On day four, we walk in more sunshine, crossing glinting braids of the Teklanika River. We follow the river a couple of miles until we come to Calico Creek, our last access to Refuge Valley. Waiting for Kevyn, Becky and I stare wistfully. It’s the place I think of as the heart of Denali solitude. Are we really going to get this close and miss it?
But wait. Now that the buses are no longer running, I realize my fixation on Refuge Valley is all wrong. During this fleeting window between summer and winter, when the park’s backcountry all but empties, everywhere we hike is like Refuge. Over the coming days, we won’t see another soul, but we will see more wolf tracks, a grizzly sow with a cub, and, in a rare Denali forest, light that slants through the trees as if they hold shards of stained glass.
It’s an auspicious end to an amazing trip. Except for one small problem. Due to Kevyn’s blisters, we hit the park road eight miles short of the Savage River Campground and the scheduled park shuttle back to the visitor center. Technically, hitchhiking in all national parks is prohibited, so we can’t just thumb a ride even though scores of cars might pass by during Road Lottery. But there’s another loophole: If you happen to be walking along the park road and a Good Samaritan stops and offers you a lift, it’s OK to accept. Which is exactly what happens 10 minutes later.
Who says rangers get all the perks?
Season The last hiker shuttle departs on September 13 this year, and the Road Lottery and Savage River shuttle end on September 17. After that, private cars can travel as far as mile 30.
Caution: Ferocious weather can hit Denali at any time, and snow can shut down the park road unexpectedly in September. Backpackers should always make adjustments accordingly. “Only take a trip like this if you’re prepared to be completely self-sufficient,” says Denali Public Affairs Officer Kris Fister.
Permits Get them at the backcountry desk located next to the Wilderness Access Center. Bus tickets (purchase after you do the ranger briefing) cost $27 and up.
Maps Get USGS quads ($8 each) at the Backcountry Information Center.
Info (907) 683-9590; nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/backcountry.htm