Day 0 – Traveling to the Park
Half a million people visit Denali National Park primarily in July and August. Most visitors see the park from the safety of a school bus. Of course, the bus tour includes scheduled stops to stretch and snap photos. And really, I don’t blame tourists. It makes sense. Once you venture away from the protection of park infrastructure, you are exposed to a variety of hazards. The wildlife is abundant, the weather is temperamental, and the terrain is difficult.
But it’s the fear of a bear attack that keeps most people inside the buses. My family and respected friends felt the same and wanted me to stay on the bus. They said I was insane for voluntarily hiking alone in close proximity to bears. I replied fatal bear attacks are rare and they happen to groups and solo hikers alike. Plus, the park staff monitors bear activity and request that hikers record any bear sittings. Ok, I admit it. Statistics aren’t much comfort when you’re bushwhacking through a boreal forest. Somehow yelling “Hey bear, not today bear” helps.
Denali isn’t well-catered to the spontaneous. It’s a mini-expedition just to reach the park’s interior. A 10+ hour journey from Houston to Anchorage, five-hour bus ride to the parks entrance, a 0.5 hike to my campsite, a few hours ‘sleep’ in the Land of the Midnight sun, a few more hours acquiring a permit, and finally a four-hour bus ride into the park. All in all, it took 40 hours before I started hiking.
Quotes about the Alaska wilderness
So, why venture into the wild? Pure wilderness was my mission. So where the tourists’ adventure ends, mine began – Thursday, July 24th at 3pm when I stepped of the bus.
To lovers of pure wilderness Alaska is one of the most lovely countries in the world
— Travels to Alaska by John Muir
Wilderness lovers delight that Denali has only one main road and few established trails. It makes even orthodox libertarians reconsider the universality of private property rights. You dictate the route. You pick the campsite. I didn’t see another person for 2 days. A true hikers delight.
Looking at so much mountain ground — this immense minute fragment of wilderness — one could wonder about the choice of words of people who say that it is fragile. “Fragile” just does not appear to be a proper term for a rugged, essentially uninvaded landscape covering tens of thousands of square miles — a place so vast and unpeopled that if anyone could figure out who to steal Italy, Alaska would be a great place to hide it.
— Coming into the Country John McPhee
Though McPhee was describing his travels in the Brooks Range near the Salmon River, it applies to Denali as well. Fragile when trampling new trails along the tundra. Rugged standing atop Mount Galen when on a clear day you can see both Denali (aka Mount McKinley) soaring 18,000 ft from base to summit and the wild backcountry of the Wyoming Hills.
Day 1 – Visitor Center to Denali Backcountry
Note: The park staff discourages hikers from posting detail route descriptions in order to preserve the wilderness and prevent the creation of social trails. So, I’ll keep my exact route vague even though this site gets even less traffic than Mount Galen.
Even a simple hike requires good navigation. A Denali backcountry often starts down in river bed where mountains. My trip was no different except that dense rain clouds reduced my visibility. Note, a good map doesn’t guarantee proper navigation in the wilderness. Case in point, during the bus ride into the park, we picked up two lost college-aged girls who hiked in a semicircle and were surprised when they rejoined the park road. I nearly made a similar mistake by traveling down Little Stony Creek instead of Stony Creek.
Because of all the permitting, busing it to the ‘trailhead’, and rain, I only hiked a few miles before setting up camp.
Day 2 – Sleet, Snow, Scenery and Solitude
The rain persisted and I woke up not sure if I wanted to continue with cold, wet feet – but I’m glad I did. Thank you shepherds for wool socks. How can socks wet and yet so warm?
I eventually reached a series of mountain ridges overlooking two valleys and saw caribou frolicking in the valley below. The mountain-scape was so ‘panoramic’ that I couldn’t stop smiling. I had never seen anything like it. It seemed like God’s sandbox — valleys formed by His fingertips, an endless series of mountains. Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.
The rain relented, but not before a round of sleet and snow. But I was still smiling — if only because the wind was so powerful it pushed my lips apart and held my toothy grin in place. After walking down from the ridges, I found a campsite in a valley sheltered from the wind. I would have had a perfect view of Denali from my tent if the weather had been cooperative. I still had one more day with prospects of better weather.
Day 3 – All good things must come to an end
The third day is typically when my knees start screaming. Thankfully, the softness of the tundra and newly purchased hiking polls silenced my knees. Good thing too because I planned to summit Mount Galen. It was only 1500 ft elevation gain from camp, but it happened all at once. Whew! I’m not prime hiking anymore. When I reached the top, I wasn’t prepared for the views.
Despite all the weather, it was the best hiking experience of my life. Not the best trip – that will always be the Boundary Waters. Not the best company – hiking solo with 24 hour sunlight makes sleeping a little challenging. But it’s an experience to which I’d gladly return.
The park is a challenge to photograph. A panorama can frame the parks width and the mountain skying heights. But nothing, not even video, can truly capture the depth of the valleys or the expanse of the wilderness. It’s a flattened forgery – but what a imitation!
As if mocking personally mocking me, Denali (Mount McKinley) appeared on trip home beckoning for me to return.