Do you want to visit Denali National Park as a budget traveler but don’t know where to start with your planning? This Denali National Park Budget Guide is aimed at solo budget travelers – so read on!
One of the main places that most people traveling to Alaska want to experience is Denali National Park, and rightly so. There are so many things to do in Denali National Park, and there is so much beauty.
The home to the tallest mountain in North America, also named Denali (officially so since 2015), Denali National Park is a vast wilderness, six million acres with only one 92-mile, mostly gravel road bisecting it.
To protect the natural resources of the park, no private vehicles can enter the park past mile 15 (unless you have been lucky enough to win the Denali Road Lottery) and there are only a handful of established trails, with hikers and campers encouraged to get out into the Denali backcountry.
It is one of the wildest and untouched national parks in the United States as well as the third-largest.
The diversity of landscape is visually stunning with taiga forest near the entrance of the park giving way to higher altitude sub-arctic tundra the further you travel in, with an abundance of wildlife such as grizzly bears, Dall sheep, marmots, foxes, caribou, wolves, moose and 160 species of bird.
When I was researching about visiting Denali I found it hard to find information online. All of the accommodation options were geared towards campers or were well out of my budget.
There didn’t seem to be any infrastructure for solo budget travelers. Without a vehicle or a crapload of money, my options for visiting the park seemed limited.
I was starting to think I wouldn’t be able to visit at all.
But I don’t give up easily, I am stubborn like that. I persevered and after hours online I found somewhere to stay and read all the information about the park and getting around that I could find.
I was still concerned about the hiking in Denali as there are only a handful of reasonably short trails within the park. With the park largely kept as an untouched wilderness, the whole point was to get off the beaten track and forge your own path in the backcountry. But I just wasn’t comfortable doing that. Not by myself anyway.
But I booked four nights and hoped it would all work out. And it did.
Once I was there everything came together. I met lots of people to hike with at my hostel as well as doing a couple of trails by myself, I spent a day on a shuttle traveling further into the park and even found time to do a few other free things to do in Denali.
I ended up loving my visit to Denali National Park and I want to make it easier for other budget travelers to go there too. So I decided to write this guide.
I hope you find it helpful.
Ultimate Denali National Park Budget Travel Guide
Free Things To Do in Denali National Park
Take a Free Shuttle Into the Park
You can access Denali National Park without having to pay for a shuttle up to mile 15 of the park road. This gives you a good feel for the park and you can jump off along the way to explore. There are three free shuttles you can take – for the Sled Dog Demonstration, Riley Creek loop, and Savage River.
There are a couple of great short hikes at Savage River, and if you are lucky like I was, you might even get up close and personal with a caribou.
Denali National Park Hiking
Pretty much all of the established hiking trails in Denali National Park are at the entrance area which means you don’t need to pay for a shuttle to reach them. Check out the hiking section below for more details.
Sled Dog Demonstration
If you have the time I definitely recommend getting to one of the thirty-minute sled dog demonstrations. There are three per day in the summer season at 10am, 2pm and 4pm.
You can catch the free shuttle from the Denali Visitors Center forty minutes before the demonstrations begin which gives you time to walk around and pat the dogs and see the puppies before the demonstration.
Alternatively, you can walk 1.5 miles along the roadside trail to the kennels. It’s pretty cool to see how excited the dogs get when they are being picked to pull the sled. They really love their job!
Visit Canyon Village
The nearest ‘town’ to the park, Canyon Village has a few souvenir shops, galleries, and restaurants and is fun to explore for an afternoon.
You can reach the village by walking the scenic mile or so along the Jonesville trail connecting to the Roadside trail.
Check Out the Denali Visitor Center
The Visitor Center has some interesting displays, old photos and lots of information about the history as well as the flora and fauna of the park that is worth taking a look at. Make sure to watch the park film to learn more about the history of the park.
Hiking Trails in Denali National Park
There is only a small amount of trail hiking in Denali National Park as most of the park is backcountry wilderness. Along with a few short trails that link the Denali Bus Depot to the Denali Visitor Center, the Sled Dog Kennels, and Canyon Village, there are also some solely scenic trails.
I managed to do a number of Denali hikes during my visit, and hiking Denali is a must-do.
Eielson Alpine Trail
A short (less than a mile one way) but very steep trail leading up to Thorofare Ridge from the Eielson Visitor Center. With 1000 feet of elevation gain, this hike is tough going especially on a sunny day and I took a lot of short breaks to catch my breath. The views from the top were definitely worth it though.
The trail passes wildflowers and curious ground squirrels along the way. At the top I walked to a point further along the ridge with even better views further into the park. The landscape in this part of the park is very stark and un-vegetated but very beautiful.
Savage River Loop
The Savage River Loop is a gentle two-mile loop hike taking you along one side of the Savage River and back along the other.
