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Denali National Park & Preserve

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Denali National Park & Preserve Overview

Denali is truly a park on an Alaskan scale: six million acres—a plot of magnificent land larger than the state of Massachusetts—interrupted by just one road. And at that, the byway is gravel and all but closed to private vehicles. In other words, Denali sees less traffic than do many suburban streets.

Across the park's largely treeless expanse, the views are of a scale unknown in the Lower 48 states. Rivers rush wide and milky white with rock pulverized by glaciers. Flower-studded tundra spills away in all directions for tens of miles. Marquee wildlife like caribou, Dall sheep, moose, and grizzly bears roam freely. And, if the weather cooperates, Mount McKinley swallows the horizon.

At 20,320 feet, Mt. McKinley is North America's highest mountain and the crown of the 600-mile Alaska Range. The indigenous Athabascan people dubbed the massif  "Denali," or the "Great One," and it more than lives up to the name. From base to summit (not from sea level), the mountain's vertical relief is greater than that of Mount Everest. On those rare occasions when its shroud of clouds rolls back, Mount McKinley's grandeur will steal your breath away.

Hike the Backcountry
The park is a wilderness nearly without established trails; head in any direction (with a backcountry permit in hand) and you'll be off the beaten path and traipsing on tundra. If trails are more your thing, then clamber up the Mount Healy Overlook Trail near the park's entrance. At 2.2 miles, the route to Mount Healy is practically the only marked hiking path of substantial length in the park. Plan on devoting four hours for the round-trip, and count on sweating a bit along the way—the trail gains 1,700 feet in elevation. You're rewarded with photo-worthy views of the Nenana River coursing below and the Alaska Range towering above.

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Raft a Glacial River
The Nenana River on the park's eastern border is not a waterway to be trifled with. Where it passes through Nenana Canyon, the icy, milk-colored river churns and froths with Class III and IV waters just right for white-knuckle rafting. Not an adrenaline junkie? Then sign up for a scenic float trip on the river's more placid sections.

Go on a Safari
Your chances of seeing wildlife up close perhaps rate better than your chances of glimpsing the elusive Mount McKinley, which is to say they're good but not guaranteed. Your best option is to travel along Park Road on foot, by bike, or by bus. Park buses are managed on a space-available basis, so passengers can hop on and off at will; they can easily get off when they notice a chance for another photographic moment, hike, or other outdoor experience. Another bus is sure to come along soon. Although Denali's big wildlife could very well remain out of sight on a park safari, a keen eye and roving binoculars will help you land a spotting.

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Bike the Tundra
Denali ranks as one of the most bike-friendly national parks. Although bicyclists are restricted to designated roadways, Park Road measures 90 miles long and bikes are allowed throughout the entire length. You can even take your bicycle with you on a camper shuttle bus. During the spring and fall, when road closures are in effect, bicyclists are permitted to ride beyond closed gates. Try cycling straight from Kantishna/Wonder Lake—the end of Park Road and the final bus stop—back to the park entrance. Doing it at night, by the light of Alaska's midnight sun, avoids a lot of bus traffic.

Soar above Denali
Each year, more than 1,000 climbers brave avalanches, bitter temperatures, and fierce storms for the chance to climb Mt. McKinley. The few who top out on a rare cloudless day are rewarded with one of North America's best views. You can attain an even better view from the heated comfort of a rented bush plane or helicopter. Soaring high above the park on a trip by flight offers visitors spectacular views of the mountain—not to mention the rest of Denali. Rangers at the Eielson Visitor Center keep a chart on what portion of McKinley has been visible and how often, so you can check your odds before reserving a flight.

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