Here’s how it works: The shuttle bus does its last run into the park on the day prior to what’s called Road Lottery, a brief period during which officials allow private citizens to drive their vehicles along the storied route. But they can only stay overnight at three developed campgrounds, which eliminates self-driven backpackers. Without the hiker shuttle, hikers effectively vanish.
Even better: Through the final day of the Road Lottery (September 17 this year), a courtesy shuttle runs to Savage River Campground at mile 15. Experienced, well-prepared backpackers can take the last hiker bus deep into the park, hike east through some of Denali’s most sought-after units, and end at the Savage River Campground—in time for the final shuttle back to the park entrance, at 3:30 p.m., weather willing.
I never dreamed I’d need to beat the system when I worked as a backcountry ranger in Denali during the summers of 1997 and 1998. My co-rangers, Kevyn and Becky, and I alternated 10-day shifts at the visitor center with patrols in the wild, and of course we had an all-access pass for any unit we wanted, at any time. Sure, we had to do the grunt work—lecturing campers about bear safety ad nauseam, and placating more than a few hyperventilating permit seekers. But we knew we’d landed one of the best jobs in the outdoors. We were transformed by our time in the backcountry. We saw wolf pups crying in front of their dens. We awoke to Mt. McKinley bathed in pink light. We swam in kettleponds sunk into the tundra. Those summers cracked open our souls and changed the trajectory of our lives.
Fifteen years later, the three of us plan a reunion. In Denali, naturally. In the best units, of course. There’s just one little problem. Technically, we have to line up for permits just like anyone else, since our gleaming ranger badges—Denali’s backstage passes—have long since expired. But we don’t need them. We know the secret is just a matter of timing. We’ll take the last bus.
When we board the iconic green shuttle, it’s as empty as we’d imagined: just one other hiker. Our plan is to ride the bus to the East Fork of the Toklat River (mile 43), unload, and hike 40 miles over three passes to the Refuge Valley. In this former ranger’s opinion, it’s the single best spot in all of Denali because it’s so remote and wild, like holy ground. Then we’ll bushwhack down the Savage River to the road.