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hiking Denali State Park Alaska

Denali State Park – It’s all about Expectations

When we asked many of the Alaska locals about Denali we were told “Denali State Park is way better than the National Park” or “Don’t even bother with the National Park, just spend your time in the State Park.”  We really took these comments into consideration when planning our time in Alaska but I’m happy we decided to fully experience both parks.

view of denali

Setting Expectations

If there is one major lesson, one that we learn over and over again it’s this:  Expectations are everything and we shouldn’t have any, if at all possible.

If we expect something amazing and receive anything short of it, then disappointment is sure to be the outcome. If we expect something dreadful and it ends up being great, we’re surprised. I don’t know about you but I’ll take surprise over disappointment any day.  We know we shouldn’t go into any new experience, or place, with expectations, but sometimes we forget…so hang in there with us on this one, there is a happy ending.

The State Park Experience

At first we were disappointed to see Denali State Park wasn’t very well maintained. In our heads we thought it’d be the crown jewel of the Alaska State Parks system!  It’s the fourth largest state park in Alaska and less than 90 miles from the famed (and drooled over) Denali National Park. The back country trail registrars hadn’t been replaced in months, the signage on the trails were fading to the point it was nearly impossible to read, interpretive trails hadn’t been updated or refurbished in years, viewpoints were overgrown to the point there was no more view, the “visitor center” was more of a trinket shop and the lovely but clueless lady behind the desk didn’t have any experience, or knowledge of the park.

Jason was most disappointed by a particular photo in the park brochure showing a tent camper on this lush green field with an epic view of Mt. McKinley in the distance; the caption read “Camping with a view of Denali.”  He became mildly obsessed with this photo because it looked so fantastic but the caption didn’t provide any info on how to get there.  We asked the visitor center, but the lady knew nothing.  We drove to the Camp Host but he wasn’t around.  We kept of our eyes peeled for a park ranger but we didn’t see a single one during our 5-day visit.  Still to this day he has no idea where this is, and it still sorta erks him.

camping with a view of denali

However, a couple of days and few epic hikes later, we let go of our pre-conceived expectations, settled into the lack of infrastructure and found ourselves enjoying the secluded wilderness of it all.  That’s when we feel in love with this easily accessible and free to be state park.  Of course our daily viewings of the notoriously evasive Denali didn’t hurt either (which had us excited for the National Park).

Byers Lake

We couldn’t have asked for more from this easy 5 mile hike:  Endless berries, wild mushrooms of all sizes, shapes and colors, a wooden house decomposing back into nature, a small suspension bridge, crystal clear streams with ruby red salmon waiting to spawn, and of course the calm, clear water that is Byers Lake.  Oh and don’t get me started on the picture perfect “window” views of Denali.  We can’t think of a better way to spend a warm summer afternoon!

Hiking Denali Byers Lake

wild mushrooms

Hiking Denali Byers Lake

hiking Denali State Park Alaska

hiking Denali State Park Alaska

Hiking Denali

Ermine Hill Trail

3.7 miles through the forest climbing around 1000ft of elevation this hike is fantastic. It ends at the K’esugi Ridge Trail where you’re faced with the greatest decision yet:  Left or Right?  We chose right and scurried up the crumbled white rock, past the odd formations and up to the most epic views of razor sharp mountains in all directions, including Denali and the Talkeetna Mountains. We found a variety of wild blueberries that covered the hillside as far as the eye could see, these berries grow close to the ground and were so much sweeter than the others we’ve found in Alaska, thank you for the treat Mother Nature!

hiking Denali State Park Alaska

hiking Denali State Park Alaska

hiking Denali State Park Alaska

hiking Denali State Park Alaska

Little Coal Creek Trail

A lush forest leads us gently up 3 miles one direction to what is seemingly the top of the world. This is the stuff movies are made of with views so grand you can’t decide which direction to stare. We must have sat up here for hours gorging ourselves on berries and marveling at the incredible planet we call home. Oh, and keep an eye out for those bears…we were hot on the trail of at least one but we never ran across him!

hiking Denali State Park Alaska

bear track denali state park

hiking Denali State Park Alaska

hiking Denali State Park Alaska

 

Still On Our Bucket List

  • K’esugi Ridge Trail – Although we hiked a small portion of it most people take 3-5 days to traverse the entire ridge.  Based on the few miles we experienced I’d say if you get the chance for some backcountry trekking this would be a spectacular adventure.
  • South View – When we were driving in everything was covered in clouds so it was pointless to stop.  I’ve heard the viewpoint is absolutely stunning on a clear day…who knows, maybe that’s Jason’s elusive tent camping spot?!?

