PART V: DENALI
We decided to save Denali National Park for last. For many people, Denali is what comes to mind when Alaska is mentioned. Denali was one of the first national parks, beginning as Mount McKinley National Park in 1917. The original park was a game refuge centered around its namesake peak. Mount McKinley, called “Denali” by the Athabascan people, is the tallest mountain in North America, at 20,320’. The park has grown over the years, most notably in 1980, when it expanded to 6 million acres and became Denali National Park and Preserve.
Aside from Mount McKinley, the park is probably most famous for its wildlife. Large mammals there include caribou, moose, Dall sheep, wolves, and grizzly bears. We were hoping to see some of these animals on our visit. Caribou and wolves topped my personal wish list, as I’d never seen either animal in the wild.
Denali used to be difficult to get to. The Alaskan Railroad was completed in the 1920’s, connecting the park with Seward, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. Around this time, construction began on the park road from the railroad depot in Healy to Wonder Lake and Kantishna. The park road runs 89 miles, staying north of the Alaska Range the entire way. However, it wasn’t possible to actually drive to the park until the Denali Highway was completed in 1957. The Denali Highway traversed more than 100 miles of the Alaskan Wilderness, from the Richardson Highway north of Glennallen to Healy. Even then, it was a long drive from Anchorage, which is 180 miles west of Glennallen on the Glenn Highway.
Denali became even more accessible in 1971, when the George Parks Highway was completed between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The new highway provided direct access to the park from two of Alaska’s largest cities. The new highway technically rendered the Denali Highway obsolete, but I still wanted to drive it.
The only route out of McCarthy is back to the Richardson Highway south of Glennallen. From there, we could take three different routes to Denali. The fastest would be the Glenn Highway to Wasilla, and the Parks Highway north to Denali. A more intriguing option would be to the north, through Fairbanks. However, the Denali Highway promised the most adventure. Plus, it would be the most direct route – if not necessarily the fastest.
We got up early Sunday morning even though Christy was nursing a bit of a hangover. We had a lot of ground to cover that day though. We had reservations at the Wonder Lake Campground, in Denali National Park, starting on Monday night. To get there, we had to drive the 60 mile gravel McCarthy Road, followed by more than 100 miles of good highway to Paxson. From Paxson, it would be 135 miles on the Denali Highway, with more than 100 of those miles without the benefit of pavement. The Denali Highway would take us to Cantwell. From there, it would be another 35 miles on the Parks Highway to Denali National Park Headquarters near Healy. Once at the park, we’d check in and pick up a backpacking permit, before catching a bus to Wonder Lake. That bus ride would take another 5 1/2 hours. So yeah, it was definitely time to get on the road.
Before we left, we used up most of the rest of our breakfast supplies, feasting on blueberry pancakes, eggs, and sausage. Even with that indulgence, we made it out of camp by 9:15. I was intent on making good time back out to Chitina, but those plans were derailed when someone pulled out directly in front of us only 2 miles down the road. This was extremely rude, as it left us in a cloud of dust for the next several miles. Fortunately they pulled over a few miles later, and I did my best to make up for lost time. We covered the 60 mile gravel road to Chitina in 100 minutes, which was a pretty impressive pace given the slow start. We didn’t make any stops along the way, but we did dodge dozens of jackrabbits, which constantly darted across the road in front of us.
By the time we reached the Eskimo town of Chitina, we were feeling filthy. The previous day’s hike had been hot, and it felt like we were covered in dust. Plus, I hadn’t had a proper shower since leaving Anchorage a week earlier (Christy had bathed once in Cordova). The campground host had tipped us off on public showers at the laundromat in Chitina, so we decided to give that a try. We found the laundromat without any trouble, arriving at 11:05. Unfortunately, it was closed. The sign on the door said it opened at 11, but there wasn’t anyone around. This didn’t look encouraging, so we chose not to wait. Instead we headed on down the road towards Kenny Lake.
Our backup plan was the Kenny Lake Roadhouse. In the remote portions of Alaska, roadhouses provided virtually everything a passing traveler may need, from showers and laundry facilities to groceries and hot meals. We had showers there for $5. Considering how dirty we were, I’d say we got our money’s worth. From there, we found a short cut out to the Richardson Highway. Once on the highway, we hurried north, driving parallel to the Alaskan Pipeline. We made a few brief diversions along here. First we took a brief, forgettable tour of the community of Copper Center. Later we picked up groceries in Glennallen. Finally, we stopped at the Wrangell St. Elias National Park Visitor’s Center. There we discovered that there were 68 significant wildfires burning in Alaska. It turns out that this isn’t terribly unusual. This was a surprise to me, as I’d always thought of Alaska as a wet place.
