|Total Elevation Gain||~9500 ft|
Denali’s trail-less wilderness is the stuff we dream about. I’m here to report back that it is every bit as fantastic as you’ve been led to believe. For one glorious week, I immersed myself in the Denali wilderness and felt dwarfed by its immensity. I could spend years tramping through its backcountry.
The route I took is very feasible for the Alaska newbie. Still, having solid map & compass skills as well as a good amount of off-trail travel under your belt is necessary. In addition, knowing your gear and your gear’s limitations is a requirement in Alaska’s environment.
Getting to Denali National Park can be a bit tricky. You can fly in to Fairbanks or Anchorage and take a bus to the park. The Park Connection bus is the only legit looking service that I could find. A round trip ride to the park is a bit pricey, but still waaaay cheaper than renting a car. It stops right near park entrance (don’t listen to the help desk woman who tells you that the closest you can get is the Denali Princess Lodge), just ask the bus driver and they’ll let you know when to get off.
You can also try hitch hiking, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re on a tight timeline. I was able to score a hitch to Anchorage, but it took me a day to get the ride.
Once you get to the park, immediately make your way to the backcountry office. The permitting system is first come, first serve and each unit has a pretty small limit of people allowed. Your hike will depend on what you want to achieve, what permits are available, and ranger recommendations. Hike your own hike is truly the quintessential character to Denali.
To help you with the first bit of determining what you want to achieve, I’ll lay out approximately how to recreate my trip. However, do not feel that you’re limited to this in any way. In fact, you’ll most likely not be able to hike it exactly based on permit availability.
The permit you want is either 13 or 34 (in that order). Once you get your permit then you hop on the earliest available green hiker bus. This is the only way in to the park and quite enjoyable both for sightseeing and pre-hike napping. You’re in charge of where you get off the bus–just let the driver know. If your unit is 13 or 34 then you’ll probably want to get off at “Grassy Pass”. Hike out quickly to an appropriate, out of view spot where you can pitch your tent–it is probably pretty late and you are tired.
The next day hike south toward intermittent creek. First you’ll have to ford braids of the Thorofare river over, and over, and over, and over… Your feet will move from cold, to stabbing, to numb. I recommend some sort of water crossing shoe if you hate the concept of wet shoes (I did not have any such shoe and just crossed in my hiking shoes–DO NOT cross in your bare feet).
The open area by Intermittent and Wolverine creeks is astoundingly beautiful. This is the first place I stood immobile at the views–this is a good place for lunch if you got an early enough start. Continue down Glacier Creek. The areas by Green Point and Red Mountain offers some nice camping spaces.
Definitely carve time out of your day to hop over the dirt wall and take a look at Muldrow Glacier. It is a gorgeous sight that can’t be captured by camera. There are several points along Glacier Creek that offer easy access to an overlook for the glacier.
The next day, leave your stuff behind and make your way to Anderson Pass. This will take you a long time, longer than you think since you’re basically meandering over grassy knolls and silt covered glacier following the direction of travel arrow on your compass. It’ll be hard to tell if you’ve actually made it to Anderson Pass until you actually get there–there are many “false passes”. Also, be aware of your own limits and comfort levels. The top of the pass may be melting and questionably safe for travel. When I was there (late July – early August), there were many crevasses and the glacier was making a lot of groaning noises along with a gunshot-like sound that was enough to scare me away from making it all the way to the top.
The next day head back to Intermittent creek and then just hike straight up. Don’t worry about ditching early–you’ll find campsites along the way to the top of the pass. This is also a great area to just do some random, off-route wandering. You’ll get fantastic views of the surrounding area and, if you’re lucky, a glimpse at Denali to go along with the in-your-face views of Mt. Mather.
After that you’ll be traversing one of the best places I’ve ever hiked–the pass between Intermittent and Contact creeks is so gloriously beautiful. The mountain colors and magnitude are outstanding and accentuated by the fact that you haven’t seen anyone in the last two days.
After you get to the bottom of Contact Creek, your plan is your own. Some things to note: there were quite a good number of bears that I saw in this area–one mother and cub diabolical duo made me relocate my camp. Also, it took me a long time to safely cross the Thorofare River here.
I decided to set up another base camp and hike down Sunrise Creek (first via the ridge line along Bald Mountain, then down through the narrow canyon). This area was different from the rest of the places I went in the park (with the exception that it still involved quite a bit of creek crossing), so I would recommend it just based on that.
I camped near a small, unnamed lake on the last night out to allow for a quick morning exit. The hike from the lake to Eielson Visitor Center involved a tiring, but ultimately satisfying uphill bushwack.
Back at the visitor center I picked up a bus headed back east relatively quickly. Once back at the main visitor center, with bear canister returned and burger eaten, I spent a cheap night in a walk-in backpacker site in the main front-country campground.
The week spent in Denali was one of the finest I’ve ever spent.