Zac Peterson
Zac Peterson
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Hiking in Denali National Park

Hiking in Denali National Park is an experience that you’ll never forget. The national park and abutting national preserve encompass 9,460 square miles (24,500 km2) of protected wilderness. Here you can hike through taiga forest, wander across endless tundra, and explore mountains, valleys, and glaciers. During your time in the park, you are very likely to encounter caribou, grizzly bears, moose, and maybe even wolves. Also, if you’re lucky you will get to see Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America. The 20,310 foot (6190 m) tall mountain is actually significantly taller than Mount Everest when measured from base to summit. It is often obscured by clouds, so catching view of it is a special occasion (the best time to see the mountain is before noon, before the clouds usually move in).

Despite the park’s huge area, it only has one road, starting from the information center at the park gates. For the first 14.8 miles of the road, the park is accessible to personal vehicle traffic, but after that, all travel must be done on park buses, and you will have to pay the $10 park entry fee, as well as the bus ticket price. The road is open from May 20th to the second week of September.

All people who choose to hike in Denali should carry bear spray with them. There are 5 ways to experience Denali National Park, all of which require paying the entrance fee.

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The first way is to stay in the entrance area of the park and travel around with the free buses. Riley Creek Campground is at the park entrance, and costs $15 a night for first-come-first-served walk-in tent camping. This is a great spot because even if the park is busy, it usually won’t fill up. Other camp sites require advanced reservations.

There are quite a few good trails accesible from the park entrance. The best is the Mount Healy Overlook Trail, which takes you up the nearby mountain. The Horseshoe Lake Trail is a much quicker hike, with some good views.

You can also use the free shuttle buses to get to the Savage River Loop Trail, located at mile 14 of the park road, a few feet before the park gate. It’s a short (but beautiful) level hike along a stream through a narrow gap in the mountains, and is perfect for hikers of any ability. If you desire a longer hike, take the Savage Alpine Trail from the same trailhead, which is a much more strenuous hike up a mountain and back down to the Mountain Vista / Savage River Campground. You can then grab the bus back to the park entrance.

If you want to hike off-trail, a great option is climbing up to Primrose Ridge, on the opposite side of the river from the Savage Alpine Trail. It is best accessible via the turn-around point of the Loop Trail.

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The second way is to drive in the park with your car. In addition to the Riley Creek Campground ($24 to car camp), there is also the Savage River Campground, and many hotels outside the park entrance. You can drive as far into the park as the Savage River Trailhead at mile 14 and hike the Loop Trail. If you want to hike the Alpine Trail, you can travel back to your car at the end via the free Savage River shuttle.

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The third way to explore the park is probably the most popular. This is to take a tour bus past the park gates, and drive down the park road. This is the best way to spot wildlife. The park road is very long, narrow, and unpaved, so the trip out and back can take all day. There are several different tours, which are similar, but the guide will stress different aspects of the park, such as its history or its geology. The bus cost depends on how deep you travel into the park. Kids under 15 ride for free. It is highly recommended to book buses ahead of time on reservedenali.com. The earlier your bus, the better chance you have of viewing Mount Denali.

You can get off your tour bus and onto another one if there is room, should you decide to stay at a place longer than the 15-30 mins that the buses stop. Because of this system, you can take a short backcountry hike if you want. There are also bathroom breaks. You can tell “stop” at any point if you spot wildlife.

Bus tickets are bought at the Wilderness Access Center from 7am-7pm. Tour buses can be taken to the following points:

Toklat River – mile 53 – 6.5 hrs round trip – $31.25
This is a visitor center a little over half way into the park, by a river surrounded by mountains. On the way you will stop at Teklanika River (mile 29) for a bathroom break, and a good view. A few miles later, you will go over Sable Pass, with views on the left of Cathedral Mountain. Afterwards is Polychrome Pass, where the south side of the road drops down hundreds of feet. The bus will stop at the Overlook there, where you can get a great view out at the tundra and the mountains on the other side of the expansive valley.

Eielson Visitor Center – mile 66 – 8 hrs round trip – $40.00
This is the best bus pass to buy, as you see all of the best spots on the road, and it isn’t too long. The visitor center has incredible views out into the valley, and has two trailheads, the Thorofare Ridge Trail up to a mountaintop (recommended), and one down to the river. On the way there from the Toklat River stop, you will stop at the Stony Hill Scenic Overlook, which gives you the best view of Mount Denali (the one seen on the Alaska state quarter).

Wonder Lake – mile 85 – 11 hrs round trip – $55.00
Getting to Wonder Lake is a long trip, and only worth it if you leave early, and Denali is visible, or if you have time to stay. There is less wildlife in this section as well. Don’t let that advice detract you from the trip though, as the views south from the bus out into the wide open valley are stunning. The lake itself is nice, but nothing unique. If you have time to stay you can hike the McKinley Bar Trail down to a gravel bar, which is a great hike, with a higher chance of spotting wildlife. You can also make your way over to the Reflection Pond, off of the road on the way to Kantishna, which gives the best mirrored view of Denali.

Kantishna – mile 92 – 13 hrs round trip – $60.00
The only reason to take the bus out this far is if you are going to take a flight tour out of the airport, or if you are staying at the campground. You can also use this bus to get closer to Reflection Pond.

