We have both spent several years living on the east coast, so our bar for fall foliage is high. We have taken a few overland van trips focused on finding fall colors, enjoying the flexibility of not having to plan ahead and being able to adjust based on the unpredictability of leaves changing. This past fall, we stumbled upon some of the best fall colors we’ve seen yet. We ended a summer trip in Alaska with a few days around Denali, catching the park in one of the last couple weeks of the season. The restaurants, lodging, and services around the park entrance completely shut down in mid-September, and when we were there early in the month most places had already shuttered for the season. We are used to September being a summer month, and while we knew to be prepared for early cold temperatures and snow, the fall colors still took us by surprise.
We spent a couple days hiking just outside Denali National Park, where you can still get a view of Denali on a clear day. There are many free offroad camping spots on public land a few minutes drive from the park entrance, which provide a quieter alternative to the park campgrounds and excellent views.
Another advantage to visiting Alaska in the fall is the chance to see the northern lights. The long summer days in Alaska mean lots of time for hiking, but also mean short nights with not very dark skies. Starting in August, less daylight means darker night skies, which are better for viewing the northern lights. In addition, the northern lights are more active around the spring and autumn equinox, making September and October prime time for good shows. The University of Alaska Fairbanks publishes an aurora forecast, which we checked frequently to make sure we didn’t miss anything. Our over land camp spot outside Denali provided a good vantage point for viewing the night sky, largely unobstructed by trees.
The one road in Denali National Park is 89 miles long. The majority of the road is only open to tour buses or park shuttles for backpackers and campers. The first 15 miles of the road is open to private vehicles, although parking is limited and most of the best views of Denali are farther into the park. We spent a day stopping at off road pullouts along the road to look for wildlife and doing a few short hikes.
The main way to drive farther into the park is to camp at one of the campgrounds along the park road. We were able to get a last minute reservation for Teklanika River Campground at Mile 29, which is the farthest into the park you can camp in your own vehicle. The campground has fifty-three sites and no amenities beyond water spigots and pit toilets. With nightly temperatures below freezing, we were grateful for our diesel heater and plenty of battery life to make hot meals and drinks.
There are few established trails in Denali, so we spent our days walking along the nearly empty park road, with short side trips to explore. While we did not see as much wildlife as we hoped, the sunny weather and views kept us happy.
While most visitors likely come to Denali with the intent to see the mountain, it is only visible about one out of every three days. When we visited Denali earlier in the summer, the mountain stayed largely hidden for most of the week in clouds and overcast skies. On our last day in Denali, we got up early to leave the campground and drive out of the park. We found a great pullout to watch the sunrise and enjoy the view of Denali. The size of the mountain is hard to comprehend – the summit is at 20,310 feet! We can’t wait to visit Denali again, and will definitely plan our trip for the fall to enjoy the foliage, northern lights, and fewer crowds.