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Backpacker Magazine – June 2011

National Parks: Denali

Denali isnít just for experts. These guinea pigs will prove it. Probably.

by: Ted Alvarez

Crystal Creek Basin (Photo by Ted Alvarez)
Crystal Creek Basin (Photo by Ted Alvarez)
Descending to the Thorofare River (Photo by Elissa Alvarez)
Descending to the Thorofare River (Photo by Elissa Alvarez)
Cozy camp in a sheltered spot (Photo by Ted Alvarez)
Cozy camp in a sheltered spot (Photo by Ted Alvarez)
Crossing the Thorofare River (Photo by Ted Alvarez)
Crossing the Thorofare River (Photo by Ted Alvarez)
View from 4,724-foot Contact Pass (Photo by Ted Alvarez)
View from 4,724-foot Contact Pass (Photo by Ted Alvarez)

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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Eric Troyer
Oct 14, 2012

"The park has only had 23 bear-caused human injuries in its 94-year existenceónone fatal." Unfortunately, that last part is not true. First fatality was recorded this August. See this article: http://www.adn.com/2012/08/26/2600680/denali-hikers-camera-offers-clues.html

Otherwise, the answer is spot on.

Al Dargiel
Feb 13, 2012

Catching up on reading magazines piled up at home. Read this article five months after returning from our 10 day trip to Alaska which included Denali NP and stopping at Eielson Visitor Center. Gives a better and more appreciative view of the area.

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