It is a beautiful part of the park and if you are lucky you might see a caribou up close as I did. It starts at the Savage River day-use area.
Mount Healy Overlook
This was my favorite hike in the park and the longest I did at 5.4 miles return. With 1700 feet of elevation gain it was also the most difficult but was worth it for the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and valleys below.
I ended up hiking an extra 2 miles return along a ridge to Healy Ridge which made it a more substantial 7.4-mile day hike.
You can access the hike from mile 0.3 of the Taiga trail which begins at the Denali Visitor Center, I wrote a more detailed post about the hike if you want to check it out.
Horseshoe Lake Loop
An easy 3.2-mile loop hike down and around a beautiful lake and along the Nenana River. A great hike to see beavers or at least their impressive dams, and to watch white water rafters on the river.
This peaceful hike can be reached via the Taiga trail which begins at the Denali Visitors Center.
Other Denali Hikes of Note
I had planned to do this hike but decided on Mount Healy instead. Triple Lakes is the longest trail in the park at 8.6 miles one way and goes through forested terrain with views of three lakes along the way.
If you are staying at the hostel they can drop you at the park highway end of the hike so you can finish at the Visitor Center, otherwise, if you do it in reverse you will need to hitch back.
Savage Alpine Trail
I also planned on doing this hike when I visited Savage River but an onset of heavy rain thwarted my plans. It is a steep and strenuous 4-mile one-way hike with 1200 feet of elevation gain, linking the Savage River day-use area with the Savage River campground.
You can take the free Savage River shuttle to and from either. Apparently, it is easier to start from the campground.
See here for a map of the entrance area hikes
Transport to Denali National Park
With car hire in Alaska starting at around $200 per day, it just isn’t a viable option for a solo traveler on a budget. Without a car, you have a couple of options to get to the park.
Most people will be traveling to Denali from Anchorage in the south or from Fairbanks in the north but I was coming from further south in Seward and there is only one way to get from Seward to Denali in one day: via the Park Connection Bus.
The Park Connection Bus connects Kenai Fjords National Park from the city of Seward up to Denali National Park, with stops in Anchorage, Whittier, and Talkeetna along the way.
It was easy to book on their website, even the day before, and if you travel all the way from Seward to Denali, your ticket also includes a one-hour pass to the excellent Anchorage Museum to be used during a lunchtime stopover in the city.
I also used the Park Connection bus on the way back down south to Talkeetna then Anchorage and I found the service prompt and comfortable.
Unfortunately, the Park Connection Bus doesn’t have a stop in Carlo Creek so I got off at McKinley Village which is six miles away and my hostel picked me up in their courtesy shuttle.
They also dropped me back there when I was departing to head south on the Park Connection bus. You will need to organize this with the hostel if you stay there and they will let you know the times which line up within an hour of the bus arriving and departing.
Alaska/Yukon Trails travels between Anchorage in the South to Fairbanks in the North, with stops along the way. I didn’t use them myself but I met a few travelers that did and they didn’t have any problems with them.
Alaska/Yukon Trails also allows you to stop off somewhere along the Parks Highway and get back on at a later date for only a $10 re-boarding fee (I recommend a stop in Talkeetna).
The Alaska Railroad connects Seward to Fairbanks with stops in Girdwood, Anchorage, Wasilla, Talkeetna, and Denali. This is a more expensive option than the bus services mentioned above but riding the railroad is a fantastic Alaskan experience.
In saying that, the section between Seward and Anchorage is known to be the most scenic so if you were trying to choose which leg to take, do that one and take the bus to Denali. The Denali Train Depot is less than 100 yards from the Denali Visitor Center.
Denali National Park Accommodation
Unfortunately, most of the options for staying in or near Denali National Park are too expensive for a solo budget traveler. Luckily there is one hostel, and it’s a really great one.
Denali National Park camping is also a great budget option if you are comfortable camping alone.
The Denali Hostel and Cabins is located 12 miles south of the park entrance in the small settlement of Carlo Creek.
The hostel operates a free shuttle to the park entrance, leaving at two times in the morning and coming back at two different times in the evening. Due to COVID, the free shuttle is not currently going to be operated for the 2021 season, although they are currently trying to organize a paid shuttle service – get details on their website.
There are dorm rooms (currently not available due to COVID) as well as canvas tents with bedding, cabins, and private rooms. With a kitted-out communal kitchen, excellent free coffee, a fire pit with seating by the river, a cozy lounge area, and even WiFi, the hostel facilities are awesome.
It has more of a ski lodge feel to it than a hostel. In the female dorm where I stayed, the bunks were large, handmade, and wooden with private lights and lots of headspace. One of the best hostels I have stayed in. Ever.
The cheapest option at the moment is a canvas tent for $40 per person per night plus tax.