At the Visitors Center I was suddenly able to access the internet on my phone. I took advantage of the opportunity to look at the weather forecast for Healy, which is on the edge of Denali National Park. I quickly wished that I hadn’t. Rain was expected every day for the coming week. Plus, smoke from nearby fires was expected to be a major problem. We both felt dejected as we hit the road again. We’d been looking forward to Denali’s scenery since we began planning the trip, but it sounded like there wouldn’t be much for us to see.
We stopped at the Dry Creek State Recreation Area just north of Glennallen for lunch. We were looking for a picnic table when we were attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. The little devils were vicious, and neither of us wanted to put on DEET since we’d just showered. Instead, we retreated to car, and had our picnic there. Luckily, this was the only time all trip that mosquitoes forced us to alter our plans.
After eating, we headed north, stopping for gas in Paxson before turning onto the Denali Highway. Initially the highway was paved, and we made good time as we crossed the alpine tundra south of the Alaska Range. Unfortunately, the weather was as promised – dark, heavy clouds hung overhead, obscuring our view of the massive peaks to the north. Despite the clouds, the scenery was still fantastic. Early on we enjoyed vistas that encompassed peaks, glaciers, lakes, and miles and miles of tundra.
After 20 miles or so we reached the Tangle Lakes Archaeological District. This area includes more than 500 designated archaeological sites. It also features a semi-developed campground and the Delta National Wild and Scenic River. The Delta River and the Tangle Lakes is a popular canoeing area. It’s an area that would be worth exploring on a future trip.
Today though, we had to keep moving. The pavement ended at the Tangle Lakes, but the gravel road was in excellent condition, and traffic was minimal. In fact, we probably averaged 45 mph on the dirt portion of the Denali Highway. Most of the drive was through true wilderness, although we did pass a few small lodges. Along the way, we continued to take in the scenery surrounding us. I’d love to go back and drive this road in clear weather. At various points, Mount McKinley and some of the higher peaks in the Wrangell Mountains are visible in good conditions. Today, we had to be content with the scenery close at hand. Some highlights included the Maclaren and Susitna Rivers, there glaciers spilling down from the mountains in the distance.
We reached the Brushkana Creek Campground that evening. This campground, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, is the second of two semi-developed campgrounds along the highway. At large camping is allowed almost everywhere for free, but the developed campgrounds have facilities, and only cost $8. We were sold on Brushkana Creek as soon as we pulled in. The campground was mostly empty, and it features very private sites. We took one close to the creek, which is a scenic mountain stream winding its way through an open spruce forest. Brushkana Creek and Childs Glacier ended up being our favorite car campgrounds of the trip.
We used up the last of our charcoal that night for dinner. We grilled beef ribs and accompanied them with potatoes and green beans. That meal turned out to be one of the best of the entire trip! After dinner, we spent a little time chatting with the campground host. He was a friendly guy from Texas, and later we gave him some leftover food that we knew we wouldn’t use.
That evening we took a short walk on the Brushkana Creek Trail, which starts at the campground. We were hoping to see some wildlife, but nothing materialized. At least the rain held off, despite the threatening skies.
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
We were up early the next morning. We only had 31 more miles of the Denali Highway to drive, but I still wanted to get to the park as early as possible. We broke camp under light rain, and proceeded to load our packs for our Denali adventure.
Our visit to Denali required a bit of planning. We had reservations at the developed Wonder Lake Campground Monday and Tuesday night. Wonder Lake is only accessible by park bus though, so we wouldn’t have access to the rental car. We’d leave Wonder Lake Wednesday morning and begin a 3-day backpacking trip. So, we had to carefully pack everything we’d need for the next five days.
We had spent most of the previous evening organizing our gear, which made packing a little easier. Packing in the rain sucks, so we drove over to the bathrooms, where a small roofed area provided a bit of shelter. Once I had everything loaded, I hoisted my pack, only to drop it as my lower back locked up in spasms.
This was extremely alarming. I had never experienced back pain like this before. I lurched over to a nearby picnic table and stretched out on it. Gradually the pain faded, but I was still leery. Was I going to be able to backpack in the Denali Wilderness like this? Once I felt like I could walk, Christy helped me wrestle my pack into the back seat of the car.
In hindsight, I think I injured my back the previous evening, while getting the cooler out of the trunk. The cooler we’d bought in Seward fit perfectly in the trunk – perhaps too perfectly. It was a tight squeeze getting it in and out. The previous evening, I’d really had to give it a good yank to pull it free. I suspect I pulled a muscle without realizing it. My back was sore when I woke, but I attributed that to another night sleeping on the ground.
