Decoding Denali National Park – Camping and Buses
Denali National Park is six million acres of beautiful, pristine Alaska wilderness. It’s a shining example of preservation and solitude. But let me tell you, planning a camping trip to Denali National Park is a pain in the a**!
It feels like you need a decoder ring to figure out the different buses, campgrounds, reservations and fees. It seemed so overwhelming we almost wanted to throw in the towel and skip it altogether, but we knew that would be a mistake. So, we put on our big boy pants, poured a high ball of bourbon, did the hours of research, made the reservations and learned a lot through the process!
Luckily for you, we’ve figured out the perfect Denali by RV game plan! Or at least we think so.
We don’t want overwhelm you or repeat what you can read on the national parks website. We’re going to stick to our personal opinion’s and recommendations in this article. Then we’ll list the links to the national parks info and you can decide what’s best for your trip.
Camping Outside Denali National Park
Outside the Park with Full Hook-ups – You’re going to pay $40+ to stay in a gravel parking lot if you need full hook-ups. Everything we found online within a reasonable distance to the National Park had horrible reviews. But we were at their mercy because we needed a couple of full hook up days to refresh our tanks and get some laundry done. Knowing it was a crap shoot, we rolled the dice and ended up at Denali Rainbow Village RV. It was exactly as reviewed; a loud and undesirable gravel parking lot with connections. Thankfully it was a short stay. The upside is the RV park is in-town within walking distance of quality brews and bites.
Camping Inside Denali National Park
There are three parks out of the six inside the National Park that are RV friendly. All campgrounds are no hookups however there is a dump station at Riley Creek near the park entrance..
1st Stay at Savage River
For around $30 per night we stayed at Savage near mile 14 inside the park. This is a great ‘get your feet wet’ base camp. Chat up the rangers at the visitor’s center, take in the short hikes near the park entrance and spend some time at the moose & elk viewing hot spot just a few miles down the road. The larger RV spots are pull-through but narrow. We were secluded in our site and couldn’t see another camper on any side which was lovely. There are lots of trees but we found several sites that weren’t completely surrounded. So, if it’s sunny and you have solar you may be able to charge your batteries.
2nd Stay at Teklanika River
$15 per night is a great deal inside a national park for camping. Toss in the bonus Road Pass that allowed us to drive 15 miles deeper into the park and the Tek Pass that gave us unlimited access to the bus system; camping here is a steal! The Tek Pass is by far the best reason to venture out this far into the park, but I’ll touch on the details in the next section. The location is scenic and the trees are lower than Savage which is good for solar power. The one downside was there didn’t seem to be as much separation between campsites. So during generator hours this place hums with the sound of RVs making power. There is a three-night minimum stay here but if you can swing it, stay longer!
Remember how we said in the beginning we almost said “forget it” and skipped Denali National Park? Well, that was the plan until early August when we finally decided we had to do it! We made our campground and bus reservations a short 12 days in advance of arriving in the National Park. Many people warn that you must reserve a year in advance but from our experience, and after speaking with the reservation agent, if you keep your eye on the website you can “almost” always find availible camping inside the national park. People plan their Denali trip so far in advance there are often lots of cancellations coming in daily, especially if you’re visiting in early June or August (July is the busiest month for the park). Hooray for unplanners everywhere 🙂
Which Bus Is Best?
Denali Road is 92 miles long (mostly unpaved) and you must take a bus if you want to go past mile 15 in the park (and you’ll want to). There are shuttle buses and then there are tour buses. All buses go to the same destinations, they stop for wildlife and they all travel on the same road. The tour buses have a trained naturalist guide chatting the whole time, while the shuttle buses have drivers who still do a great job of chatting about the park, but the greatest benefit to a shuttle bus is you can get on and off as often as you’d like.
Bus rides are long! The shortest round trip is 6.5 hours and the longest is 13 hours. The buses are not cheap, they’re not that comfortable, nor are they glamorous by any stretch of the imagination. These are simply school buses but they exist to keep traffic down and keep the wildlife…wild. Unless you’re one of the lucky few to win the road lottery, photography lottery, military lottery, or you want to hike or bike in, you don’t have a choice; the bus is pretty much your only option to get down the road and into the park. (you can fly in and stay at one of the hotels towards the end of the road, but that’s way out of our budget).
There is a “travel hack” for the bus system, a little loophole if you plan ahead. When you stay at the Teklanika Campground you can purchase a Tek Pass for $30 per person for the duration of your stay. Unlike bus passes, Tek passes allowed us to ride the buses as far in and as often as we’d like. There is one caveat, you cannot go EAST from the Tek campground. Which is why we suggested a quick stay at the Savage Campground first.
Another bonus with the Tek Pass is you get to sleep in! Tek is an hour from the WAC, where most buses begin their route (also called the WAC which is near the park entrance). To catch the 6:40am bus you walk out to the Tek Bus Stop at 7:55am, which equals an extra hour of sleep. For us that alone is worth the price of admission!
