The National Park Service would like to make one thing perfectly clear: "Denali is not closed in the winter."
This is an important message, because I, like other curious would-be visitors, harbored the belief that Denali National Park shut its front gate once Labor Day weekend passed. Turns out, Denali is wide open during the non-summer months, welcoming adventurous visitors with a plethora of recreation options, as long as one is prepared for winter and possesses an independent spirit.
It is true that many aspects of Denali popular with families -- such as shuttle buses, ranger-led programs and concession services -- are closed between mid-September and May. But their absence allows the park to shine from October to April.
More than 500,000 people visited Denali National Park in 2013, flocking to places like the main visitor center campus, sled dog kennels and the famous Park Road via shuttle bus or special camping permit. Although the park covers 7,407 square miles of remote, wild land, the influx of humanity is obvious at the entrance area all summer.
Savor the beauty
By contrast, winter visitors are few, with just over 2,000 taking to the trails in March 2014. But the off-season is also when the park comes alive in a completely different way, appealing to Alaskans who want to savor the park's beauty without its seasonal bustle.
Kris Fister, public affairs officer for Denali National Park, says that's one reason many hardy visitors make the drive from Anchorage or Fairbanks.
"The calm and quiet, that's what winter is all about. A respite from the short, hectic summer, and, with not much of the road open, the park beckons one to explore farther by foot, ski, snowshoe or dogsled," she said.
A few adjustments must be made to accommodate the park's obligation to winter guests. Those guests too, must alter their expectations of what Denali staff will and will not provide during this quiet season of independent exploration. The combination of scenery and activity, however mellow, shouldn't deter the winter visitor.
With the main Denali visitor center shuttered, operations move to the nearby Murie Science and Learning Center, across the parking lot and still within the entrance area. Open and staffed 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, this cozy facility provides important information for anyone wanting to explore the park, and is a must-do. Additionally, this is the place for a warm-up in front of a roaring stove, access to restrooms, water and a place to learn more about the park and its inhabitants. Pick up maps and books, see a film about the park's history and unique weather patterns, or borrow a pair of snowshoes for exploration anywhere your feet can travel. The Alpenglow, the park's official newspaper, gives options for hiking, snowshoeing, camping, or nordic skiing within park boundaries and includes a list of important information for winter's occasional extreme weather.
Just outside the Murie Science and Learning Center lies a multitude of easy to moderate trails suitable for anyone interested in wandering the greater entrance area. Popular destinations include Horseshoe Lake, a recently completed loop around this serene landscape dotted with beaver habitat, and Taiga Trail, a short hike around the backside of the Science and Learning Center. While the trails are not groomed, we found them more than adequate for simple snowshoeing, skiing and hiking, thanks in part to this year's low snowfall.
Typically, the park road is plowed only to Mile 3, where headquarters and the sled dog kennels are. But in 2014 the Park Service decided that plowing the road to Mile 12 at Mountain Vista Rest Area, just short of Savage River at Mile 15, could lead to more winter visitors.
And in an effort to entice more people to the serenity of Denali's winter experience, Mountain Vista has been cleared and sanded. This is the perfect place to ski or snowshoe the pseudo-backcountry without venturing too far from a main road. Access to this area began in mid-February and will continue as long as weather conditions permit, and the drive alone is worth any effort to get there. Denali peeks out from behind barren hills, and caribou and moose frequent the roadside as they browse treeless shrubbery.
Two main trails are accessible from Mountain Vista, and both are easy for children with basic nordic ski skills to navigate. Beginning snowshoers should enjoy them too.
The Mountain Vista Trail is a 0.6-mile hike to a view point and picnic area. Watch for sled dog teams as they enjoy this flat, fast trail. Kids may enjoy guessing the animal tracks crisscrossing the snowy surface. Across the road from Mountain Vista lies Savage Cabin Trail, an interesting 0.8-mile loop leading to the cabin itself, built in 1924 as a cook shack for Savage Camp, the first tourist structure in Denali National Park. Also serving as a ranger patrol cabin, it's the perfect place to park the skis or snowshoes for a front-porch picnic.
Of course, the unplowed sections of Denali Park Road are also options for nordic skiers who wish to venture as far as they might along the wide roadway. Not bothered by anything motorized, wildlife wander back and forth across this roadway, and often the only sound one hears is the chatter of squirrels and birds in nearby treetops. That's quite a shift from grinding gears of tour buses and clicks of camera shutters.
Back at Mile 3, don't forget to stop by the sled dog kennels for a visit with the National Park Service's only canine ranger force. An integral part of patrolling the park during winter months, teams spend much of the snowy season making runs between Wonder Lake, headquarters and everywhere in between, carrying supplies and rangers on multi-day camp-outs as part of what many staffers say is the best job in the world.
Winter is fickle, though. We lucked out with sunny skies and warm weather that made for an easy visit with a 10-year-old boy who found the prospect of tromping around on backcountry skis the perfect antidote to an Anchorage winter lacking snow. Remember that conditions can and do change with little warning, so prudent parents should plan ahead. Fister agrees families should be prepared for anything.
"Take a cue from the hardy birds and animals that call this area home year-round. Be prepared, and visitors and locals can experience this natural world safely, and embrace our longest season," she said in an email.
All things considered, though, any preparation, any weather scenario, is worth a winter weekend in Denali National Park. Visit and you'll see why it is truly one of "America's best ideas."
Winterfest event welcomes winter visitors Feb. 26-March 1
• Where: McKinley Park, Denali National Park winter visitor center and Healy
• What: A long weekend of celebrating all things snow, outdoor recreation and winter in this quiet community. Many events are directed at families.
• Top picks for kids: Stargazing party Friday, Feb. 27, at McKinley Park Community Center; ranger-led snowshoe walks, crafts, ice-carving demonstrations at Murie Science and Learning Center throughout the weekend; sled dog rides by a local musher and a special visit to the Denali Sled Dog Kennels on Saturday, Feb. 28.
• Lodging/dining: Healy lies 10 miles north of the park entrance and has a few options for overnight accommodations. Try the Totem Inn and Restaurant in downtown Healy or Denali Lakeview Inn on scenic Otto Lake. Rose's Cafe is on the Parks Highway. Both the cafe and the Totem Inn serve kid-friendly meals with plenty of local flavor.
• Riley Creek Campground is the only camping facility open during the winter in Denali National Park. Tenters and RV campers should remember that there is no water, electricity or food services nearby. They should be completely self-sufficient. There is a pit toilet restroom open. Camping is free.
• Getting there: Prepare your car and your kids with emergency supplies should conditions become difficult. Pack sleeping bags, food, water and a shovel and check Alaska's 511 road conditions website before leaving home. Cell service is spotty in many areas, particularly beyond the park entrance area.
Erin Kirkland is the author of "Alaska on the Go: Exploring the 49th State with Children" and the publisher of AKontheGO.com, a family travel resource. She lives in Anchorage. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.