Now we had a decision to make. Was backpacking in the Denali wilderness with a questionable back a good idea? Probably not. However, I rationalized that we’d be spending two nights at Wonder Lake first. Hopefully my back would recover by Wednesday. If not, we’d abort the backpacking trip and find something else to do for the last few days of our trip.
The rest of the drive to Cantwell was uneventful. We ate bagels with cream cheese as we drove through light rain. In Cantwell we picked up the George Parks Highway, which we followed to Healy. Just before town, we turned onto the park road and proceeded to the Wilderness Information Center. There we checked in for Wonder Lake and got a reservation for the next available bus, at 2pm. There was an earlier bus, but it was already fully reserved when we arrived.
From there, we headed over to the backcountry office to get a backpacking permit. Backcountry permits are handled a little differently in Denali. Because there are virtually no official trails in the park, all hiking is cross-country. The park is divided into backcountry units. A maximum number of people are allowed in each unit each night. These limits are minimal, typically ranging from 4 to 8 people. Advance reservations are not accepted, and in most cases permits are issued no more than one day in advance.
There is one exception to the rule above. People camping at Wonder Lake can obtain a backcountry permit before going there. As a result, hikers staying at Wonder Lake have an advantage over other backpackers. This little loophole was one of the reasons we decided to spend two nights at Wonder Lake prior to our backpacking trip.
Despite that advantage, I knew there was no guarantee that we’d get a permit for our favorite unit. So, prior to the trip, I had researched many of the backcountry units easily accessible from the park road. The park buses will drop off and pick up hikers anywhere along the road, which makes that portion of trip logistics easy.
After finishing my research, I’d decided that park units 13 & 18, which include Glacier Creek, was my top choice. That trip would involve starting at the Eielson Visitor Center, at milepost 68 on the park road. From there we’d ford the braided Thorofare River and follow Glacier Creek upstream. We’d camp along the creek, and spend the second day hiking up to Anderson Pass. Anderson Pass promised superb views of Mount McKinley and its many glaciers, if the weather cleared. We’d then return by the same route the final day.
As luck would have it, these units were available. However, Christy and I were both having second thoughts. Glacier Creek and Anderson Pass would be a tough 3-day trip. Between my questionable back, her balky knee (which was still a little swollen), and the charming weather forecast, we thought an easier trip might be in order. It was painful passing up on our first choice, but it was probably the right call.
Unfortunately, our next two choices, units 9 & 10, were both booked. We spent the next 30 minutes in the backcountry office looking at maps and descriptions and talking with the rangers. Finally we selected unit 6, the Upper Teklanika River. This valley looked like a straight-forward trip. To access the valley, we’d start from the park road and cross a low pass before descending to the river. This would require some bushwhacking, but that is something we are used to. Once at the river, the walking would be easy on the gravel river bar. Upstream, we could hike to several glaciers that serve as the source of the river. Downstream is Cathedral Mountain, which blocks all views of the road and provides a true sense of isolation. Best of all, unit 6 is squeezed between two wildlife management areas. Wildlife management areas are off-limits to hikers, but their proximity suggested the potential for numerous wildlife sightings.
After making our selection, we completed the permit application and purchased a detailed topo map. Then we watched the required safety video, listened to the safety speech, and had our bear canister approved. This last part was a little nerve-wracking, as a black bear in the Adirondacks of New York recently learned how to open them. Apparently the park service hasn’t banned them yet, which would render my $80 canister obsolete. This was a relief, because I really didn’t want to use one of the official park service cans, which are small yet heavy.
By the time our permit was in hand, the rain had stopped but smoke was rolling into the valley. We finished packing and spent some time at the Visitor’s Center before parking the car near the Riley Creek Campground in the long term lot. We picked up the bus to Wonder Lake there, ready for five days of adventure deep in Denali National Park.
The bus ride was long but scenic. Along the way, we spotted a moose, several caribou, and a bald eagle. The bus driver stopped for each wildlife sighting so we could watch the animals and take photos. There were several scheduled stops along the way, including a 40-minute break at the Eielson Visitor Center. In addition, the bus stopped at the Igloo Creek Campground to drop off some guys from Sweden who were starting a backpacking trip there. This was of interest to us, as they were hiking directly across the road from unit 6. Igloo Creek Campground was one of the places we could potentially start or end our trip.
As we drove west we began to leave the smoke and clouds behind. The farther we went, the more the mountains began to emerge. At the Eielson Visitor’s Center, Christy watched a documentary on climbing Mount McKinley, while I took a brief walk on a paved path traversing a short stretch of tundra.