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The forth way to experience Denali is by camping in the park. You can camp in the park for as many days as you want, as long as you have a campsite reserved. Reserving campsites ahead of time is highly recommended. Some can be reserved online, while others can only be reserved in person at the Wilderness Access Center. Sites cost around $15 per night. Access to the campgrounds is provided via the $40 camper bus. You must have a campsite reserved before you can buy the camper bus ticket. The ticket lasts for as many days as you have campsites reserved in the park. As long as you don’t leave the park entrance, you can travel back and forth within the park via the camper buses using the same ticket.

There are 4 campgrounds within the park:

Sanctuary Campground – $15
Although it only has 7 tent sites, this is a good campground to stay at, as it can only be reserved in person at the Wilderness Access Center, so there are often spaces available. Use it as a base to explore the park, but it’s not the best place to hike from. It is more forested than most other areas of the park.

Teklanika Campground – $25
This is a special campsite for RVs, and requires a 3 day minimum stay. There are a few tent sites as well.

Igloo Creek Campground – $15
The reservation process is the same as Sanctuary Campground. There are 7 campsites here. It was closed in 2017 due to bear activity.

Wonder Lake Campground – $16 + $6
Wonder Lake is the biggest campground within the park, and is the best place to stay if you want to wake up with a view of Mount Denali. It cost $6 to reserve a site online.

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The last way to experience Denali is the greatest, and most extreme: backcountry camping. Denali has very few trails, so most hiking done within the park is off-trail. This can be as easy as waking on a wide gravel bar, or as difficult as bushwhacking through willows in a gully. Backpackers should be prepared for any weather condition, pack extra food, and be prepared to deal with animal encounters.

The park is divided into 87 backcountry units. If you want to backcountry camp, you have to reserve a spot in your desired unit. Half of the units have a quota, where only a certain number of people (~4-8) can camp at a time. You can tent anywhere in the park, provided you reserved a spot in that unit for that night, and you are not visible from the park road. You can reserve each unit for a maximum of 7 nights in a row, but you have to reserve it the day of your trip into the park, so come to the park with several alternate itineraries.

In order to get into the backcountry, you have to first reserve units at the Backcountry Information Center, which opens at 8am. At the BIC, rangers will issue your permit and give you a bear-proof container for food and toiletries. If you have questions about your planned route, they can help.

Before you can get your permit, you need to watch a video. To save time, get to the Wilderness Access Center at 7am, watch the video there, sign your name on the list there, and take a picture of the list to show to the rangers when the WIC opens at 8am. Since it takes so many hours on the camper bus to get to many of the units, any time saved is valuable.

After getting your backcountry camping permit, you can head over to the Wilderness Access Center to buy your camper bus ticket.

The most desirable backcountry units are the ones accessible from the road with interesting topography. 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 18, 29, 30, and 31 are all good options.

A good 3 night loop hike can be done by starting at the Eielson Visitor Center, hiking down the trail to the gravel bar, then sleeping in Unit 12 (Sunset/Sunrise Glaciers). The next day, cross west over one of the mountain passes to Unit 13 (Mount Eielson). To get over a mountain, hike up a gully or stream until you get to the top. From Unit 13, you can climb Mount Eielson and explore Muldrow Glacier. If you hike up the glacier (use extreme caution and beware of crevasses), you can spend you last night in Unit 18 (Upper Glacier Creek), then hike out the next day back to the Visitor Center.

For people who want to spend an extended amount of time camped in the park for free, a great trick is to reserve large blocks of time in Unit 1. From Unit 1, it is a short hike back to the Denali Visitor Center, where you can take a shower, buy supplies, or take a free bus ride into town. If you want to go farther into the park, hike out to the park road and use your camper bus ticket. This is a way to stay in the park but be able to leave without repaying the entry fee and bus ticket costs.

Make sure not to hike where you see others have hiked before. The point of Denali is to experience Wilderness, and to leave no trace behind you, including paths caused by people frequently taking the same route.

Always make loud sounds while hiking to avoid surprising an animal, which might attack if it is startled. If you see an animal, don’t approach it. Moose and grizzly bears should be treated with extreme caution. Stay at least 75 feet away from moose and other animals. If a moose charges you, run away in a zigzagging line, and it will give up once it no longer feels threatened. If you are within 1000 feet of a grizzly bear, then you’re too close. If it approaches, stand your ground, and get ready to use your bear spray. If it gets too close to you, protect you head with your arms and stomach with your knees and play dead. Never run away from a grizzly, as it will see you as prey.

Always bring extra clothing into the field, and avoid cotton items. Always bring an at least an extra day of food with you as well. Also, let a friend or family member know which units you will be in when, and on what date they should expect to hear back from you. There is no cellphone service within the park, and it is bigger than Massachusetts, so no one will find you otherwise. The gps on smartphones works well though, so I recommend loading an offline satellite and topographic map on your phone to help with navigation. You can do this in google maps.

Essentials:
-light, high calorie food (1+ day extra)
-tent
-bear spray
-bear-proof canister (provided free by the park)
-rain pants and rain jacket
-hiking boots
-wool socks
-athletic clothing (non-cotton)
-topo map and smartphone or gps

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