Discovery Hikes are a great way for the adventurous and well-prepared to explore the heart of Denali.
These ranger-led hikes travel everywhere, so expect uneven terrain, small stream crossings, close encounters with dense vegetation and unpredictable weather. Along the way, you can engage the park with all your senses and build memories of this special kind of "walk in the park."
Hikes begin in mid-June each year. One hike occurs each day through late summer, although the exact ending date varies.
How to Sign Up for a Hike
You may sign up for a hike one to two days in advance, and you can only sign up in person at the Denali Visitor Center. All members of your party must be present during the sign-up process in order to claim a spot. There are no exceptions to this rule.
At the visitor center, rangers will share details about upcoming hikes, including the approximate duration, distance, difficulty, etc. Hiking in the wilderness is a challenging experience, and signing up in person means you have a chance to talk with a ranger and ensure that you are prepared for this experience. For safety concerns, rangers may turn away unprepared hikers.
Children age 8 to 17 may participate in the program while accompanied by an adult guardian (age 18 or over). Unaccompanied minors (children under the age of 18) and children under age 8 may not sign up for the hike. Find out about exploring Denali with children independently or by talking with a ranger at the Denali Visitor Center about ranger-led programs for all ages.
Unfortunately, if the hike fills up, there is no way to be placed on a waiting list or to ride "stand-by" and you cannot sign up the morning of a hike—the bus leaves earlier than the visitor center opens. However, rangers at the Denali Visitor Center will be happy to discuss alternative options for exploring Denali's trail-less wilderness areas without a ranger.
If you're planning to sign up for a hike, please read our preparation guide and gear list, below, for more details on how to ready yourself for this special experience.
Where You'll Go
All disco hikes begin with a bus ride from the entrance area into the park (exact location and meeting time will depend on hike location). Most hikes require the purchase of a bus ticket (same cost as a transit bus). You'll use a special bus (the "disco hike" bus) to get to your hiking location, so don't worry about reserving bus tickets before you sign up for a hike. (If you do wish to reserve transit bus tickets in advance, and then decide to sign up for a discovery hike once you are here, you can exchange your pre-paid transit tickets for "disco bus" tickets).
Plan on a bus ride lasting anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours, to hike for three to five hours, and then a similar-length bus ride back to the park entrance. You should be prepared for a day lasting up to 10 hours.
These ranger-led adventures vary from moderate (elevation gain less than 1,000 feet) to strenuous (elevation gain more than 1,000 feet, or will involve large river crossings). They may start from just about anywhere on the Park Road, which is why the bus ride has such a wide range of duration (i.e., the closer to the park entrance your hike begins, the shorter your bus ride will be).
How to Prepare for a Discovery Hike
Bring layers for changing conditions
Any day of the summer could be sunny, rainy, sleeting, or snowy. As you travel farther west, the elevation increases. While it might be beautiful at the park entrance, it might be much cooler and windier farther out the Denali Park Road. Bring layers to respond to changing conditions. A waterproof jacket is required, and rain pants are always a good idea because you may be walking through wet vegetation that will soak your clothes even when it is not raining. Wear fleece, polypropylene, synthetic or wool under-layers to wick away moisture from your skin, and continue to insulate even when wet. Avoid wearing jeans, or other cotton layers, since cotton tends to stay wet and has little insulating value.
Wear appropriate footwear
Supportive hiking boots with rugged tread and ankle support are strongly recommended for hiking off-trail because the uneven terrain places more strain on your feet and ankles than hiking on a trail. Low top hikers or running shoes with good tread are acceptable, but not ideal. No sandals or open-toed shoes allowed. Keep in mind that even if the hike is not planning on crossing a river, you are likely to have wet feet by the end of the hike—consider bringing an extra pair of socks or lightweight shoes for the bus ride home.
Start hydrated, stay hydrated
Being properly hydrated will help your body adjust to changes in altitude, temperature, and exertion. Although it may be raining, Denali’s climate is quite dry. As you sweat, you will need to replenish the fluid in your body. Start your day well-hydrated and bring at least two liters of water per person. Bring all the water you may need with you. There are few or no sources of potable water available beyond the park entrance area. Surface water from streams and lakes should be both filtered and disinfected prior to human consumption.
We describe discovery hikes as being 'moderate' or 'strenuous' in difficulty. These are a little subjective, but here are some general measurements for each:
Recommended items, if you have them:
When you speak with a ranger about signing up for a Discovery Hike, expect to hear some of these terms:
Discovery Hikes occur from mid-June to late summer, so prepare for spring, summer or fall weather, depending on when you will be visiting.
Summer is typically cool and wet, with highs typically in the upper 50s to low 60s, and lows in the 40s. On occasion, summer highs reach the low 80s, though this is rare. Snow can fall any month of the year, so be prepared for chilly weather even in summer. Fall colors emerge on the alpine tundra in August and in the low valleys in early September. Winter generally starts in mid-September, with temps often getting down to -40 by January. Spring is a short season in April / May, with highs above freezing.
Last updated: July 6, 2023