Eielson, which is located at mile 66 on Denali Park Road, is one of the most spectacular places to visit in Denali National Park & Preserve. On a clear day, the views of Denali are unbeatable. The drive to get here is gorgeous, there are several short hikes to choose from, and you get to venture away from the crowds at the front of the park.
In this post, we list 5 reasons why you should add the trip out to Eielson on your visit to Denali National Park, and give you all the info you need so you can plan your visit.
What Is Eielson Visitor Center?
Before we get started, you may be wondering…what is Eielson Visitor Center?
Eielson is an area of Denali National Park that is located at mile 66 on Denali Park Road.
At an elevation of 3,300 feet, you are only 33 miles away from Denali at this point.
The current visitor center building was built in 2008 and is platinum LEED certified. It has restrooms, a water fountain to refill water bottles, and a small art gallery. Rangers are available to answer questions and there are several ranger-guided programs and hikes offered during the day.
Overlooking the Eielson Visitor Center and Denali from the Thorofare Ridge Trail.
5 Reasons Why You Should Visit Eielson
#1 The Drive to Eielson is Spectacular
From the front of Denali National Park, Denali Park Road heads west. During the drive, you head through several different ecosystems, head up and over a few mountain passes, and get increasingly better views of Denali (if the weather is clear).
The scenery is always changing, so even though the bus might be moving slow, the ever-changing views help to keep things interesting.
Denali Park Road at Stony Hill Overlook.
#2 You Have a Chance to Spot Alaska’s Big 5
On one drive, you have the opportunity to spot all of Alaska’s Big 5: moose, caribou, Dall sheep, bear, and wolf.
When we did this, we were incredibly lucky. Not only did we have clear skies, but we were able to see all of Alaska’s Big 5.
It’s almost a guarantee that you will see caribou. Moose, Dall sheep, and bear also are very frequently spotted.
The most elusive is the wolf. We saw one from the Eielson Visitor Center. Our driver was THRILLED to see a wolf. In the past 6 weeks, this was his third wolf sighting, so that tells you just how lucky you have to be to see one, but it is possible.
#3 The Views of Denali are Some of the Best in the Park
In my opinion, some of the best views of Denali are located at and near Eielson Visitor Center.
On Denali Park Road, at Stony Hill Overlook (which is just a few miles before you get to Eielson Visitor Center), you get this view of Denali.
Pretty awesome, right?
From Eielson Visitor Center, there are several viewing platforms where you have a slightly different perspective of Denali. From here, you can see more of the Alaska Range. In 2021, the Muldrow Glacier was surging (a once every 50 year event) and we could see the rocky, dirty glacier sitting in front of the Alaska Range.
View from the Eielson Visitor Center. In this photo, you can see the Tundra Loop Trail and the Gorge Creek Trail.
#4 There are Several Short, Fun Hikes to Do in Eielson
Denali doesn’t have many maintained trails, but there are three that you can pick from at Eielson.
Thorofare Ridge Trail. 2 miles out-and-back, 1,000 feet of elevation gain, 1 to 2 hours. For jaw-dropping views of Denali, this short, steep, very strenuous hike takes you up into the hills behind the Eielson Visitor Center. Once at the top, you can wander around as you like.
The Thorofare Ridge Trail
The view of Denali from the Thorofare Ridge Trail.
This photo was taken from the Thorofare Ridge Trail with a zoom lens. At the base of the mountain range you can see the Muldrow Glacier: the oreo cookie looking stripe of white glacier and black rock. It was surging as much as 65 feet per day.
As you hike back to the Visitor Center, it’s easier to enjoy the views of Denali, since you are now hiking downhill.
Gorge Creek Trail. 2 miles out-and-back, 600 feet of elevation gain, 1 to 1.5 hours. From Eielson Visitor Center, this hike descends down to Gorge Creek and the Thorofare River bar. The views aren’t as good as they are from the Thorofare Ridge Trail, but it is a little bit easier. If you only have the time or energy for one hike, we recommend the Thorofare Ridge Trail…it’s worth the effort.
The Gorge Creek Trail descends from the Visitor Center to the creek. To get back up to the Visitor Center, you will retrace your steps back up this hill.
View from the end of the Gorge Creek Trail.
The view from the Gorge Creek Trail to the Eielson Visitor Center and Thorofare Ridge.
Tundra Loop Trail. One-third of a mile round trip, minimal elevation gain, 30 minutes. This short, easy trail is nice if you want to stretch your legs without doing a full hike. The views don’t change a whole lot from what you get at the Visitor Center, since the trail is just down the hill from the building and bus stop.
Tundra Loop Hike
You are also permitted to hike off trail around the Eielson Visitor Center.
#5 It’s an All-Around Great Experience of Denali National Park
Traveling out to Eielson is an all-around great experience to have in Denali National Park. With a chance to spot wildlife, see Denali, and go for a hike or two, this is a must-have experience in Denali National Park & Preserve.
If you want to see more than the front country of Denali (the park entrance to the Savage River area), it is well worth the time to get here. The views you get of Denali are far superior than those at Savage River and near the park entrance. And since you travel through so many different ecosystems, you have a much greater chance to spot the various animals that call Denali home.