 

Where We Parked It

There are a few pullouts right off the road that will accommodate an RV, but the downside is you’re directly on the Parks Highway which is the main thoroughfare between Fairbanks and Anchorage.  It’s also the route north to Denali National Park so there’s a mish mash of RVs, Semi-Trucks, Tour Busses and tourists blazing through at 75mph at all hours.  Not the best place to park right off the road in my opinion (we tried it for a night).  So you’re left with two options:

  • On the Southside of the park there’s Byers Lake campground which is set in a dense canopy of trees so it felt dark and cold. If you have solar like us don’t expect to get any juice if you camp here.  The upside is the Byers Lake trail is right out your door.
  • The Denali SP brochure notates the Denali North Viewpoint as a place for RV camping, which is fine on a slow day, but I can’t image being here on a busy evening. The fee is $15 per night to sleep at what’s basically a parking lot/view point, to me that just doesn’t seem like a fair price for no services at a free public day use area.  The nice part is you’re slightly off the highway, the viewpoint is nice (assuming a tour bus doesn’t park in front of you) and you actually get sunshine (which is why we chose to stay here).

Denali State Park RV Camping

 

After all this please set aside everything we’ve just said so you can arrive with zero expectations and be pleasantly surprised!

Have you been to Denali State Park?  What are your favorite highlights, tips and experiences?  Did you see Denali (the Mountain) during your visit?  Share in the comments below, it’ll be interesting to compare and contrast everyone’s unique experiences at this wild state park!

 

Road Report

Fuel Prices – In general the least expensive fuel is found in Anchorage and Fairbanks so make sure to fuel up before you head this direction as the park is in the middle of these two major cities.
Road Conditions – We encountered mostly smooth roads this time of year.
Weather – We had clear warm days with highs in the upper 60’s and lows in the 40’s.  Weather up on top of the mountain hikes could get gusty and cool so make sure to bring plenty of layers.
Dates Visited – August 18 – August 23

See all our Alaska Travels and Tips here: #AlaskaBound

 

Hello there! I honestly don’t know what to say, so I am going to tell you a bunch of random facts instead. I'm a fish eating vegetarian who hates spiders and loves snakes. I almost never took vacations growing up. I wanted to be Pippi Longstocking (still do). I misspell about every other word I write and still struggle with grammar. I love splurging on a good high tea (which is really hard to find these days). And whatever you do, don’t tell me I can’t do something, because then I'll HAVE to do it!

Comments (35)

  • My wife and I are dreaming about full-time RVing. Thanks for all the very useful information.

    I’ve been an avid hiker, backpacker and mountain biker most of my adult life. A few years back (July 1994) a friend and I flew into Anchorage and took the train up to Fairbanks, then to Denali for a 7+ days adventure in Denali National Park. It was one of our many backpacking trips of a lifetime we’ve taken over the years. I have a fond recollection of taking the school bus into Denali. We made frequent stops and saw tons of wildlife. After watching some of your videos, I’m looking forward to another visit. We eventually hiked in about 10 miles and set up a camp and did day hikes from there. Spectacular may somehow be understatement.

    Here’s a link to some of my photos (35mm film scans): https://www.flickr.com/photos/walkinghead/albums/72157642358225183

    Cheers,

    Steven

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  • Sadie

    I love reading about your travels to Alaska! I especially love the photos you took. What camera/ lenses did you use for the landscape shots? I would love a blog series on your travel photography!

    Cheers,
    Sadie

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  • Jason’s elusive camping spot is on the K’esugi Ridge Trail, although I can’t remember where exactly. That was my first backpacking trip ever. It’s one of the few on-trail backpacking trips in the interior and my favorite. It sounds like you did all the hard parts of the hike (Ermine Hill, Little Coal Creek, etc) but none of the spectacular ridge top parts.

