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What You Miss in Denali If You Don’t Have a Car (Our Alaska Adventure Part 5)

The last leg our Alaska journey was three nights at Denali National Park.  Most visitors arrive by train or motor coach, but if you have an independent spirit, I highly recommend renting a car.  It’s a 4-5 hour drive from Anchorage, but allow a full day because there are lots of stops and spectacular Denali views along the way (weather permitting).  If you have time, I recommend spending a few nights in Talkeetna.  You can also drive south from Fairbanks, which is only 2 hours away.

Here’s what you miss if you choose to rely on the park and hotel shuttle systems:

1)   A stay at Tonglen Lake Lodge – This is the newest and most luxurious lodging near Denali, in a beautiful and serene lakeside setting.  It was perfect for our family, but as I always recommend when selecting vacation accommodations, do your homework to make sure it’s the best fit for you. 

Tonglen Lake Lodge, AlaskaTonglen Lake, Alaska
2)   Avoiding busloads of people – Since most visitors are using shuttle buses, they travel in groups from place to place.  Often we were in a café or the visitor center with only a few other people, until a bus pulled up, and then all tables were filled and lines went out the door.  If you can work your stops around the bus schedule, you can have some of the exhibits to yourself.

3)   Leisurely scenic drives– The 15 miles of park road out to the Savage Creek checkpoint are open to private vehicles.  You can drive it at a leisurely pace any time of day.  You never know what you might see!

Denali National Park
Moose in Denali National Park 

4)   Going on an impromptu hike – There are several trails that lead out of the park entrance area.  But if you drive out to Savage Creek you’ll find not only a parking area with picnic tables and restrooms, but two trails that can be covered in just a few hours:  an easy loop trail along a pretty braided creek, and more strenuous hike up to a panoramic view.
Hiking in Denali National Park
Trail in Denali National Park

5)   Eating at 229 Parks, the best restaurant in the area – This is a hidden gem, and since it’s 8 miles south of the park entrance, you won’t get there without your own car, as there are no taxis.   The menu is full of interesting dishes made with fresh local ingredients, ranging from their own handcrafted lemonade to homemade pasta and pastries, and of course salmon, halibut, and king crab dishes.

6)   Visiting the 49th State Brewing Company– This is a local favorite 10 miles north of the park in Healy.   They have good food in huge portions at reasonable prices, and of course, good beer (and homemade root beer for the kids).  You can also see the infamous bus used in the film Into the Wild, based on the book by Jon Krakauer.

"Into The Wild" bus in Alaska
7)   Spending quality time with the sled dogs – The kennels are always open to guests, and demonstrations are offered several times a day.  Visitors are encouraged to take a shuttle from the visitor center, however there is limited parking within walking distance.   If you can arrive before the shuttle, then you have the dogs and their trainers to yourselves.  You can also stay after the demonstration if you have additional questions, and watch the dogs get unhitched, which was surprisingly entertaining, as well.
Alaskan sled dog
To view more pictures of Denali Park, visit my Flickr album.  And stay tuned for an upcoming post about our trip deep into the park on the NPS shuttle bus. (Update:  here is the post.)

I have traveled all over the state, so I am happy to help you plan an amazing Alaska adventure for your family.  Just contact me at suzette@family-treks.com.