Winter is my favorite season in Denali National Park. It is empty. I rarely run into anyone, and when I do it might be a quick passing in the parking lot. Early spring is nice too, but the landscape doesn’t have the vibrant colors that summer and autumn bring. Summer is beautiful, but once the tourist season starts and the buses are running it’s tough to do day trips and find yourself alone.
Granted, most of the people I’ve met on the buses on the park road have been great, friendly, awesome to talk to. But there are always a few that really push my buttons. I’ve stepped off shuttles in the park long before my destination a couple of times because of the company. Also, the mosquitoes in the summer can be almost as annoying as some of the tourists. At least the tourists bring a bit of money into the state. But winter lacks the constant swatting at bugs and rolling my eyes when overhearing things like, “HEY! Where’s Mount McKinley at?!”, or “Do you think that smaller bear is that bigger bear’s cub?” from the seat behind me. Winter is a different experience altogether.
Winter in the park is nearly monochrome. The sky brings the only color with the brief window of blue, but mostly golden colors of the hours-long sunrise and sunsets. And it’s quiet. So breathtakingly quiet. Some of the most popular trails in the summer are completely empty in February. Which is good, because access becomes much more difficult when you can only get 3-15 miles into the park on a single road.
Last winter we visited Denali National Park three separate times just to do some day-hikes. In February we hiked the Healy Overlook Trail (as well as the Meadow View Trail and Roadside Hiking Trail at the park entrance), the Savage Alpine Loop, and then the Savage River Loop and extension in March. These are definitely three of the most traveled trails in summer, but we never saw another person on any trip (except on the road).
Trail conditions varied greatly. The Healy Overlook Trail was well-traveled and packed down until we were above the treeline. There was deep snow past the end of the trail to Mt. Healy. This was a very low snow year and in multiple spots, we could see bare ground. This made for really easy walking down low in the trees. We still had some daylight to kill when we got down to the base of the trail, so we made a loop of the Meadow View Trail and the Roadside Hiking Trail. I had my closest encounter with a snowshoe hare on the Roadside Hiking Trail. I could almost touch the little guy.
The Savage Alpine Trail ranged from deep snow at the base to just a dusting at the top and ice covered by a thin layer of snow. There were definitely a few uncontrolled surprise slips while walking and eventually put on microspikes. We managed to get a fairly close view of some Dall Sheep only a few hundred meters above the top of the trail. That was one of my first large mammal sightings in the park in winter.
The Savage River Loop was also nearly snow-free but had some stretches of water ice that really required some kind of traction system. If you want to head out on the trails here in winter, it’s definitely a good idea to bring some traction like Microspikes and snowshoes (or skis!). The canyon beyond the trail is rocky and parts are ice-covered and a bit steep, but usually easy walking.
I highly recommend visiting the park in the winter if you get the chance. While I’ve lucked out and had many warm days hiking in January – March, it’s not easy finding a +50° day in the interior of Alaska. Living in Fairbanks I can just say, “Hey, it’s a nice day. I’m going to Denali”. If you visit, come prepared. It can easily be -40° (F or C) without the windchill . . . and windy. Bring snowshoes and/or some foot traction and be sure to stop by the Murie Science Center (that is the visitor center in winter months) to get info from the rangers first!
Check out more photos from these three hikes here: