I'm writing this to help others who are looking to stay at the Denali National Park entrance area, which is just outside the park. It seems that most visitors to the park will end up staying in this area. Although modern technology gives us satellite and drive by maps, it was still difficult for my friends and I to figure out what to expect until we arrived.
If you’re not camping in Denali National Park (DNP) then a good portion of your stay will be probably be spent just outside of DNP by the entrance area. The DNP entrance area, also called the Nenana River Canyon, is home to seasonal accommodations, as well as shops, restaurants, and activities. The Nenana River Canyon lodges are the most convenient, as they’re close enough to walk into DNP. But for those who don’t like to walk, there are regular shuttles from most lodges into DNP. The George Parks Highway runs straight through the middle of the Nenana River Canyon area.
The four large lodges in the area are the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, McKinley Chalet Resort, Grande Denali Lodge, and the Denali Bluffs Hotel. While some of these lodges either belong to or are partnered up with cruise companies, you can still schedule a stay at these lodges, independent of the cruises. I noticed these cruise company affiliated lodges seem to have the most regular hourly shuttles to and from DNP. There are smaller lodges in the area as well as hostels which have shared shuttle service to DNP.
On the east side of the Parks Highway are the shops and restaurants. Most of these shops and restaurants are on a nice elevated boardwalk. I do recommend some of these restaurants, such as Prospectors Pizzeria and Alehouse. There is a Subway sandwich shop which is open 24 hours, making it a good source of sandwiches for the DNP Discovery Hikes, as other restaurants open too late in the morning. There is a nice little ice cream shop with various local flavors, such as huckleberry ice cream. There is a nice coffee shop which also makes sandwiches, a photo processing shop is there for those that still use film, or want to print out their digital photos. There are also two small markets. The prices in these stores are quite expensive, as outside of any mini-marts in the lodges, these two small markets are pretty much the only markets available to buy groceries and snacks. Also included in the shops are various restaurants, and shops for rafting and off road adventures, as well as aerial tours of the Denali area. Our Nenana River rafting adventure started out here, as well as the shuttle to our off road ATV adventure.
Looking around the Nenana River Canyon area, Mount Healy and the Nenana River sit immediately to the west. The town of Healy is about 10 minutes up the road to north. We would end up at Healy for a few activities, as well as the 49th State Brewing Company for a really good dinner. Looking south along George Parks Highway, the entrance to DNP is about 1.5 miles from the center of the area, and many people make the scenic and easy walk down the trail to and from the park. We noticed that there is a point on that trail where the various rafting companies set up and board the rafts.
We made a few interesting observations of the area. We found ourselves far enough north in latitude that there is barely any darkness, maybe two hours in July. The rest of the time is very bright twilight, most of the time it’s bright enough to read a book outside. This makes for interesting nightlife as you can still do a lot with the extended daylight. 8pm feels like 3pm. Workers tell us that in June, around the solstice, the sun does set, but barely below the horizon, and there is no darkness, just really bright twilight. That would be an interesting sight to see.
It was a bit breezy at times, as it's a canyon area. Plus there was intermittent drizzle. I suggest sweaters, a waterproof jacket, hat that covers the ears, and maybe even gloves. If you're going to hike around outside, I'd recommend mosquito spray or lotion. You could encounter wildlife, as our shuttle bus encountered moose a few times. I'd advise a whistle or something to scare off wildlife should you encounter them while hiking around.
Various workers have told us that the Nenana Canyon Area is basically closed down during the winter, and only starts to come to life around early May. This is when workers arrive to prepare the lodges and businesses for the imminent arrival of the tourists when the lodges open around mid-May. Then town closes down around September when the lodges close down. A lot of these workers are either students, some locals from surrounding areas, and nature enthusiasts who use the job as a means of financing their hiking treks. Our rafting guide was a medical student who goes either hiking or kayaking in the evening after his rafting job. But I must that regardless of the business, all of the workers were very professional, nice, and efficient, and kudos to them and their management. They really did make our time in the area a really wonderful one.