Our 3 Big Denali Takeaways
Stay at Tek
If there’s only one tip we can offer about Denali National Park its this; book a campsite at Teklanika for at least 5 nights. This will provide opportunities to ride the bus as far or as short as you’d like. When you’re too beat up to ride the bus anymore take a hike up the river or go off road and bushwhack up one of the nearby hills. Because the Tek pass is much more affordable and deeper into the park, you’ll have way more opportunities to explore Denali…that is if Mother Nature cooperates.
Prepare For Any Weather
When they say prepare for any weather, they really, really mean it! It’s a big park and weather varies as you travel about and from day to day and even hour to hour. Warm sunny weather, non-stop rain, crazy winds, snowy blizzard…you never know what you’re gonna get! Trust us, we saw it all during our stay.
There are no services beyond mile 15 in the park. Bring food and water with you at all times and bring more than you think you’ll need. There is no telling when the weather will go bonkers. It’s not uncommon during a storm to be stuck in the park an extra day because the roads get shut down. It happened twice during our stay, and we heard stories of people being stuck for nearly a week during previous winter storms.
National Park Info
- Learn about the bus system and how to explore Denali
- More on the Teklanika Campground
- We highly recommend taking a free “Discovery Hike” with a ranger.
There you have it, our personalized recommendations on buses and camping in Denali National Park. If you have some tips of your own to share or still have questions, post them in the comment box below. We hope our experiences help jump start your Denali Adventure.
Stay tuned for our next post & video about our unexpected experience with Mother Nature in Denali National Park. It’s a real doozy!
I noticed you were in a class A rv. Have read class C best choice. We love our Class A; possible for safe travels?
We took 7 months off to travel in our RV throughout the US and Canada and were very pumped to have made it to Alaska! Our first stop once we arrived in Fairbanks was to head to Denali, but it was very confusing to figure out how to navigate that park! Your post nailed it! We managed to get a 5 day reservation for the Teklanika Campground the day before we arrived online (yes we are very much like you on the procrastinator front and I love it!) and it worked out perfectly to take spur of the moment, off-trail treks throughout our time there. Thank you SO much for the tips. Really made our Denali experience special.
Will be in Denali next month and have our golden doodle with us and being able to walk with him is important. Would you recommend Tek or Savage? I have read a few reviews that make it sound that Savage is very dog friendly.
We are also fish eating vegetarians!
I plan to stay at the Savage River Campground. Do the shuttle buses stop at that campground, or do I need to drive BACK to the visitor’s center to get on the bus? I’m hoping I can get on at the entrance to Savage River Campground, and continue into the park. I don’t want to drive 15 miles BACK, to find parking, and board the bus to only go right by Savage River Campground again! Let me know.
Let me Google that for you: https://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/courtesy-shuttle-buses.htm The Park website also has an entire page explaining the different types of bus tours you can take, including whether or not you can get off and on in other places in the Park.
I think that “decoding Denali” is not that hard. Bear in mind the concessionaire is likely to try and steer you to the most expensive stuff. More profit for them. I recommend Green (Transit) buses not Tan (Tour) buses. Most of the Transit drivers have 10+ years in the park, and give just as good info (or better). On the tour buses, you are stuck with the tour. On the transit buses you can get off anywhere, and explore, then get the next available one when you feel like it!
So check out a few sites, not just “reservedenali.com”.
The Park Service site is actually quite OK. But you cannot book anything there.
If you want to see the Mountain (Denali), spend some time. Don’t just spend one day, and expect to be lucky. If you spend a week (even in July), and keep an eye out, then you have a good chance (in my experience).
Most of all just go!
I am following your CAT adventures currently but planing an Alaska trip with our truck camper soon. I saw your photo of mile marker 9.5 and you mentioned earlier that the bus takes around 13 hours round trip. Did you leave your cats in the RV while you were out?
Yes. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any pet sitting services for kitties around the Park. Not sure what your concern is but I’ll try to hit a few if you’re concerned about your own pets.
– There are different lengths of trips available. You can make it as long a day as you want (or stay overnight even) or you can do a pretty quick out & back. The Park website will have info on all the tours.
– Generally speaking, if your RV or truck camper is 100% hard-sided there aren’t any concerns about bears breaking in. Not 100% sure if they’d investigate a barking dog but I’m sure Google can find that answer for you.
– Cats are pretty easy travel companions. They tolerate hot temps much better than dogs, you can leave some kibble in a bowl or get a timed feeder and they’re happy, and they poop in a box so you don’t need to walk them every few hours. It’s pretty easy to leave them for an entire weekend as long as the weather isn’t too extreme.
Hope that helps.
Park rules say you must keep your pets inside a hard sided vehicle, unless you are in immediate attendance (you cannot tie up your dog outside and take a nap inside).
Cats inside a motor-home work out OK, in my experience (quite a lot). However a dog is likely to be less amenable to a long absence.
Very helpful! We are in the process of planning our trip to Denali now. Thanks!
Guys, Awesome Blog!! Great info and insights while remaining very entertaining. I came across your blog planning this summers trip to Alaska. I’m planning on renting an RV out of Anchorage, the end of May, for 14 days with a destination of the Denali area. Your snowy hike video was a real eye opener on what to expect or at least prepare for and I appreciate your info on the busses and campgrounds inside the park 🙂 I currently live on, and work from, a sailboat in S Fla so I am looking forward to your next adventures! I haven’t found the way to untie permanently from the marina and still work, but I did note a link/button on the top of your blog “Make Money and Travel”. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks!