The last 17 miles of the drive were uneventful. Unfortunately, light rain resumed just as we arrived at our stop. Christy helped me get my pack off the bus and onto my back for the short walk up to the campground. Luckily, the rain passed quickly. The camping area is situated on a hillside, quite some distance from the actual lake. In good weather, many of the campsites feature views of Mount McKinley. All of those sites were taken when we arrived though. Instead, we settled for a spot in the woods. This site had no view, but it was more secluded and private than the other sites and was conveniently situated near the cooking shelter, bathroom, water, and food storage area.
We set up camp and had a dinner of pasta, salmon, and vegetables. It was windy and chilly, but at least the breeze held the mosquitoes at bay. As we ate, the clouds gradually began to clear. By late evening, the clouds surrounding McKinley began to break up. Before long, we were treated to our first view of North America’s highest mountain! McKinley is notorious for hiding in the clouds, and many park visitors never see the actual mountain. Considering the weather forecast and the smoke, we were thrilled with our good fortune. We stayed up for quite a while, watching the mountain as it glowed in the late evening light.
We got up at 7 the next morning. An early start was critical, as we wanted to catch the 8am bus departing from Wonder Lake. Otherwise, we would’ve been stuck there all morning, as the next departure was at 11:45. We had a quick breakfast of cold cereal while enjoying more views of McKinley, which was most definitely out! In fact, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. So much for that weather forecast.
We caught the 8am bus to Kantishna. Scott Richardson was our driver, which proved to be fortunate. Scott was a great driver, as he had a good eye for wildlife. We talked with him for part of the ride. Scott lives in Hawaii in the winter and Alaska in the summer, which is probably pretty good strategy. We told him about our backpacking plans, and he shared lots of useful information that proved to be helpful for our trip.
Scott made two key stops on the way to the end of the road at Kantishna. We paused at the Reflection Pool and at the north end of Wonder Lake. On this morning, the reason behind each name was crystal clear. We enjoyed fantastic views of McKinley, perfectly reflected in the water below. Aside from the mountain scenery, we were treated to more wildlife, including moose, caribou, and arctic terns. In Kantishna we passed some artifacts from the gold mining days and stopped at a couple of private lodges. After picking up some additional passengers, we headed back past Wonder Lake and on to the Eielson Visitor Center. We got off there, intent on doing a dayhike before returning to Wonder Lake later that afternoon.
From the Visitor’s Center, we hiked one of the few official trails in the park. We crossed the road and picked up the trail, which climbs switchbacks up the flank of Mount Thorofare. Our original plan was to climb to Thorofare’s peak. However, the wind was brutal, and we were feeling pretty abused by the time we reached the crest of the ridge. The view from here was superlative, and I couldn’t think of a single reason to justify climbing higher. From the ridge, we had a clear view of Mount McKinley, the Thorofare River, Glacier Creek, the McKinley River, the Muldrow Glacier, and dozens of additional peaks along the spine of the Alaska Range. And that was just the view to the south! Mountains and valleys rolled away from us to the west and north, with only the view to the east obscured by the summit of Mount Thorofare.
We found a wind-break on the west end of the ridge and huddled there to enjoy the view. By the time we started back down, the wind actually seemed to be increasing. Down along the Thorofare River, huge clouds of dust were billowing. As we followed the ridge back, the wind was literally knocking us around, preventing us from walking a straight line. I felt a little like that guy on the Weather Channel that always gets duct taped to a palm tree prior to the arrival of each hurricane. Well, except that we had no duct tape, or palm trees. Or any trees, for that matter. We were way above treeline up on Mount Thorofare.
We hurried back down the mountain, and had a late lunch at the Eielson Visitor Center. Then we caught the next bus back to Wonder Lake. From the bus stop, we walked down the road to the actual lake. Wonder Lake is a beauty, although we had no view of McKinley from this end of it. We hung out there for a bit, out of the wind, before doubling back to the bus stop. Then we walked back up the road a short distance to the McKinley Bar Trail. We followed this path, which is also an official park trail, down through spruce forest to the McKinley River. The walking was pleasant, and we feasted on Huckleberries as we hiked. The area looked like it had the potential for moose or other wildlife, but we didn’t see anything along here.
The wind was howling down by the river, and clouds of dust we blowing down the far bank. The McKinley River was a sight to see though. The river is heavily braided, and the river and its gravel bar are probably a mile across. Some adventurous backpacking trips can be started here, but they require fording multiple braids of the river. Crossing that river is one of the most dangerous things you can do in Denali, and we ruled those areas out early on.
We hung out for a bit before returning to the campground. That night we enjoyed more views of McKinley over a spaghetti dinner. The wind continued to howl, which chilled us but provided relief from the mosquitoes. Between our two hikes, we covered over 8 miles, and climbed more than 1000’. After spending the previous two days driving and riding buses, it was nice to get out and stretch the legs a little. Of course, we’d be stretching them a lot over the next 3 days, assuming that my back was willing to cooperate.
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