Overlooking the Eielson Visitor Center from the Thorofare Ridge Trail.
How to Visit Eielson
How to Get to Eielson
There are several ways to get here, but they all involve taking a bus of some sort, unless you are one of the very lucky who scored a lottery ticket to drive Denali Park Road in September.
Transit buses serve as hop-on hop-off buses. If you want to get off somewhere along Denali Park Road, go hiking or exploring, and get back on the bus later in the day to get back to the park entrance, this is the bus that you want.
These buses aren’t narrated, unless you get a driver who opts to point things out along the drive.
There are several options for transit buses. Basically, you are choosing how far down Denali Park Road you want to go. The farther you go, the more you pay and the longer your day.
Here are your options. Some transit buses are not available in 2021 because of COVID. Get updates on the National Park Service website. This is also where you will reserve your seat.
- Toklat River (mile 53)
- Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66)
- Wonder Lake (mile 85)
- Kantishna (mile 92)
If you want to visit Eielson, you will need to take the transit bus to the Eielson Visitor Center, Wonder Lake, or Kantishna.
The green bus is a transit bus. The brown bus is a narrated bus.
On a narrated bus, a trained naturalist drives the bus and points out animals, geologic features, ecosystems, etc.
These buses are not hop-on hop-off. They have several stops they make along the drive, each lasting 10 to 30 minutes, but you cannot go off on your own, do a hike, and then later hop back on another narrated bus. The bus you take from the park entrance will be the same bus that takes you back to the park entrance.
If you want to go hiking at Eielson, or at another spot along Denali Park Road, then you need to take a transit bus.
There are three narrated bus options. Note, in 2021, the only narrated bus being offered is the Tundra Wilderness Tour, which does not go to Eielson.
Natural History Tour. This bus goes to Teklanika at mile 27. This tour focuses on the history and cultural background of Denali National Park. This bus tour takes 5 hours round trip.
Tundra Wilderness Tour. This bus goes to Stony Overlook at mile 62. From here, you get an awesome view of Denali but you will not go out as far as Eielson. This bus tour takes 8 hours round trip.
Kantishna Experience. This bus goes to the end of the road at mile 92. It’s a long day (about 12 hours) but if you want to experience all of Denali Park Road, including Eielson, this is the tour to take.
If you are camping in the backcountry (beyond Eielson Visitor Center), you can ride the camper bus. These buses are only for those who will be camping in the backcountry. You cannot ride a camper bus and use it like it is a transit bus.
If you plan to stay in one of the lodges at the end of Denali Park Road (the Backcountry Lodge or the Kantishna Roadhouse), you will ride on one of their buses to get to the lodge. It takes about 7 hours to travel from the front of the park to the mile 92.
What We Did & What to Expect on the Ride
We did this in 2021. We took the 7 am bus, boarding at Denali Bus Depot near the Denali Visitor Center.
The bus looks like a giant school bus. Pairs of seats line each side of the aisle. The floor is dusty, so don’t expect to store anything under the seat in front of you, unless you don’t mind getting your backpack, bag, or sweatshirt extremely dirty. However, there is a shelf over the seats where you can store your things.
On the ride out, our bus was about 90% full. Along the drive, we picked up a few people on the way to Eielson.
The first 15 miles go by quickly. The road is paved until you get to Savage River and there is not a whole lot to stop and look at, other than one decent view of Denali, and any wildlife, if you are lucky enough to spot any. Moose are frequently seen during this part of the drive.
The first rest stop comes at mile 30, which is the Teklanika Rest Stop. There are restrooms here and a view of Teklanika River.
Beyond Teklanika, the drive gets to be more scenic. You will go on a white knuckle ride through the Sable Pass, as your bus twists and turns through the mountains. There are no guard rails here, just a straight drop down to the river below.
View from Sable Pass
At the end of this section of the drive, you get to stretch your legs at Polychrome Overlook (mile 46). This part of Denali is gorgeous and another great place to see caribou.
Another view of Polychrome Overlook
At mile 56, you cross the Toklat River and have another chance to use the restroom (and a good chance to see caribou in the river).
Toklat Rest Stop
At mile 62, you reach Stony Hill Overlook. This is one of the best places in the park to get a photo of Denali. Denali looks absolutely massive from this viewpoint. If you can get Denali Park Road with a bus on it, you really get a sense of the size of this mighty mountain.
Curious about the photography gear we use? All of the photos in this guide were taken with either Canon 5D Mark III with a 70 to 300 mm lens or a Canon 5D Mark IV with a 16 to 35 mm lens. For more information, check out our Travel Photography Gear Guide.
Finally, at mile 66, you reach Eielson Visitor Center. When we did this, it took about 4.5 hours to travel from the bus station to the Eielson Visitor Center.
Once here, feel free to stay as long as you like. The Eielson transit bus sits here for 30 minutes before heading back to the park entrance. You can get back on the same bus or take a later bus. Buses are timed to leave Eielson every 30 minutes, but this can vary, depending on road construction and stops for wildlife sightings.