Denali Grizzly Bear Resort is a bit closer to the park (six miles) and has, along with hotel rooms, some basic accommodation options with campsites starting at $28 and basic tent cabins for $39 per night. The facilities here sound a lot more basic than the hostel with coin-operated showers and cooking shelters.
McKinley Creekside Cabins is another great option in Carlo Creek with private rooms and cute cabins with mountain views. The onsite Creekside Cafe has hearty and delicious meals – and don’t miss their famous cinnamon rolls.
Carlo Creek Cabins has rustic but comfortable log cabins in the woods and private rooms. It’s a peaceful spot by the river and it’s only a 15-minute drive from the park.
Camping in Denali National Park
If you are comfortable camping by yourself (I wasn’t) you can do so at six established campgrounds within the park. This is by far the cheapest option with campsites starting at $17 per night plus a reservation fee.
Two of the camping grounds are within the first 15 miles of the park so are free to reach by the complimentary park shuttles with the other four being further in and reached by paid camper shuttles only.
If you do have the gear and want to camp, I would recommend the Riley Creek Campground which is right by the entrance – it’s easy to get around from here and would be the safest option if camping alone.
You can also camp in the backcountry of the park. This requires getting a permit and having pre-planned the route you are going to take as well as attending a safety talk.
If you are not an experienced back-country camper, Denali is not the place to start, especially by yourself.
Getting Around Denali National Park
From the Denali Bus Depot at the park entrance, there are complimentary shuttles that travel to Savage River, the Riley Creek Campground, and the Sled Dog Demonstration.
The Savage River Shuttle is two hours return and runs every two hours from 8.30 am till 2.30 pm from the bus depot to the Savage River day-use area.
This shuttle travels to the furthest point that you can get into the park without paying for a park or guided shuttle and is a great option if you can’t afford any of the paid shuttles. I saw numerous caribou and a grizzly while riding to Savage River.
The Riley Creek Campground Shuttle links all of the places of interest in the park entrance area including the Denali Visitor Center, Murie Science and Learning Center, Riley Creek Mercantile, and the Horseshoe Lake/Mt. Healy Trailhead. It runs approximately every 30 minutes.
The Sled Dog Demonstration Shuttle departs from the Denali Visitor Center forty minutes before demonstrations begin which is three times a day in summer at 10 am, 2 pm, and 4 pm.
Traveling Past Mile 15
As I mentioned above, you can only drive or take the complimentary park shuttles 15 miles into the park to Savage River. To access the park past mile 15, you need to have a Denali bus reservation either on a shuttle bus or a tour bus.
I was told by a few other travelers I met before getting to Denali to book the shuttle rather than a tour as it is much cheaper and you go to the same places as the tour bus.
The main difference between the two is that on a tour you are not allowed to get off the bus other than short scheduled stops and that you have a registered guide telling you about the history of the park as well as the wildlife you see along the way.
For the shuttles you can get off to hike along the way, catching the next shuttle that comes along (as long as it’s not full).
If you are lucky you will get a shuttle driver that acts as a guide like I did but there is no guarantee as they are not required to do this. The shuttle drivers will generally stop to let you take photos if you see wildlife though, whether they act as guides or not.
You also have stops at scenic viewpoints and other points of interest along the way.
I chose to do the shuttle to the Eielson Visitor Center located at mile 66 of the park as it takes eight hours round trip to reach Eielson, have the half-hour stop there then get back to the entrance area and that was more than enough time on a bus for me.
It ended up being a ten-hour day because I spent almost two hours at the Eielson Visitor Center as I wanted to do the short alpine trail from there.
If you choose to go further into the park to Wonder Lake or Kantishna, you may not be able to get off the shuttle to catch the next one as it depends on whether there will be enough time.
If a minimum eight-hour day spent on a bus sounds like too much for you but you still want to see the park past mile 15 then you can book the shuttle to Toklat River at mile 53, which is six and a half hours return.
I don’t regret not going further into the park or not doing an additional day on a different shuttle as most people I spoke to that did that said it wasn’t worth it and that they were exhausted. One ten-hour day was enough for me.
The shuttles and tour buses both leave from the bus depot throughout the day and although it is recommended to book in advance, I showed up the morning of and got on a bus leaving an hour later.
If you have the flexibility and will be exploring Denali over a few days, it is worth the risk but if you only have one day to spend in the park then it is wise to book ahead just in case. You can find out more information about the shuttles including the prices and booking them here
Tip: If you do want to travel further into the park to Wonder Lake (11 hours return) or Kantishna (13 hours return), you will likely need to book at least a day in advance as these buses leave very early and have limited departure times.
Where To Eat in Denali National Park
My biggest tip of all if you are visiting Denali National Park is: Bring your own food! It’s fun to eat out but you don’t want to be doing it for every meal as food is expensive and there isn’t a proper supermarket anywhere near the park.
