One of the unique aspects of Denali is the lack of developed trails -- you really can take off in any direction. The Park Service long resisted building any trails, but finally gave in and recognized some trails visitors had created, including those at the Eielson Visitor Center and the 2-mile path that leads from the Wonder Lake Campground to the McKinley River Bar, which extends far to the east and west. You can drive or take a free shuttle to the Savage River Day Use Area, at mile 14, which has a 1-mile loop trail and longer, informal routes for great alpine tundra hiking. Kris Capps's Denali Walks (Alaska Geographic) is a handy Denali hiking guide covering all the trails in the park. No permit is needed for dayhiking.
The broad, hard-gravel flats of the braided riverbeds, such as the McKinley, Toklat, Teklanika, and Savage, are among the best routes for hiking in the park. Stony Creek, leading up a gorge to the north from the road at mile 60, is an excellent walk into the mountains. You can also hike on the tundra, of which there are two varieties: The wet tundra lies on top of permanently frozen ground called permafrost; it's mushy, at best, like hiking on foam rubber laid over bowling balls. At worst, it's a swamp. Dry tundra clothes the mountainsides and generally makes for firmer footing and easier walking. The brush and stunted forest of the region are virtually impenetrable.
The major risks of hiking here relate to the weather and rivers. It can get cold and wet in midsummer, and if you're not prepared with warm, waterproof clothing, you could suffer the spiraling chill of hypothermia. The rivers are dangerous because of their fast flow and icy-cold water. Experienced backcountry trekkers plan their routes to avoid crossing sizable rivers. Bears, which people worry most about, are far less likely to become hazards, but do follow the tips on avoiding them that are widely distributed at the park.
For a first foray beyond the trails, consider joining one of the Park Service guided hikes. One or two daily Discovery Hikes take off from the park road. One follows a route well inside the park, and the other goes nearer to the entrance end of the park. A ranger takes only 11 hikers, leading them into wilderness while teaching them about the nature of the places they visit. Plan a 5- to 11-hour day, including the shuttle ride; actual hiking time is about 4 hours. The hikes generally are not too strenuous for families with school-age children, although it is wise to inquire how steep it will be if you have any doubts. They cost no more than the price of an Eielson shuttle ticket. You need to wear hiking shoes or boots and bring food, water, and rain gear. Reserve a place in advance, as hikes fill up in July, and you'll need to know when and where to catch the special bus. Rangers lead other walks, too, although the lineup can change each year. A recent offering was the Alpine Hike, a strenuous 2-hour climb that goes 900 feet up Thoroughfare Mountain from the Eielson Visitor Center, at mile 66 of the park road. Check with any visitor center for the current offerings.
Dayhiking in the Park Entrance Area
There are several trails at the park entrance, weaving through the boreal forest around small lakes. Only one strenuous trail leads from the entrance area, but it is a gem. The steep and spectacular hike to the Mount Healy overlook is a 5-mile round-trip. The trail breaks through the tree line to slopes of tundra and rock outcroppings, where you can see just how small the pocket of human infestation at the park entrance area is: The Alaska Range and its foothills extend far into the distance. If you continue on an all-day hike right to the top of Mount Healy, you can see McKinley on a clear day. Several interpretive trails offer the chance to learn, stroll, or even get somewhere. A bike and pedestrian trail connects the entrance area, near the Riley Creek Mercantile, to Glitter Gulch, allowing pedestrians to get back and forth without walking on the road. The McKinley Station, Morino, and Spruce Forest trails teach about nature and history.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.