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National Parks: Denali

Denali isn’t just for experts. These guinea pigs will prove it. Probably.

From Grassy Pass, two miles past the Eielson Visitor Center, we drop into a steep drainage choked with head-high dwarf birch. At the bottom, dry grasses crunch like ramen and leave thatched imprints in slatelike mud. Our first big ford, across a knee-deep braid of the Thorofare River, chills our toes and ankles but doesn’t slow us. Our feet rewarm as we pad across the tundra beyond. The turf bounces underfoot like a Serta. In the distance, clouds hood the upper third of the most imposing peaks, but that doesn’t tame Denali’s infectious vastness: I can see it pulling my siblings forward like a magnet. So far, so good.

“This is the closest I’ve been to another planet,” Elissa says. Denali really is a world apart. Clawed prints trail hoofed prints. Delicately colored flowers fold in against the cold. Stray jawbones lie strewn here and there.

It’s early September, during the two-week window for fall, when the hillocks break out in a crimson rash. Most of the red bushes hold fistfuls of blueberries, dimpled and sweetened just shy of fermenting. Summer hikers can keep their mosquitoes: Without question, this is the finest time of year to be here.

But the initial honeymoon period—at least for Elissa—ends after just 2.4 miles. A blonde mother grizzly and her coffee-colored cub descend into our intended path, lazily feasting on the same berries. They’re still too far away to inspire real panic, but the sight sends Elissa and Jeff on a bug-eyed charge up a 40-degree slope to avoid them. They “escape” the close encounter, but 100 yards ahead I see Elissa lie down. When I reach her five minutes later, she’s actually asleep with her pack on. Divas need their beauty rest. I just didn’t expect it to happen in a blueberry patch 2.5 miles in.

I give her a few more minutes to recover, and then lead the way down 300 feet of steep talus into Glacier Creek’s quarter-mile-wide alluvial basin, bordered on one side by steep rock and on the other by the overgrown golf-course hills of the Muldrow Glacier. In between: a minefield of silty babyheads riven by veins running fast with 38°F glacial melt.

"How much more of this crap do we have?” Elissa asks. “My feet will never be warm again.” Jeff dumps a cup and a half of gravel from his water shoe and struggles to clean his fogged glasses.

“Camp is just a mile ahead,” I say, lying shamefully. False optimism might fuel them. We avoid an all-out family feud by hiking 50 feet apart, and 1.4 miles and five stream crossings later, Glacier Creek narrows into a single noisy channel. I look behind us to see the flat gray wall of a storm erasing the horizon, and ahead see a clear-running stream on the left. This will do. Just in time to stave off mutiny.

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