Growing up in a suburb of South India, I vaguely knew where America was on a map, let alone Alaska. Ever since I saw the movie “Into The Wild”, Alaska and Denali National Park became one of my dream destinations and got into my bucket list.
The best opportunity arrived in the Summer of 2016 when my best friend asked me to be his Best Man at his wedding in Alaska. Bingo!
It was the best 5 weeks of my life. I didn’t see night sky during my time in Alaska. Endless summer in the land of the midnight sun, with long days, to play in the mountains for as long as possible.Hiking in Denali National Park is a unique experience unlike the lower 48 because the park has no trails and it has an amazing wildlife.
Don’t let that intimidate you. Having spent a week in Denali backcountry all by myself, it’s not as dangerous as it sounds as long as you follow the basics. In fact, you will feel the total freedom to go wherever you want to go. Navigation is not bad as you have wide open views for miles and miles and most of the hiking will begin and end from the park road with buses running round the clock. There are a couple of trails though, such as the Alpine trail in Eielson Visitor Center, Triple Lakes, etc. However, once you experience hiking in Denali, hiking on the trails would feel like the interstate of the wild :)
The permit system is super simple. Permits are free but you’ll have to buy a bus ticket. Permits are issued only in person and all members of the group should be present. You will have to watch a few safety videos, about an hour long, on camping regulations, wildlife, what to do and not to do. The park ranger will also brief on safety measures and precautions.
Unlike other national parks where you get permits to access trails (Like John Muir Trail in Yosemite, CA), Denali national park is geographically divided into separate units. Go through the topo maps and pick the section that interests you. I picked sections so that I could access glacier, peaks, wildlife sightings and vantage points that offered views of Denali. There are guide books at the office where you can browse through the units and see what it offers. Some units are very famous and they get booked out early on. When you book a permit you reserve a specific unit for a specific date. You may hike in other units as long as you spend the nights in the unit allocated for you. You’re allowed to camp anywhere within the geographic borders of the unit as long as your campsite is out of sight of the road. This is to give everyone a total and complete Into The Wild experience. Please make a note of units that are closed due to wildlife activity or conservation and stay away from those units.
It’s mandatory to carry bear-proof food containers (Given to you free of charge). If you have your own bear-proof container, you may bring it with you and have it approved by a park ranger. You return the bear container, well cleaned, after your trip. It also accounts for your safe return from the trip for the rangers.
You will meet some of the most friendliest Park Rangers ever in Denali. They are most knowledgeable, friendly and very helpful ensuring that you return home with the most wonderful memories and stories of your life.
Your trip begins and ends at the main Park Road. The road runs east to west, 88 miles long, and there’s a camper bus (Green Bus) that are constantly driving along it. Private vehicles are only allowed 15 miles up the road up to Savage River. To travel beyond Savage River you’ll need to use the park’s bus system. You show your wilderness permit at the Wilderness Access Center to buy the bus ticket and it costs $35. You can hop on and off as many times as you want but make sure that you don’t cross the Savage River 15 mile point. You can literally get off anywhere along the road and get picked up anywhere. So if you get lost, find your way back to the road.
You don’t need a permit if you are a day hiker. Day Hikers should get a ticket for a regular “Shuttle Bus.” There are several options for day hikers and there is more option/frequency of shuttle buses. They turn around at Toklat, Eielson, Wonder Lake, or Kantishna. The same rule applies to day-hikers as well. You may hop on and off anywhere along the road. Most of the day hikers make it to Eielson Visitor Center as it offers majestic views of Denali if you are lucky that is. Be watchful of time though as getting to Eielson visitor center is an 8-hour round-trip from the main parking lot.
Make sure you grab the topo maps of the units you are planning to explore. Nat Geo Map of Denali National Park is cool for a bird's eye view but the scale is not sufficient for hiking. You can buy unit maps (About $10) at the Backcountry office. I highly recommend you to buy the ones for the unit you are planning to hike. It saved me from lots of pain and frustration on several occasion.
The safety videos and park rangers will brief about wildlife safety and precautions. Only one person has been fatally attacked by a bear in the entire history of the park. It was an attack in 2012 where the victim ignored all warning signs and approached the bear to take pictures instead of staying at a distance (Recommended 300 Yards. About 3 football field length)
Moose are far more dangerous than bears. They are huge and charge without any warning. Female moose with calves are very aggressive and will trample you to death. The park recommends that you stay at least 25 yards away from a moose.
I got lucky and saw some stunning wildlife including Grizzly, Wolverine, Wolf, Caribou herd and Moose.
Carry a compass and take a field bearing to the road before you venture into the wild. Be aware of the topography. Denali is a wild place with no man-made structures. Take extra precaution while crossing rivers and traversing on glaciers. Watch out for weather conditions as it can change within seconds. Even the smaller rivers will rise rapidly after heavy rains. Be prepared at all times and carry plenty of layers. Carrying hiking poles help, especially for river crossings . Follow the triangle rule. Your campsite, place to cook and food storage should be at least 100 yards apart.
Mt Denali is visible only about 35% of the time in a year. I met a couple who were on their way back after spending 5 days in the wilderness and they said that they didn’t get to see Denali AT ALL. Out of 6 nights I spent in Denali, I got a glimpse of Mt Denali for about 6 hours, Glimpse that is. So don’t be bummed if you get to see Denali. It’s a great excuse to come back to this wonderful place again and if you are one of those lucky hikers who get to see the “The High One” (That’s what Denali means), then you will want more of this place and to visit this amazing park again and again.