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National Parks: Denali

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

“I know that in your head you’re already writing about this expanse of ‘mind-blowing awesometude,’” she says, employing air quotes. “But we’ve had nothing but rocks for like nine hours. What’s the point?” Now I’m demoralized. To me, Anderson Pass is where we succeed, where we nab an invisible trophy proving that we’re Denali-worthy backpackers. It’s where we stand arm-in-arm under the towering black walls of the Alaska Range and kick the party into high gear, just like we used to. “The point?” I say, turning red. I turn to Jeff, exasperated.

“Let it go,” he says.

My little brother is right, of course. Doggedly pursuing a fixed spot on the topo is what gets people in trouble—especially in Denali. Go as far and high as conditions and spirits allow, and keep in mind that Denali’s deepest rewards begin the second you walk away from the road. Experienced hikers know when to turn around, and I silently thank Elissa for reminding me of it. Our apex comes at 5,000 feet, on the muddy-sock edge of a nameless glacier just shy of Anderson Pass, where the clouds part long enough for us to go slack-jawed at a view of the upper Muldrow S-curving its way up the shoulder of Mt. McKinley. We laugh and snap photos, and no one complains when rain pelts our hoods on the descent.

The gift-shop postcards allege that Denali gets one day of sun for every two of clouds. The ratio proves true for us, and on day three we spend a T-shirt-weather morning gaping at sky-high, glacier-crusted peaks. Our route today: Travel seven miles to Contact Pass posthaste, so we can see those peaks at eye-level before the sun sets. Warm sunlight bathes our happy little valley, making the day’s chilly creek crossings bearable.

Then, another gift: Mt. McKinley wallops us like a physical assault on our eyes. The 20,320-foot peak fills our entire field of vision with its upside-down-ice-cream-cone bulk. On a clear day, North America’s highpoint owns the horizon like no other peak I’ve ever seen.

Only one thing can distract us from the view of McKinley: bears. A large brown rock atop the Muldrow Glacier squirms, stands, and sniffs the air. Two smaller blonde rocks crest the hill, 50 yards away. After spotting us, the griz and her two yearlings roll on the yellowing tundra like puppies, just feet above a tight canyon that is our way out of the Glacier Creek drainage. For 30 minutes we wait, with nothing but air and false confidence between us and North America’s second-largest carnivore. But unlike with our bear sighting on the first day, Elissa and Jeff take this encounter in stride, patiently watching the bruins like old pros, rather than bolting away.

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