Denali National Park and Preserve is the third largest national park in the United States, containing 4.7 million acres of virtually uninterrupted wilderness. It is home to Mt. Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, the largest mountain in North America, standing at 20,320 feet. There is one 92 mile-long road that goes through Denali and it is only open to buses for most of the year. According to a park ranger, about 80% of visitors only see the park from the Denali Park Road.
Nick and I decided to be part of the other 20% and we backpacked in Denali’s pristine wilderness. The entire area of Denali is broken up into 87 units and the more accessible have specific quotas. This is to ensure minimal impact on the park land as well as a true wilderness experience for the hikers. Nick and I chose units with quotas of 6 people each, meaning only up to four other people could be sleeping in the same seven square miles of land each night.
Hiking in the backcountry of Denali is unique because there are no trails. Hikers are expected to have a topographical map, a compass and the knowledge of how to use them. We also had to carry all of our food and scented items in a Bear Resistant Food Container – a barrel-shaped canister with two locks designed to prevent curious animals from obtaining the contents within. There has only been one bear-related death in Denali and due to mandatory use of BRFCs, bears do not associate humans with easy food.
We went into the park on a sunny Tuesday afternoon and camped in a primitive gravel lot next to Sanctuary River. During the bus ride, we encountered plenty of wildlife (moose, bears, caribou and dall sheep) but the most impressive sight was of a distant Mt. Denali. It towered above its neighbors, cloaked in white snow, even in the middle of August. Only 30% of park visitors see the mountain due to weather, so we were once again in the minority. I won’t attempt to describe the mountain or the feelings it stirred within my spirit… you’ll just have to see it for yourself.
On Wednesday, we boarded a bus heading deeper into the park and eventually came to the Toklat River, where our off-trail hiking began. Less than an hour into our trek, we had to cross the river. We looked for a portion where the water was wide and shallow, then switched into sockless tennis shoes and crossed the Toklat. The murky glacial water came up to our knees, splashing at our rolled-up pants and around Nick’s hiking poles as he used them to test the depth of each step. As I clutched the straps of Nick’s pack for stability, I began laughing, overwhelmed with the sensation of pure humanity. With the help of no other man or animal, we crossed the river.
We walked a few miles on a gravel bar, gazing at mountains, for they towered in every direction the horizon could provide. Ahead in the distance, a glacier clung between two peaks, steadily melting into the braided river we walked along. We camped on the gravel bar because we were away from berry patches and would be able to see any approaching wildlife.
While reading, we observed a pair of adolescent grizzly bears in the foothills near our campsite. They were far away and unaware of our presence. However, while we were stashing our bear canister far away from our tent, the bear pair reappeared in an area much closer – too close. At the same moment, a pair of caribou came over a nearby hill, pausing for a moment at the top to survey their surroundings. We believe the bears began chasing the caribou with little hope of actually catching them, but the caribou were running in our direction. We shouted “Hey bear!” and waved our arms, which caught the attention of the bears. They paused, contemplating the two brightly-colored creatures who so boldly startled their chase, and turned the other way.
Our next day’s task was to make it over the mountain range that divides the Toklat River into an East and West section. Using our topographical map for reference, we decided to cross at a relatively low saddle. It wasn’t until we had climbed a couple thousand feet that we discovered we had missed our intended path and had set ourselves up for a more challenging hike. We continued up the ridge because the view was incredible and it’s fun to walk straight up a mountain with 30-50 pounds of gear on our backs.
Coming down the mountain was probably more difficult than going up because the majority of the mountainside is covered with thick brush. The bushes were originally knee-high but gradually became stunted trees, around 6-8 feet tall, thus obstructing our view of each other or any potential bears. We pushed through the thick growth, taking care not to walk in the same path because the park does not want any trail system to emerge in the backcountry. It was exhausting work but, as with the river crossing, we felt a raw connection to the surrounding land.
We camped on a gravel bar once again, retreating to our tent after another meager, unsatisfying supper. Throughout the evening, a steady stream of strong, glacially-chilled air blew along the river valley. Denali National Park was already on the verge of an abbreviated and chilly autumn. The next morning, we crossed the Tolkat River as soon as we began hiking, for it was much stronger on that side of the mountain. Even in the early morning, before sunlight or rain could increase its flow, the water reached the middle of our thighs. Another few miles of walking along the river brought us back to the the park road.
With another night to be spent in the park, we took a bus further into the park to the Eielson Visitors Center. On a clear day, the view of Denali would have been impressive. We had to settle for boundless peaks, valleys, rivers and fall foliage. During the ride out of the park on Saturday, Denali showed even more clearly than the first time we saw it five days prior. The bus was filled to capacity with other exhausted campers and backpackers. Those of us who were awake simply gazed at the mountain, watching its dwindling mass until a final turn of the road let it slip out of sight and into our memories.
“There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness” – Theodore Roosevelt