Decoding Denali National Park – Camping and Buses

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**!

camping trip Denali National Park

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.

camping denali national park

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!

teklanika river campground

Making Reservations

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.

Camping and Buses Denali National Park

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).

Denali National Park Buses

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!

camping trip Denali National Park

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.

Bring Everything

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.

camping trip Denali National Park

National Park Info

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!