Moose, bears and Mt. McKinley are probably the three things people think of when they hear the name Denali National Park. The next three words to come to mind are probably excitement, adventure and expensive. (Unless it is winter, when cold, snow and ice might pop into my head).
So, how did we do Denali for next to nothing? It’s easy (once you get there). You just need to know what there is to do, and then find the free alternatives. And there are much cheaper ways to get here than the train we took. In hindsight, I think we would have rented a car.
Bus Tours inside Denali National Park
According to many people we spoke with, this is a must do. There is only one road into the park, and private cars can only go to about mile marker 15. To go beyond one must pay for and take a park bus for either 4, 8 or 11 hours. The options are either a more expensive guided trip (starting at about $100 per person) or a less expensive shuttle. The guide talks about history, vegetation and help to spot wildlife. The shuttle would not. Neither bus is comfortable, as they look like old school buses.
As we couldn’t image sitting on a bus for 8 hours, getting off only for bathroom breaks every 90 minutes, we opted not to do either. We did want to see the park, and hoped to see some more wildlife (remember we saw lots of moose from the train). So we dug a bit deeper and discovered that if you only go to mile marker 15, the shuttle bus is free. And at the end of this run is a wonderful trail head leading you around Savage River – a hike which took us nearly two hours.
So, what did we give up when we saved $400? Aside from the boredom (we are not “sit on a bus and listen to a guide for 8 hours” kind of family), we gave up commentary (learning about history and vegetation) and the possibility of seeing wildlife. Except, our bus driver was a hoot and pointed out a few things, and this moose crossed right in front of our bus:
We could have paid $100 per person and joined on of the hotel’s guided hikes. It would have been easy to join, moderate hiking, and interesting. Instead, we went with the park rangers who offer free hikes from the visitor center everyday at 10am and 1pm.
The ranger was personable and friendly and we learned about the park history and vegetation – what we gave up by not taking the expensive bus tour.
Four times Iditarod winner Jeff King has his Husky Homestead in Denali, a tourist destination with pricing to match. Here you can enjoy puppy holding time and learning about him and his dogs. We heard from one couple it was the highlight of their Denali trip. So, why did we skip it?
We couldn’t see spending almost $70 per person when we could see, touch and learn about dogs from the rangers in the park for free. What we missed was holding the puppies, but we did get to pet some at the Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, and here we got to pet the big dogs.
Denali Films and Ranger Presentations
At the Denali Visitor’s Center there is a frequently running film about Denali and it’s history, the current one for us was called Heartbeats of Denali. It’s about 20 minutes and free. We also asked for a list of upcoming ranger presentations and choose to attend a very interesting lecture on glaciers.
There is a dinner theater with a salmon and BBQ rib buffet for about $63 per person. We just skipped it. Especially as we are headed out on a cruise soon and will have nightly entertainment at no additional cost.
River Rafting, ATV, Four Wheel Drive Tours
There were several companies that offered rafting adventures, and they all had both class III/IV wild option and a class I/II float option. We saw these were quite popular at about $70-90 per person. We opted to pass as we were told they generally don’t see wildlife, the water is freezing (they provide dry suits but you still get splashed), the water levels were down when we were there, and we were told by others that during the portions that “float” you get covered by mosquitoes.
ATV and Four Wheel Drive Tours we also opted to skip. It’s just not us.
Of all the expensive tourist activity options, flight seeing is probably the best choice to see the most in the least amount of time. We had actually done this two years ago in the South Island of New Zealand, landing on a glacier. Had we not done this before, I am pretty sure we would have found a way to make it work here. However, for us, we took a pass here as well.
If we really wanted to watch the budget, we could have tent camped. Certainly a lot of other families did that.
More Free Things to Do in Denali
- There are dozens of trails through the park, each one an exciting adventure.
- We stopped by the Murie Science Center to learn about the research going on in the park.
- Nightly Ranger lead programs at the campgrounds
- If you take a paid 4 hour shuttle bus out to Eielson, there is a Ranger lead hike at 1pm everyday.
- Everyday the Rangers take a small group on an all day “discovery hike.” You can only sign up a day or so in advance, in person at the park.
Ranger program times subject to change so be sure to check the official Denali page before you head out.
Have you been to Alaska? If not, what’s stopping you? What’s your favorite free wilderness activity?
All photos on this page ©Rhonda Albom 2013. All Rights Reserved.