One-Man Towns, Eight Paved Highways, 129 Million Acres of Forest. Alaska? Naturally.

Hiking the Backcountry of Denali

May 21, 2001
Outside Magazine

More than three million visitors have tromped through Denali National Park since 1990. And certainly they can't all be wrong. But they can make you feel quite like the "charismatic megafauna" you've come to rub antlers with, like just another middle-of-the-pack member of the caribou herd, jostling with the others for a prime spot at the watering hole.
Of course, there is also another, uncluttered Denali—a glacial, musky, difficult, and spectacular place where views of Mount McKinley loom up from the horizon and the crowds rarely bumble into your path. To find this Denali, aim high. Literally. Indeed, since most visitors assume that proximity to the mountain affords them the best views, the uninitiated line up for permits to the backcountry areas closest to Mount McKinley. (The park service divides the park into 43 "units," with only four to 12 campers allowed in each per day.) But after working their way into the mountain's lengthy shadows, they soon find their sight lines obscured by ridges, not to mention by clouds of mosquitoes and gnats. If you hike up to the top of the ridgelines instead, you'll experience both the astounding sight of McKinley soaring to its full 20,320-foot height and the heartening knowledge that mosquitoes circle in gangs far below.

For the finest multiday hike in Denali, get a permit for Units 5 and 6. Then, from mile 37 on the park road, scramble down the steep bank to Igloo Creek. Hike east along the bushy, overgrown south haunches of Cathedral Mountain; wolf country is to your west, though given their elusiveness, you're unlikely to see any. You might, however, stumble onto a grizzly. After about three miles, you'll find the forest thinning out and falling away until you enter the open gravel bed of the Teklanika River—literally "much bed, little river" in the local Athabascan language. Head south. Dall sheep wander the lush, sloping valley walls. Make camp wherever the land appears both flat and thorn-free.
Next day, follow the easternmost branch of the Teklanika as it narrows and rises steeply. You'll be scrambling over boulders; beware of slippery moss. At the top you should be rewarded with an indelible, Call of the Wild kind of moment: hundreds of caribou pounding along the 5,400-foot pass during their midsummer migration. Follow them (judiciously—they do stampede) as they pick their way down the steep eastern slope. This scrambling two-mile descent ends for them with a group slurp at the glacier-fed stream at canyon's bottom—and for you with an ideal, tree-shaded campsite called, appropriately, Refuge Valley.
From here an 18-mile trek brings you back to the relative comforts of Sanctuary Campground, near your original drop-off point. But don't rush: After all, how often does one get to hike through lonely tundra carpeted with lichen and moss and punctuated with the bonsai perfection of prickly rose? And always, off in the background, towers the stupendous outline of that Platonic ideal of mountainhood. When you run into the closer-is-better hordes upon your return, be magnanimous. There's no need to loudly describe what you were able to see, at least not while they're still rubbing calamine on their welts.
To arrange a guided trip into the backcountry of Denali, call Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna (907-733-1016). Treks average $60-$100 per person per day, depending on length. If you'd rather go on your own, reserve both a spot on a Denali Park Resort shuttle bus (800-622-7275) and a backcountry permit in advance. Shuttle and permit fees are $15. Admission to the park is another $5.

Filed To: Alaska