Denali State Park – It’s all about Expectations

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 mushroomsHiking Denali Byers Lakehiking 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 Alaskahiking 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 Alaskabear track denali state parkhiking Denali State Park Alaskahiking 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

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