Luckily I was told this before I went there and I brought loads of snacks, as well as ingredients to make breakfasts, packed lunches, and a couple of dinners. The hostel kitchen had everything I needed to cook with and it was a fantastic way to keep costs down.
I also ate out a couple of times and there are some great options for when you want to treat yourself.
Prospectors Pizzeria and Ale House
I loved this cool restaurant with loads of old photos on the wall as well as elaborate antler chandeliers. They have a huge selection of Alaskan craft beers on tap and the pizza was really good.
Denali Park Salmon Bake
I didn’t eat here but it was recommended to me by countless people. The Denali Park Salmon Bake unsurprisingly offers salmon dishes, as well as dishes such as Elk sliders, halibut tacos, and Buffalo burgers.
Panorama Pizza Pub
I never got a chance to eat here but some of the girls in my room said the pizza was great and that it had a fun pub atmosphere later in the evening.
Again, I never got the chance to eat here myself but a couple of my roommates raved about the massive cinnamon rolls here and I am kicking myself for not trying them.
Food Options in Denali National Park
There is one place to eat in the park – The Morino Grill. It is opposite the Visitor Center and serves standard American fare cafeteria-style. You can also buy pre-packaged sandwiches and snacks at the Riley Creek Mercantile. The Bus Depot sells snacks and coffee.
What to Pack For Denali National Park
I highly recommend the Osprey Fairview or Farpoint 40L packs – they are carry-on size, comfortable and durable, and have lots of pockets to organize your belongings. Use packing cubes for further organization.
For day hikes, the Cotopaxi Luzon is an awesome backpack choice and is lightweight and will pack down easily when you’re not using it.
Consider taking some trekking poles to help with downhill hikes – your knees will thank you! – and hiking boots rather than regular trainers.
Pack the GRAYL Geopress Water Purifier to filter water from streams, this saves you having to carry lots of water on long day hikes and is better for the environment. Also, pack a CamelBak to make it easier to hydrate while you are hiking and to store more water if needed.
It can get cold at night and on rainy days – even in summer – so make sure to pack thermal base layers, as well as a raincoat in case it rains.
Other Things To Know When Traveling in Denali National Park
- If you are one of the lucky 30% that actually get to see the mountain during your visit (the summit is covered by cloud a lot of the time) you will get your first glimpse on the road or from the train on the way up, otherwise from mile nine onwards within the park. I was lucky enough to see it three times – on the drive up, from the Eielson shuttle, and when I flew around it on a flightseeing tour from Talkeetna.
- I haven’t written about the myriad of paid activities within the park because I didn’t do any but you can go white water rafting, on small plane and helicopter tours, guided hikes and so much more. If you do decide to do a flightseeing tour, my advice is to wait to do it from Talkeetna if you are also passing through there. It is cheaper and there are more options.
- If you get stuck at the park after the last shuttle (or if you get there just after the second to last one and have to wait four hours like me), you don’t have a lot of options for transport. There is one cab company that I know of called Denali Transportation but I believe it is quite expensive. Honestly, you are better to try hitching.
- There is free WiFi at the Visitor Center. Really helpful if you don’t have a mobile plan in the US.
- The Denali National Park entrance fee is $15 per person for seven days and as of 1 May 2019, it is no longer included if you purchase tickets on any of the shuttle or tour buses. If you have a National Parks Annual Pass it will cover the entrance to Denali, otherwise, you can pay at the Visitor Center.
- If you are catching a bus leaving Denali later in the day, you can catch the free hostel shuttle to the Visitor Center in the morning and store your bag in one of the large lockers there, leaving you free to do an entrance area hike before catching your bus or train.
- The best time to visit Denali National Park is from mid-June to mid-August, although also consider visiting in the shoulder season for discounts on accommodation.
Denali, like Alaska in general, is never going to be a cheap destination but there are always ways to cut costs. I hope my Denali National Park budget tips can help you do just that.
Enjoy your stay!
Thanks to Denali Hostel and Cabins for the complimentary one-night stay. All opinions expressed are my own.
If you liked this post, check out some of my other Alaska content:
- Sitka: My Favorite Place in Alaska
- Hiking in Alaska: Scrambling to the Summit of Mount Verstovia
- Juneau, in the Rain
- Discovering the Frontier Spirit in Talkeetna, Alaska
- Overcoming my Fears on a Denali Flightseeing Tour
- Hiking in Alaska: Wild Alaskan Terrain Along the Mount Healy Overlook Trail
- Hiking in Alaska: Spectacular Scenery on the Harding Icefield Trail
- An Aquatic Safari Through Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska
- Seaside Seward, Alaska and Riding the Alaska Railroad
- Eating Anchorage and Other Tales from the City
- The Best Day Trip from Anchorage: Hiking Flattop Mountain
- Summer in Alaska Itinerary