Denali National Park’s sled dog team spends the winter months patrolling the park. // © 2017 Erin Kirkland
Feature image (above): Kids can ski alongside their parents. // © 2017 iStock
Snow fell thick and fast as my family clicked into cross-country skis near Denali National Park & Preserve’s main entrance one February morning. The air was fresh and cold, and with every glide through the forest, I felt the pull of Alaska’s storied wilderness. We had arrived the night prior from our home in Anchorage and looked forward to skiing, snowshoeing and relaxing in Alaska’s most popular national park.
While most of Denali’s visitors arrive in the summer to camp or view wildlife along the 90-mile park road, winter in this section of Alaska’s Interior region proves a stark contrast. Snowy roadways and fewer miles available to motorized vehicles make for more complex travel that requires careful planning.
That said, winter travel to Denali is slowly becoming more popular, according to Katherine Belcher, a spokesperson for Denali National Park.
“Denali offers stunning scenery year-round, but winter is a special time because snow makes everything even more beautiful,” she said. “There’s nothing as peaceful as the solace you’ll find in Denali in winter.”
Denali With Kids
From Junior Ranger programs to guided hikes and special events, kids thrive in Denali, where winter staff makes a few changes to maximize resources between October and April. While the main Denali National
Park visitors center serves as headquarters during the non-snow months, winter visitors are directed to the Murie Science And Learning Center just inside the park boundary.
Operating in tandem with the Alaska Geographic association, the Murie Center is a hub for information, education and regrouping after outdoor activities.
A wall is lined with snowshoes, and everyone is encouraged to borrow a pair to stomp through the area’s birch forests. Rangers host guided walks for the whole family, and children enjoy interactive indoor displays. The park’s trails are open for nearly all forms of winter recreation. Some are loosely groomed, and others are merely packed and tracked by backcountry skiers, snowshoers or fat-bikers. The trails also accommodate four-legged staff: a team of sled dogs owned by the National Park Service (NPS).
These “canine rangers” represent the last and only NPS sled-dog team in the country, and a visit with these Alaskan huskies is always popular. Winter is work season for the team, and the dogs are at their happiest patrolling the 9,000-square-mile park. Kennels are open during daylight hours; visitors should come prepared for cold temperatures and a dose of dog slobber.
Denali visitors can make the five-hour drive from Anchorage, building in time to explore Alaska’s largest city, or take a two-hour road trip south from Fairbanks after a chance to spy the aurora borealis or attend festivals such as the World Ice Art Championships. Agents should note that mainstream auto-rental companies are easily accessed at both the Anchorage and Fairbanks airports.
A second option is to hop onboard Alaska Railroad’s Aurora Winter Train for a scenic trip to the park.
Departing on select days from Anchorage and Fairbanks, the train offers guests a leisurely tour of the state’s backcountry without worry about weather or road conditions. The Alaska Railroad also offers packages for those wanting to explore further. Agents can secure trips that include dog mushing, aurora viewing and even a traditional pie-making class in the tiny village of Talkeetna, 150 miles south of the park.
Sleeping and Dining
My family stayed in the town of Healy, at Denali Dome Home Bed and Breakfast, a 7,200-square-foot geodesic house with seven bedrooms, an enormous brick fireplace, full breakfast and owners who have been in the business of hosting park visitors for more than 25 years.
Terry Miller and Ann Langenberg-Miller will arrange transportation to and from the park or train depot, or can provide a vehicle rental from their small fleet for those wanting a bit more independence. They can also arrange discounted rates for Alaska Railroad tickets and sled-dog kennel tours or trips through a private concessionaire. Denali Dome Home offers AAA, senior and military discounts. Additionally, the Millers are happy to arrange boxed lunches and snacks for all-day adventurers, as no food is available for purchase inside the park.
Denali National Park is a symbol of the Alaskan spirit of adventure. To experience the park in the winter means to wholly embrace a lifestyle that Alaska residents have held dear for generations.