General RV question.
What do you do with mail while you’re permanently on the road?
Presumably bank accounts want a residential address (so even PO boxes with their lower lease rates can’t do).
Do you use your friends and family’s address for the time being as a long term solution?
Suppose you are totally on your own with no friend or family address to use, what are your options?
We have a post all about that: https://www.gonewiththewynns.com/rv-questions-residency-mail-health-insurance
You will find that kind of info on our RVin page under the lifestyle category: https://www.gonewiththewynns.com/rv-questions-residency-mail-health-insurance
‘We’re really enjoying your blog. We have 4 days reserved at Savage for mid-June, traveling with 7 other Airstream trailers. When were you in Denali? I was wondering if we could expect the same weather seen in your photos.
We were last inside Denali back in 08′. Using the green “shuttle only” buses we made it to the just opened “new” Eielson Visitor Center at mile marker # 66. We returned to North Pole back in 13′ to visit family, but all of these 4-5 trips to AK. we flew up. Next summer will be our first RVing trip up. We’re a little disadvantaged having only a hybrid RV trailer, so planning for any “off the cord” stays are a little more tricky, but do-able. Nikki, did you see if they still had the Denali Park produced Alpenglow publication? That one seemed to cover all aspects of travels inside the park.
I do have to say you two have super-high quality pictures and videos where ever you go. With your travel input here along with the Milepost, Terri & Mike Church’s Alaskan Camping, Sue Thomas ( http://yukonsights.ca ), Irv2.com, Youtube (Chris & G Travels , Alaska motorhome ) I feel will provide enough in-tell to make the long trip. Pics from 08′ trip from Irv2.com gallery http://www.irv2.com/photopost/showgallery.php?cat=928 pics from 13′ trip http://www.irv2.com/photopost/showgallery.php?cat=1499
Alpenglow is still put out every year by the NPS.
Thank you, I learned so much from your experiences.
So glad to hear it as this is exactly why we share! Happy trails!
Great post, you figured it all out!
Next time stop by and visit us.
Gone With The Dogs
Hey Tim! I am sad we missed you but perhaps we’ll catch you in the desert southwest soon.
Great info here. I have to agree 100% that the (green) shuttle bus is the way to go. All the (tan) narrated tour buses were packed and moved at a very slow pace. Was up there (non-RVing trip) about 5 years ago in Mid Aug. The green shuttle buses averaged only about 5-10 people per shuttle bus as we got off and on many times during our days stay. Can’t wait to reserve a spot at Tek for next summer. Was thinking about 4 or 5 days as our RV trailer doesn’t have a genny, but we do have one of those 100 watt suitcase solar panels. The nation parks website did say there was potable water at Tek, did you see any? Snow? what was the dates you two were in the park?
Glad to hear your thought the same about the buses. There was a community water pump at the Tek campground along with toilets. Our next post will be all about our time in the park with the full report on weather, dates and so on.
Was thinking the same thing Nina! You two(4) do a fantastic job and I just wanted to say thanks for sharing it with us. You should probably consider putting all this in a book. With your great photos and descriptive writing perhaps that would help fund your travels.
As a sidebar I’d just like to say that having to PLAN ahead must have really cramped your style! ; -)
ha ha, we are such unplanners! There are a few things a year that always seem to require some planning. We love flexibility but don’t mind committing for the really good stuff. We are considering a book and glad to hear you think our reports are worthy of print!
We just put our down payment on our first RV and are about to hit the road as full-timers. First stop: Alaska! Okay, not first stop, but that will be our 6-month travel goal to end up in Alaska summer of 2016. My husband and I are a couple of 26/27 year olds with our two dogs and my snake in tow, and we will be blogging about it the whole way as well! Check us out if you are interested! We just got started, but we are so excited. You and Jason are a great inspiration!
Kickin’ it off in a BANG! Congrats guys and we know you’ll have a blast up there.
Thank you for the Denali Decoder Ring!
And no purchase of cracker jacks required. 🙂
We had been seriously thinking of taking our 10 yr Winnibago to Alaska this spring but thanks to you and several other RV Bloggers we are not. We loved your comments and pictures and honesty and feel it is not for us, no the roads and repairs turned us off.
Based on our experiences the roads are mostly fine, not sure how you would have gotten to this conclusion from our Alaska Bound Stories.
As usual I really like your photos. Excellent camping tips.
Do you have the coordinates for the Savage River and Teklanika campsites?
What beautiful pictures! I think you guys need to publish one of those “coffee table” books with big, glossy, 11×17 pictures. Just saying. I’ll buy it!
Thank you so much Wendy.
Thank goodness we have you Guinea Pigs to sort it all out for us. Excellent, clear instructions on what to do. Cheers!
I can’t wait to read about your Alaska journey one day. With your sharp planning skills you would have figured all this out on your own but hopefully we saved you a little planning time.