Buses at Eielson Visitor Center
The later in the day you plan to re-board the bus, the longer your wait might be. Wait times can be as long as one hour to get a spot on the next transit bus. But if you ever have to be stuck somewhere waiting for a bus, it doesn’t get much more beautiful than this.
The ride back to the park entrance tends to be faster. Stops are limited to bathroom breaks and wildlife sightings. Unless the bear or caribou is right on or next to the road, the stops for wildlife also tend to be quicker at this point. By now, it’s been a long day, and most people are ready to get back to the front of the park.
When we did this, the ride from Eielson to the park entrance took about 3.5 hours.
Things to Do at Eielson
Once at Eielson, what should you do?
If you have limited time (you’re on a narrated bus tour or you plan to board the same transit bus that got you out here, giving you just 30 minutes), use the restroom, refill your water bottle (the water source is glacier melt and tastes fabulous), take some photos of Denali, and walk the Tundra Loop Trail, which sits just below the Visitor Center.
With more time, hike the Thorofare Ridge Trail and/or the River Trail. I recommend the Thorofare Ridge Trail. It’s a tougher hike but on a clear day, it’s hard to get a better view of Denali.
Eielson Visitor Center
Picnic tables at Eielson
Visiting Eielson: Frequently Asked Questions
How Long Does It Take to Visit Eielson Visitor Center?
To travel out and back to Eielson, allowing time for wildlife sightings, bathroom breaks, and one or two short hikes, it takes one full day to visit Eielson. It is a 4 to 4.5 hour bus ride, one-way, from the front of the park to Eielson. With one or two hours spent hiking and exploring here, plan on 8 to 10 hours for the trip out to Eielson.
Is It Worth It to Visit Eielson Visitor Center in Denali?
Absolutely! We spent 6 days in Denali National Park, hiking the trails at the front of the park, spending several nights at the Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna, and riding the buses along Denali Park Road twice. Visiting Eielson was our favorite experience in Denali National Park.
Even if you don’t have clear skies and can’t see Denali, the trip out to Eielson is still worth the time and effort. With the chance to spot all of Alaska’s Big 5 and the opportunity to watch the scenery change as you travel deeper into the heart of the park, this is definitely worth adding to your Denali itinerary.
Should I Book My Tickets in Advance?
Yes. This is a popular activity and tickets sell out in advance. As soon as you know your dates of travel, book your transit or narrated bus tickets to Eielson.
In a perfect world, you could watch the weather and schedule this for a time when clear skies are in the forecast. Unfortunately, tickets will most likely be sold out if you wait to the last minute. It’s better to reserve your tickets and hope for clear skies than to completely miss out on this opportunity.
Here is the link to the National Park Service website so you can book your tickets.
Should I Take a Transit Bus or Narrated Bus to Eielson?
If you want to get off and hike around at Eielson, take the transit bus. You can spend as long as you like at Eielson, getting on a return bus later in the day.
If you have no desire to go hiking and just want to quickly take in the view, the narrated bus is a better option.
The narrated bus stops for a quick visit at Eielson, but it is not enough time to hike the trails here. You basically will have enough time to take some photos, use the restroom, refill water bottles, and visit the Visitor Center.
There are minimal differences between the buses, other than the color. The transit buses are green and the narrated buses are brown. Both are giant school buses with better suspension and rugged tires. The seating in the narrated buses look slightly more comfortable than the transit buses.
There is nothing fancy about these buses, so don’t expect plush seats or a smooth ride. In fact, it’s the complete opposite of this. It’s a dusty ride in a rattling bus, but that’s all part of the adventure.
Where is the Best Place to Sit on the Bus?
On the ride from the park entrance, the best place to sit in on the left hand side of the bus (another way to say this is to sit on the same side of the bus as the driver). This gives you the best views of Denali. It also gives you views of the drop-offs on the cliff section of Sable Pass (so if you are afraid of heights and there’s room, pop over to the right side of the bus for this section, or close your eyes).
On the drive back to the front of the park, the right side of the bus is the best place to sit. However, you are now heading away from Denali so you won’t get to see much of it on the return drive.
Any Other Words of Wisdom?
Book the earliest available bus that you can. The earlier you start, the more time you get to spend at Eielson. An early start also allows you to get off at more than one point, if you are taking a transit bus. We took the 7 am bus.
Bring food and water. No food is provided on the transit bus but snacks are provided on some narrated tours (confirm this before you go). You are allowed to eat and drink on the buses. In fact, this is preferred to eating at the rest areas. The scent of food attracts wildlife, so we were encouraged to do all of our eating and drinking while on the bus.
If you plan to go hiking, bring bear spray. It is possible to encounter bear throughout Denali National Park & Preserve.
Sit back, relax, and enjoy the experience. It’s an awesome experience to venture into Denali National Park. Take lots of photos, keep an eye out for bear and moose, and we hope you have a great time!
If you have any questions about how to visit Eielson Visitor Center, or if you would like to share your experience or more tips, let us know in the comment section below.
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