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Backpacker Magazine – August 2008

How to Score Denali's Choicest Permits

The system was rigged, says a former ranger. Here's how to beat it.

by: Tracy Ross

4 More Ways to Guarantee Backcountry Success
[1] Go early The visitor center opens at 9 a.m. Be first in line at the permit desk and know which trip you want to do. The more time you stand around planning, the greater the chance that someone will snag the last space in your prized unit. [2] Plan for the future Sometimes permits for the unit you want won't come free until days after your arrival. Lock them in for two days out by starting your hike in a nearby quadrant and planning your route so you'll end up in the right place on the right date. Warning: Show up in a nonpermitted unit too early and rangers will fine you and end your trip. [3] Become a loner The more people you're with, the less chance you have of scoring a prized unit (where the maximum number of permits is sometimes four). Go light, with one or two partners, and increase your chances of getting McKinley-view campsites. [4] Use the campgrounds Sometimes it's easier to get a spot in a campground than in a high-demand unit, and the system allows you to plug these nights into your itinerary. Head into the park, stay at Teklanika or Wonder Lake Campgrounds, then hop the bus to your dream location.

I was a newly minted ranger in Denali National Park when I learned the true meaning of power. There were five of us first-years, and we were backcountry rangers, not campground rangers, or interps, or those glorified toll attendants doling out maps at the entrance booth. We staged rescues and faced down grizzlies and patrolled remote quadrants on 10-day hitches that took us up glaciers, over mountains, and across rivers so swollen with ice melt they lapped at our sternum straps.

We were hard, and we knew it. But our power didn't come from our badges or backcountry exploits. What made us gods was what we did back at the visitor center, behind the permit desk. When we stepped up to that counter, we became arbiters of escape. Barely out of college, we were possessed of the awesomest license in all of rangerdom: the power to grant–or deny–the planet's most coveted backcountry permits.

Denali famously limits visitation in its 87 units to as few as four permitted campers per day–and for good reason. The park's sprawling valleys embody the fundamental promise of backpacking: that freedom–the kind you can only taste by walking self-reliant into the wilderness–really can go on forever. But therein lies the rub: For Denali to remain primitive and free, its fragile ecosystem must be fiercely protected during Alaska's all-too-brief growing season.

Ergo, quotas. And with them a system of rules and regulations that guarantee fair permit-granting, right? Uh, sorta. The more time we spent in the backcountry, the more we came to believe that Denali's best units should go to people like us–the true hiker people. And the system afforded us that wiggle room. Those two guys vying for the last space in Unit 13? We went with the suntanned dude in the pilled Patagonia over the pasty fellow with creases down the center of his zip-off pants.

It's too late for me to repent these youthful indiscretions, but not to atone. So here's my million-dollar secret: To boost your chances of getting that perfect Denali permit, exploit the kid I used to be. Let your beard grow, scuff your boots, mention your annual pilgrimage to the headwaters of the Savage River. And for god's sake, Alexander Supertramp, never, never ask how to get to "the bus."

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