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  • Dale Watkins

    We too where in Alaska in August of 2015. My wife and I where there previously 35 years prior, and couldn’t believe how the Denali entrance has changed considerably, for commercial purposes. I don’t remember ANY commercial buildings when we first initially went to Denali, and now there are numerous stores set up to take any spare $$ you might have. We pulled into the main campsite, only to find it was fully booked (no sites left) plus also talked to a fellow in the park who had just returned on one of the bus trips, where they saw absolutely no wildlife….whereas my first trip was a bounty of wildlife. The traffic was horrendous, so we decided to pull out and just keep going, and by-pass Denali. I do have wonderful memories of which may never be changed from that first trip, as in those days you could drive your own vehicle into the park, right to the end and back! You now have to go by school bus, which to us was costly, for the event of possibly not seeing wildlife. We DID enjoy the rest of our excursions to the many small towns in Alaska though, so this one blemish was soon forgotten. I hope one day we’ll again make our way up there, but it’s doubtful Denali will be on the agenda, or if it is, it will be via helicopter, to see the sights.

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    • Thanks for sharing Dale, sadly we’ve heard similar reports from other travelers too.

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  • Carolyn

    Hi Wynns! We’re really enjoying hearing about your adventures!! My husband and I traveled in our 25′ motor home on a similar route thru Alaska this past summer as well. We were about 2-3 weeks ahead of you at most places, from June 1 until August 15. Traveled from Pennsylvania to North Dakota, Alaska Highway to Tok, Seward, Copper River, Kenai, Homer, Anchorage, Wasilla, Independence Mine, Talkeetna, Byers Lake-loved the old shack! (Denali SP), Northview site, McKinley Village, (Saw the Mt. from a Cantwell pull off site at 11:30 p.m!!), Denali NP (Teklanika for 5 days), Fairbanks, North Pole, Yukon, Whitehorse, Skagway, then ferried to Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan, then Bellingham and across the lower 48 to home in PA. It was a trip of a lifetime!! And you’re right, there’s plenty of adventures waiting for another time. We can’t imagine all that snow at Tek!!! We wanna go back!! Thanks so much for your wonderful website. We love it! You’re both an inspiration! Good Luck with sailing!! We’ll miss you on the RV circuit.

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  • Hi – my husband and I have been following your travels and blogs, and now he’s ready to pull our trailer to Alaska. From our home in Georgia! Enjoying all your posts and your insights.

    We did fly to Alaska one summer with a small tent and gear about 25 years ago, and believe it or not, camped at Denali State Park, as it was too hard to get a campsite in the NP. We enjoyed it – I remember it being very nice, and yes, we did see a ranger! I guess a lot changes in 25 years. We hiked around the lake, and at one point my husband got a good bit ahead of me, mostly because I kept stopping to take pictures (Nikon film camera!!) – and so all by myself I came face to face with a white wolf (OK, maybe 30 or 40 feet away, but it seemed really close). Did I get a photo? No – the wolf and I just stood there, both frozen stock still. I didn’t think of the camera until too late. After a few seconds she turned and ran off – never made a sound.

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    • Oh my gosh, what a story! How many people can say they came face to face with a wild wolf? Thanks for sharing.

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    • Debbie

      Paula,
      What a once in a lifetime (iif you are lucky!) opportunity, I bet you have a vivid snapshot in your minds eye!!
      I am thinking your husband missed out. Sometimes its good to slow down and take pics… wink
      Debbie

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  • Mark Nelson

    Nikki, I have been following you two now for quite some time and have told myself, and my wife, we will also do this sometime. Until then we are living through your experiences with dreams of our own. Your stories and pictures are great!! Keep it coming, all of it, the good and the bad if there is any. We started backpacking when were younger and then went to a popup. Years later went to a self contained 27 footer and in January of this year went to 2015 RV. Maybe one day we’ll see you guys, if I can get the Mrs. to spend a little more time away from the children and grandchildren, although she says I work to much. LOL

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  • Nelia M Real

    Awesome pictures guys! Thank you for all the information on the Parks! I didn’t even know there was a SP. we are looking to taking our RV up there soon, and absolutely Hike the area! Great job! Have a fantastic Holiday Season!

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  • Your photos are absolutely stunning. The moss thatched house was my favorite. Thank you for such a great post. We added Denali to our bucket list because of it 🙂

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  • Mike Nielsen

    Your pictures are stunning! Happy Thanksgiving!

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  • Nic

    Great observation on the state and national parks,

    Happy Thanksgiving you two, whatever you are doing, I hope it’s fantastic!

