Perfect 10: Mt. Eielson, Denali National Park Get guaranteed mammoth wilderness in America’s wildest national park.
I took one step into the backcountry and felt like I had been set free from a cage. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my first year as a dad, but I needed to reconnect with the man I was before my nights were sleepless, lullaby-infused grudge matches. My wife knew it, too, so she sent me to Denali National Park, with her brother, Brett.
My timeline was naturally tight: only a few days to get my fix. So I asked a park ranger for the quickest route to badass country, and he drew up a 10-mile horseshoe crossing Gorge Creek and angling up Sunrise Creek to the Sunrise Glacier, where we’d pick our way through to a pass and then return via Green Dome to Thorofare Pass.
From the Eielson Visitor Center, we picked our way southwest down a steep ridge toward Gorge Creek. Minutes into the trip, I nearly stepped in a pile of soapberry-filled bear scat the size of horse manure. Bingo—instant wilderness on a larger scale than I’d ever encountered.
At about mile three, we forded a quarter-mile-wide braid of the Thorofare River. Two miles later, I stood beneath a 20-foot-tall wall of blue ice, a dark maw at its base where meltwater surged into Sunrise Creek. We camped upvalley, hemmed in by rock and ice and 7,000-foot peaks.
The next day, the morning sun lit our path: a steep 1,000- foot ridge we’d need to climb to find the pass. Halfway up, rubble trundled from above. A baseball-size rock hit my ankle. Then a volleyball-like rock careened past, exploding upon impact, right where we’d camped. I’d asked for wild, and got it. New priority: making it home safely to my son. We retreated and camped in a small side valley.
The next morning, I got up early to cook breakfast. As I mixed pancake batter, I noticed a boulder in the willows. Then the boulder moved. Bear! We yelled and waved. I was dusted with mix, a human Krispy Kreme. Finally, she turned slowly like a freighter and plodded away.
So when you need a big dose of badass, come to Denali. Maybe you’ll score a permit for Sunrise Creek, maybe not. But it doesn’t matter: Any 10 miles here will do.
PERFECT 10 Sunrise Creek to Sunrise Glacier to Thorofare Pass >>
DO IT Take the park bus to Eielson Visitor Center, then hop off and hike south. Plan on two or three days, minimum. MAP USGS quad Mt. McKinley B-1 ($8, store.usgs.gov) PERMIT Backcountry Unit 12 (pick up in person at the Backcountry Information Center 24 hours in advance) CONTACT (907) 683-9532; nps.gov/dena