McKinley: Backpack Around "The Big One"

Let rivers and ridgelines be your compass as you hike in the shadow of Alaska's Mt. McKinley.
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Let rivers and ridgelines be your compass as you hike in the shadow of Alaska's Mt. McKinley.

It is, quite simply, the most spectacular moment in North American hiking. For 3 days, the world has been locked in a gray haze of rain and fog. Mosquitoes buzz incessantly in my rain hood. I trudge along, gazing only at my feet. Then I look up, and there it is.

The clouds had cleared over the highest mountain on the continent: Mt. McKinley. It appears to be the roof of the world. Denali National Park and Preserve (the mountain is still officially Mt. McKinley) is classic Alaska-open horizons, grizzlies, wind swirling across the tundra, snow-capped peaks. Even without Mt. McKinley, it would be one of the world's premier hiking locations. But when the mountain peeks out from behind the clouds, backpacking here is simply sublime.

At 6 million acres, the park is the size of Massachusetts, but features only one maintained backpacking trail. The best routes are along rivers and ridgelines, routes that require good map-reading skills, experience in fording fast, cold streams, and keeping one eye open for grizzlies. You won't make a lot of miles in Denali, either. The open tundra and long horizons can sometimes seem endless, as if you're getting nowhere. But then, you can always just sit down and wait for the mountain to show itself.

Expedition Planner

Permits: The park's backcountry units each have a user quota that fills quickly in high season. Reservations cannot be made in advance, so have second and third route choices in mind. Bear-resistant food containers are required, but are loaned for free with a backcountry permit purchase.

Access: The park entrance is 237 miles north of Anchorage and reachable by car, shuttle, or train (Alaska Railroad, 800-544-0552; www.akrr.com). Private cars are not allowed beyond the park's entrance. Buses shuttle visitors along the narrow Park Road.

Season: Ideal hiking is in July and August. Early September is prime berry-picking and bear-viewing time, but snow starts around Labor Day.

Guides:Denali National Park #222 map (Trails Illustrated, 800-962-1643; $9.95). Denali National Park & Preserve, AK: Backcountry Companion, by Jon Nierenberg, (Alaska Natural History Association, 907-274-8440; $8.95).

Contact: Denali National Park

and Preserve, (907) 683-2294; www.nps.gov/dena.