This article contains information about winter hiking in Denali National Park (also early spring, when it’s still winter).
Denali National Park Winter Atmosphere
Winter is my favorite season in Denali National Park. It is empty. I rarely run into anyone, and when I do, it might be a quick passing in the parking lot. Early spring is nice too, but the landscape doesn’t have the vibrant colors that summer and autumn bring. Summer is beautiful, but once the tourist season starts and the buses run, it’s tough to do day trips and find yourself alone on well-established trails.
Granted, most of the people I’ve met on the buses on the Park Road have been great, friendly, and awesome to talk to. But there are always a few that really push my buttons. Because of the company, I’ve stepped off shuttles in the park long before my destination on more than one occasion. Also, the mosquitoes in the summer can be as annoying as some tourists, or worse. At least the tourists bring a bit of money into the state. Winter lacks the constant swatting at bugs and rolling my eyes when overhearing things like, “HEY! Where’s Mount McKinley at?!”, “Are there penguins here?” or “Do you think that small bear is that bigger bear’s cub?” from the seat behind me. Winter is a different experience altogether.
Winter Photography and Wildlife
Winter in the park is nearly monochrome. The sky brings the only color with the brief window of blue, but mostly golden colors of the hours-long sunrise and sunsets. And it’s quiet. So breathtakingly quiet. Some of the most popular trails in the summer are almost completely empty in February and March. This makes for some great, uninterrupted landscape photography since, typically, the only people in view are the ones you are with.
Wildlife is certainly more scarce, with bears and ground squirrels in hibernation. Most wolf packs are typically found deeper in the park, so there aren’t great chances of seeing them closer to the park entrance. However, I have frequently seen wolf tracks near the Savage River. Moose and snowshoe hare are plentiful, and you might even be lucky enough to spot a lynx!
Best Times to Visit and Park Info
You can visit Denali National Park year-round, but the best times for getting a winter hiking experience are in February and March. The 92.5-mile Park Road is only maintained up to the National Park Service headquarters at mile-3 beginning in September/October. Once the snow falls, the road is closed here.
Typically in February, the Park Service begins to plow the road toward the Savage River at mile-15. Often, the road is open to the Mountain Vista parking lot and trailhead at mile-12. This allows you to explore the Savage River area. This road opening depends largely on local conditions. If the area still receives frequent snow, the opening will be later in the season.
They begin plowing the road further into the Park in late March and early April. During this season, the road may open to private vehicles all the way to the Teklanika Rest Stop (mile-30). The road is typically only open to private vehicles to the Savage River starting in Late May.
Check here for the current road status: NPS: Spring Road Opening
Once the road closes at mile-3 in September, there are still great trails around the park entrance.
While I’ve lucked out and had many warm days hiking in January – March, finding a +50° day in the interior of Alaska is not easy. Living in Fairbanks, I can say, “Hey, it’s a nice day. I’m going to Denali”. If you visit from elsewhere, come prepared. It can easily be -40° (F or C) without the windchill . . . and it can be very windy.
When they aren’t out on the trail, you may be able to visit the sled dog kennels at the NP Headquarters. On weekends, there may be a ranger present to talk to. That’s actually how my wife and I learned that they have an adoption program!
Bring snowshoes and/or some foot traction and be sure to stop by the Murie Science and Learning Center (that is the Denali winter visitor center) to get info from the rangers first! They’ll have lots of information about other winter activities and events in the park. As of this writing, they still rent snowshoes and foot traction for free there.
Denali National Park Headquarters Current Weather and Forecast
Denali Winter Trails
In the winter of 2019, we visited Denali National Park three separate times to do some day hikes. Here I describe some of the conditions at the time (which will vary year-to-year). In February, we hiked the Healy Overlook Trail (as well as the Meadow View Trail and Roadside Hiking Trail at the park entrance), the Savage Alpine Loop, and then the Savage River Loop and extension in March. These are definitely three of the most traveled trails in summer, but we never saw another person on any trip (except on the road). These are my three most recommended hikes this time of the year. I try to do at least one or two of these every year.
Trail conditions varied greatly. The Healy Overlook Trail was well-traveled and packed down until we were above the treeline. There was deep snow past the end of the trail to Mt. Healy. This was a very low snow year; we could see the bare ground in multiple spots. This made for really easy walking down low in the trees. We still had some daylight to kill when we got down to the base of the trail, so we made a loop of the Meadow View Trail and the Roadside Hiking Trail (part of the Denali Entrance Trails). I had my closest encounter with a snowshoe hare on the Roadside Hiking Trail. I could almost touch the little guy.
The Savage Alpine Trail ranged from deep snow at the base to just a dusting at the top and ice covered by a thin layer of snow. There were definitely a few uncontrolled surprise slips while walking and eventually put on microspikes. We managed to get a fairly close view of some Dall Sheep only a few hundred meters above the top of the trail. That was one of my first large mammal sightings in the park in winter.
The Savage River Loop was also nearly snow-free but had some water ice stretches that required some traction system. If you want to head out on the trails here in winter, it’s definitely a good idea to bring some traction like Microspikes and snowshoes (or skis!). The canyon beyond the trail is rocky, and parts are ice-covered and a bit steep, but usually an easy walk.