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  • Jeanne

    Hi Nikki, Your photos are gorgeous! We were there this summer just before you were. (Our paths crossed in the Cabela’s parking lot on August 8th) ? We went to Alaska with the attitude of no expectations and great anticipation! We checked the weather forecast when we picked up our RV in Anchorage. Since rain was in the immediate forecast we headed south to Seward first, having absolutely no expectation of earthquake after shocks while camped on the point. We camped in Homer, Russian Falls, Girdwood, and a small campground outside of Wasilla. The forecast was for sun and clear skies the next week so we headed for Denali August 2nd. We would have loved to find a better camping spot but ended up on the Parks highway north of Denali where we listened and watched endless bulldozers. We spent 2 days in Denali NP, stopped at the South View Point,but did not camp there. We camped in Talkeetna for a night. The best camping for us, by far, was at the Matanuska Glacier! Only 1 other tent camper so we had the glacier to ourselves for hours and hours. Thanks for your continuing posts about Alaska! I loved it and love reliving it each time I read your posts.

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  • Jim Airey

    Nikki and Jason, You remind me of me when I was your age! I recently found you on YouTube and have watched as many of your videos as I could. My good friend Nancy and I (both from Connecticut though I live in Plano TX now) used to do some exploring and hiking of parks in Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, when we were about 30 years younger (I think my favorite was Bryce Canyon, or maybe Zion National Park). Although not in your grand style in a diesel coach (more like a ’72 Chevy bomber wagon) I put myself in that coach of yours with every mile I watch of your recordings. Wish I had done the same with that kind of style and grace you always show.
    Please have a happy Thanksgiving and have fun wherever you are. And watch out for those cats! I get so nervous when you let them out with you when you’re boondocking.
    Peace and Carrots!
    Jim

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  • Randy

    Nikki thank you for another wonderful travel installment! We love your blog and always anxiously await the next update! Wishing both of you and your families a wonderful and safe Thanksgiving!! Travel Safe!

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  • Fred

    The photos are breathtaking. I have only been to Anchorage, so your travel photos have shown me a much different side of Alaska. As far as the RV Parking, I have stayed in much worse and paid a lot for the privilege. Keep up the great work!!!

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  • William (Bill) Weaver

    More great shots from Alaska. Several years ago my fishing buddies and I were in Anchorage with a day open before Summer Solstice. Alaskans know how to party on SS. We rented a minivan and left early in the morning for Denali NP. I didn’t know there was a SP. We saw what we could of the park and sadly the Great One was cloud covered. We left for Anchorage without refueling. Mistake! There is a gas station on every corner in Alaska. However, there are very few corners. The gas gauge was on empty for miles. I have never heard that group of 6 guys that quiet. When we saw a gas station, everyone exhaled. In Alaska, if your gas tank is below a half tank or your bladder is above half full, don’t pass up a gas station. I have booked another trip next year with 4 days at Denali. No matter where you go in Alaska, you feel like you need more time to see things that you missed. Thanks Wynns for sharing with us.

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  • Love your “journal” (blog) and thank you for your invaluable info on Alaska and other spots. Love your writing and photos! Makes for wonderful reading!

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  • Jim Short

    You are fearless! With my luck I’d be eaten by a bear and it would pawn my camera. It is very pretty and I want to experience those views and be able to say I visited Denali National Park. Thanks for your thoughts on where to stay. I find it inconceivable that Alaska, with money to give to it’s residents, would have less than spectacular State Parks. Did you investigate wild camping on BLM land or other public access land?

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  • Debby Clark

    I am so glad you mentioned Denali State Park, because I never heard of it! My husband and I went to Denali NP about 5 years ago, but not in our RV. We took the bus into the park up to Wonder Lake. On the way from Anchorage to Denali, we stopped at the viewpoint. It was a clear, gorgeous day in June and we saw the mountain and the whole range. Really amazing. In the park, we saw the mountain again, and we felt so fortunate since we were told that it is only seen about 30% of the time. The scenery is gorgeous, and we saw a grizzly mama with 2 cubs and a moose. The bus ride was LOOOONNNGG. I never saw so many mosquitos in my life! Thank you for all you do! I appreciate reading of your adventures, and now I have a new goal of seeing Denali SP!

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  • We did stay in Denali National Park, as deep as you can go with an RV at Teklanika (“Tek”). We lucked into last-minute reservations, had two sunny days and two rainy days and enjoyed them all. We took a medium-length bus ride, and were really glad that we did NOT take the 92-mile day-long excursion.

    No, we never saw Denali (from that Park), but we had a great time. See more at my “Denali from the Ground” post in my blog.

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  • I’ve never been but I would love to visit one day. Your pictures are amazing!

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