Denali in Winter

Into the Woods

As I drive through Denali National Park's entrance in the first week of October, the area has the feel of a ghost town. The park hotel and visitors center are deserted and only one tent remains in Riley Creek Campground. Even the park headquarters, which stays open all winter, seems hushed. Still, there's lots going on when I pay close attention: Chattering red squirrels harvest and stockpile scores of spruce cones while flocks of boreal chickadees eat seeds among the forest canopy. Along the road, a moose browses on willow bushes. And at partly frozen Horseshoe Lake, beavers busily cut and cache willows while there's still open water.

Busy too are Denali Park's kennel manager Gary Koy and his 29 sled dogs, as they prepare for winter. The patrols keep the winter route open, maintain and stock Denali's network of cabins, and keep in touch with visitors and park neighbors. Until recent decades, when snowmobile use increased dramatically, dog teams were the primary mode of winter transportation here and throughout much of Alaska. Some of Denali's backcountry is actually easier to explore in winter than summer, as snow-buried brush and frozen rivers increase access to certain areas otherwise difficult to reach. In one recent year, patrollers met 200 people during their travels. Most visitors wait until late February or early March, when longer daylight hours and milder winter weather lure recreational mushers and backcountry skiers into the park.

Winter trips deep into the wilderness clearly require considerable commitment, preparation, and expertise. Those who do venture deep into Denali's backcountry in the dead of winter find extreme and unpredictable conditions. Temperatures here may drop to -400 F for days at a time, and from late November to late January there are six hours or less of sunlight each day.

One popular way to get into the backcountry is to fly into Kantishna and ski back to the entrance, a trek of more than 90 miles. But winter travelers needn't go far into the backcountry to experience the season's trials—and glories. There are several access points to Denali parklands, for instance Petersville Road on Denali's south side and the Stampede Trail, near Healy, on the north side. But the prime entry spot for those who wish to avoid motorized traffic is Denali National Park's entrance area. Here there's a campground, an informal system of ski and snowshoe trails, park staff who can answer questions and offer advice, and, perhaps best of all, miles and miles of wild, pristine country to explore in silence.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


park finder
step one
Where are you going?

step one
What do you want to do?

+ More Activities

GEARZILLA: The Gorp Gear Blog

Receive Gear Reviews, Articles & Advice

Preview this newsletter »

Ask Questions