept in our tent to a light drizzle. On our second day, we rode the bus a few miles towards the park entrance to spend our day at Eisleman Visitor Center and the surrounding hikeable area. We caught a glimpse of Denali from the bus window, socked in by clouds but trying hard to peek out at us. The day was just gorgeous, and we hiked across tundra and up from the visitor center above the drifting clouds. It was only a partial view of the mountain, but we headed back to our campsite happy. Just grateful to see Denali at all.
Then Day Three came. At 4:15 a.m., Cole woke up to go to the bathroom. He whispered frantically from outside the tent for me to open my flap and there it was. Denali. All her glory. Zero clouds. Perfectly framed in a campsite we didn’t even know had that view.
And suddenly we were the crazy visitors who were craning, rushing, and waiting all at the same time. We jogged (well jk I don’t jog) to the other side of Wonder Lake to try and capture the reflection of Denali as the sun rose, showering the Alaskan Range in a perfect pink glow. I felt a sort of panic as we took the pictures, thinking that this was my only shot and my phone better not run out of storage.
I felt like a crazy person. The moment was beautiful, and it definitely wasn’t ruined by my frantic need to snap some perfect pictures, but after we loaded onto the bus rode out of view of the mountain, and our heart rates settled back down, I recognized that desperation as a feeling that you shouldn’t experience at a national park.
After one more stop at Eisleman to run around and snap a few more pictures, we headed back to spend a few more days around the entrance of the park and far away from the view of Denali.
Our reaction to seeing the mountain, in all her glory, was probably pretty typical of visitors. But we were the lucky ones. I wonder how we would have felt had we not seen Denali.
We were very fortunate, but I also think we went in with the right mindset. Here are a few tips we have for dealing with the drama of Denali:
- Stay for more than a day. The average time spent in the Denali National Park is less than four hours. You can increase your chances by simply staying in the park longer.
- Go further into the park. Time constraints combined with the fact that it takes about 12 hours to ride to the end of the road and back cause most people to cut their distance into the park short. But, like with adding time, adding distance can make a big difference. Plus, the further back you go, the better the views become.
- If you can, time your visit. We were told that early morning and late evening is typically the clearest, and July tends to be the rainiest month.
- Camp inside the park. Plan well in advance and book a campsite in one of the “backcountry” campgrounds, accessible by shuttle bus. Of course, for the more adventurous, there is always the option of getting a permit for true backcountry camping. For us, camping at Wonder Lake allowed us several chances to see Denali in the optimal morning light.
- Check your attitude. If you set your expectations too high, or you are focusing on perfect Instagram pictures, you may walk away disappointed. Try not to put too much pressure on the situation.
One way or another, your trip to Denali National Park is bound to be memorable. You might catch a glimpse of the mountain if you are lucky. If not, you might see a herd of caribou instead. Or a grizzly playing with her cubs. Or the most colorful lichen you can imagine.
With the right approach, you can handle the National Park Service’s greatest gamble with ease.