Denali Park: It's worth the permit hassles

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of February 21-28, 1996
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Denali Park: It's worth the permit hassles
Q: I will be in Anchorage, Alaska, for a marathon in June and want to stay an extra week for some hiking and backpacking. Where should I go? I will not have a car and prefer not having to spend the dollars to rent one.
Leanne Broadway
Columbia, SC
[email protected]
Denali's wildlife is everpresent, even on the shuttle bus to your trailhead
A: Your best bet is to hitch a ride with one of the several shuttle buses that make daily runs to Denali National Park, about four hours north of Anchorage.

The trade-off is that because it's probably the easiest park to get to from Anchorage, you'll have to deal with crowd-related logistical difficulties once you're there. Still, rest assured that the awe-inspiring Denali wilderness will more than make up for any hassles you may encounter. That said, both Alaska Backpacker Shuttle (907-344-8775) and Moon Bay Express (907-274-6454) depart from the Anchorage International Hostel every morning at 8 a.m.; round-trip cost for each is $60 per person, and you'll be at the Denali Visitor Access Center near the park's main entrance by 1 p.m.

The bad news is that because of the more than half a million visitors who throng to the park every year, Denali has a very strict reservation system. You'll need permits for everything: the park's shuttle buses; the first-come, first-served campsites; and the 43 backcountry camping zones. The even worse news is that people start lining up as early as 6:30 a.m. each morning for those permits--most of which are available two days in advance--so expect that by the time you roll into the park at 1 p.m., all available permits for that day will probably be in other peoples' hands.

The bottom line: Pack extra food and gear and plan to spend at least one additional day waiting for the necessary tickets. But don't despair--you'll find plenty to do in the meantime. Take a day hike up to Primrose Ridge via the trailhead at mile 16 on the Denali Park Road for great views--weather permitting--of Mount McKinley, and at night pitch your tent in one of the many private campgrounds just outside the park entrance.

Once you get your permits, hop on the park shuttle and put as much distance as possible between you and the visitor center; the bus will drop you off anywhere along the main park road. An easily navigable overnight trip--if you can get the necessary permit--is the 14-mile Eieslon Loop, which takes you about as close to McKinley as you can get without crampons. From the Eieslon Visitor Center, head southwest across five miles of open tundra that's home to caribou, moose, wolves, and grizzlies. Then go over the shoulder of Mount Eieslon to 4,500-foot Pass Summit, a spectacular overnight spot with sweeping McKinley views. On the seven- to ten-mile return, head west toward McKinley and then north along the foot of the Muldrow Glacier.

"The Best Hike in Every State" in the Destinations section of our April 1996 issue--on newsstands and online in mid-March--has more details on the Mount Eieslon Loop. For general Denali information, contact the park's visitor center at 907-683-1266, and be sure to check out "Alaska's Untamed Parks" in the Destinations section of our May 1995 issue. And, see our additional online resources about Alaska travel.

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