The visitor at the backcountry desk’s cheeks looked like someone had doused them with Tabasco. “I pulled from my retirement to get here!” he shouted. “Why even have a backcountry if people travel thousands of miles and can’t experience it?”
I sighed. As a ranger manning the backcountry desk—between stints in the actual backcountry—I’d seen this before. A lot. It was mid-June, the height of tourist season, and the man with the blazing cheeks sounded like so many other disappointed visitors. He’d come to Denali to fulfill a lifelong dream, and it was turning into a nightmare. The units he coveted—near the McKinley River, with IMAX-quality views of 20,320-foot Denali—were full for the next five days, the bulk of his vacation. And even his second and third choices looked doubtful.
Denali’s backcountry regulations are viciously fair: no reservations allowed. Just show up, and accept whatever units—if any—are available. Or wait. The 41 overnight units subject to quotas impose tight limits on hiker numbers (just four campers at a time are allowed in some), which helps preserve the park’s wild feel for those lucky enough to score permits, and frustrates the rest. In high season, the prime spots—with Alaska Range views, limited bushwhacking, and resident wolf packs—fill quickly and stay full for the entire season. Often, the only way to camp in a high-traffic site is to start several units away and commit the time and considerable effort to hike over. Or worse: Bide your time in a boggy, willow-choked zone, and then bus-hop on the backpacker shuttle when your dream unit opens.
As backcountry rangers, my compatriots and I encountered high blood pressure types like Mr. Red Cheeks over and over. But there’s a way to game Denali’s permit system without bribing a ranger, or becoming one. The key: Plan your trip for mid-September, when the last hiker bus of the season rumbles up the 92-mile road to Kantishna.
During Denali’s regular trekking season (June 8 to September 13 in 2012), backpackers rely on park shuttle buses. You get your permit, ride the bus to your starting point, return to the road at the end of your hike, and hop back on to return to the visitor center and your car. Most late-season visitors think they have to time their trek so they finish, at the latest, when the final bus of the year can ferry them back to park headquarters. But there’s a loophole, a narrow window when the shuttle season is winding down but the road has not yet closed, and backpackers can have the backcountry virtually to themselves.