Every year over the 4th of July, my boyfriend and I take a roadtrip. This year we kicked it up a notch and took our first trip to Alaska. I’m still counting it as a roadtrip because we hit the road as soon as we landed in Anchorage.
Alaska really lives up to its nickname “The Last Frontier”. It’s larger than Texas, California and Montana combined and it’s by far the most sparsely populated state. A lot of people rent RVs to get around but we went for something a little more our speed and rented a Ford Bronco with a rooftop tent from Alaska Camping Adventures. It was the perfect size for us and allowed us to camp pretty much anywhere.
This post is going to be dedicated to Denali National Park and the town of Talkeetna. I have so much to cover so let’s get into it!
Anchorage to Denali National Park
We flew direct into Anchorage from Minneapolis. We actually had a friend visiting Anchorage at the same time so we all grabbed lunch at Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse before heading north. It’s a beautiful drive with lots of opportunities to pull over and admire the scenery along the way. Download your playlists and podcasts because we couldn’t even get radio stations most of the way!
I’m sure most of us have heard of Denali National Park but in case you don’t know the details, it’s a 6-million acre park with only one road and within it lies Denali, the 20,310 ft peak and North America’s tallest mountain.
Campsites are hard to get in Denali National Park so we booked an RV spot at Denali Rainbow Village just outside the park’s entrance. In the Midwest, you are only allowed to camp in campgrounds and RV parks but we learned in Alaska that you can pull over and camp pretty much anywhere as long as it doesn’t say “No Camping.” However, it was still nice to have access to clean water and bathrooms for a few nights.
On our first night, we learned just how long it stays light in the Alaskan summers. “Sunset” was about 12:40 a.m. and “sunrise” was around 3:30 a.m. but it never truly got dark. Luckily our rooftop tent was light blocking but we did leave the vents open for airflow.
Bus Tour through Denali National Park
When we visited in July of 2022, the Denali Bus Tours were only going to mile 43 because of rock slides and erosion that have taken out the road that used to go 92 miles into the park. The bus tour is the one of the few ways to get past mile 12 without special permits. It takes about 5.5 hours with frequent stops along the way for bathroom breaks and wildlife. We had people ask us if it was worth the price (~$128 per person) and I would say that it is. Especially if you only have a few days at the park.
We saw quite a few moose and their babies and had an up close encounter with a caribou. We were also lucky enough to be able to see Denali which isn’t always visible depending on the weather conditions. As you can see from the photos, there was quite a bit of smoke in the area from nearby wildfires.
If you take an early tour, you’ll have time to hike the Horseshoe Lake Trail located near the entrance of the park. It’s about 2 miles starting at the trailhead or closer to 4 miles starting at the visitor center.
The trail takes you around Horseshoe Lake and you can see a beaver dam up close and tons of trees that they’ve cut down. I now fully understand where the term “busy beaver” comes from!
We finish the evening with beers and dinner at 49th State Brewing in Healy, which is only about a 10-minute drive north of the park entrance. It’s a super cool brewery and they play live streams of the bears in Katmai State Park.
Hiking in Denali National Park
On our second day at Denali National Park, we woke up bright and early (thank you time change) and began the Mount Healy Overlook Trail around 7 a.m. It was July 4th so we expected there to be a lot of people on the trail but I guess everyone else slept in and we only saw a few other hikers. The trail ends at 2.7 miles and 1,700 ft of elevation gained but we continued on a little further towards to the top of the mountain.
Denali National Park is also an amazing place for off-trial hiking and lots of people travel to the park just for that. You can take the shuttle bus out to various points in the park and hike basically anywhere you want. Bear spray and bear-proof food canisters for backcountry camping are a MUST. Once you’re done hiking you can make your way back to the road and catch a shuttle bus at any point. The freedom to explore anywhere in the park is one of the things that keeps it so wild and it actually reduces the environmental impact of thousands of feet stomping on the same trail.
Our tour bus driver recommended Mt Margaret as an off-trail hike that only takes about half a day. You’ll have the opportunity to run into dall sheep, moose and bears along the way so always stay alert.
After our Mt Healy hike, we went to the sled dog kennels. There has been a team of sled dogs in Denali since the 1920s and they are used to patrol and maintain the park in the sub-arctic conditions. Most of the dogs are out where you can see and even pet them if they allow it. In the summer months, volunteers take them on walks and runs to keep them in shape for winter when they get to run for miles and miles in the snow.
After the sled dogs, we parked at Savage River Trailhead at mile 12, the end of the paved road and as far as you can go in a personal vehicle.
We climbed up Savage Rock and then did the 2-mile Savage River Loop Trail. It’s a flat hike but so serene as you walk along the rushing river with towering mountains on each side.
Dinner that night was from the food truck next to the Sled Dog Liquor store and their tacos and salmon burgers were some of the best things we’d eat all trip.
We had booked another night at the RV park but decided to hit the road and stop at Denali State Park for the night. We were able to pop up our rooftop tent at the Denali View North parking lot and it was one of my favorite spots we slept at! Denali Mountain was right outside our window.
Talkeetna was the midway point of our week. We figured we would be ready for a shower and real bed by day 4 so we booked a room outside of town at the Talkeetna Chalet. The owners were extremely welcoming and upgraded us to a private cabin. It was so cozy! I couldn’t recommend this place enough.
When we got into Talkeetna we grabbed breakfast at Conscious Coffee and then went for a walk along the Railroad Bridge Trail. The trail is mostly used by ATVs and the residents of Chase, a small town 9 miles north of Talkeetna and only accessible by train, ATV or boat. I would’ve loved to have gone all the way to Chase to see what it looked like.
After our walk, we explored Talkeetna and did some shopping and eating. If you’re looking to eat one thing in Talkeetna, it’s Talkeetna Tako. This baked cheese with salmon was insane! We washed it all down at with a few beers at Fairview Inn and I had some delicious blueberry mojitos at Denali Brewing Company.
It was a perfect day of indulgence!
From here we made our way to the coast, but that’ll be for next time. Thanks for reading!