The visitor at the backcountry desk’s cheeks looked like someone had doused them with Tabasco. “I pulled from my retirement to get here!” he shouted. “Why even have a backcountry if people travel thousands of miles and can’t experience it?”
I sighed. As a ranger manning the backcountry desk—between stints in the actual backcountry—I’d seen this before. A lot. It was mid-June, the height of tourist season, and the man with the blazing cheeks sounded like so many other disappointed visitors. He’d come to Denali to fulfill a lifelong dream, and it was turning into a nightmare. The units he coveted—near the McKinley River, with IMAX-quality views of 20,320-foot Denali—were full for the next five days, the bulk of his vacation. And even his second and third choices looked doubtful.
Denali’s backcountry regulations are viciously fair: no reservations allowed. Just show up, and accept whatever units—if any—are available. Or wait. The 41 overnight units subject to quotas impose tight limits on hiker numbers (just four campers at a time are allowed in some), which helps preserve the park’s wild feel for those lucky enough to score permits, and frustrates the rest. In high season, the prime spots—with Alaska Range views, limited bushwhacking, and resident wolf packs—fill quickly and stay full for the entire season. Often, the only way to camp in a high-traffic site is to start several units away and commit the time and considerable effort to hike over. Or worse: Bide your time in a boggy, willow-choked zone, and then bus-hop on the backpacker shuttle when your dream unit opens.
As backcountry rangers, my compatriots and I encountered high blood pressure types like Mr. Red Cheeks over and over. But there’s a way to game Denali’s permit system without bribing a ranger, or becoming one. The key: Plan your trip for mid-September, when the last hiker bus of the season rumbles up the 92-mile road to Kantishna.
During Denali’s regular trekking season (June 8 to September 13 in 2012), backpackers rely on park shuttle buses. You get your permit, ride the bus to your starting point, return to the road at the end of your hike, and hop back on to return to the visitor center and your car. Most late-season visitors think they have to time their trek so they finish, at the latest, when the final bus of the year can ferry them back to park headquarters. But there’s a loophole, a narrow window when the shuttle season is winding down but the road has not yet closed, and backpackers can have the backcountry virtually to themselves.
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.
On the ride out, the morning sun shines down brilliantly. According to Becky, who lives in nearby Cantwell, it’s been raining all summer—typical for Denali. But the forecast for the next five days is sunny with a chance of sunnier. Out the bus window, the Teklanika River rolls by, followed by the sweeping, red- and yellow-painted Plains of Murie. We disembark as planned, at the East Fork of the Toklat. Gold light spills over the rocks as my friends and I angle toward an arrow of raised tundra. Wolf tracks the size of my palm fan away in all directions.
At the end of the first day, it all seems too good to be true. It is. Over breakfast on day two, Kevyn reveals angry blisters on both of her heels. Though she’s the only one of us who continued her career as a ranger, she does “bear patrols” in Lake Clark National Park. Her patrol area is tiny, which means she doesn’t actually hike much. And she made a classic mistake common to backpackers who are experienced but, um, out of practice. She’s hiking in boots she hasn’t used in years—about 15, to be precise.
But Kevyn pushes on (“I don’t want to be the crybaby in your story,” she says), and we hike up the East Fork to a small drainage that curves toward the unnamed, headwalled entrance to our promised land—Refuge Valley. In the distance, the sun gleams off of snow-covered summits.
A few hours later, we find ourselves boxed into a draw by a 20-foot-high, gushing waterfall. I’ve never seen a cascade like this in Denali, and the sight makes me want to tear off my clothes and take a wilderness shower. But I’m diverted by Kevyn’s blisters, which have progressed from painful nuisance to first-aid crisis. “Well what did you expect?” Becky says half-jokingly. “You knew we were going to be hiking!” Which makes Kevyn’s premonition come true. As Becky charges ahead, Kevyn drops farther and farther behind. I turn around, and see my brown-eyed friend crumpled on the tundra, crying.
It’s a rough moment, but it reminds us of a truth we once knew but had somehow forgotten: No one, not even a ranger, is immune to Denali’s uniquely punishing conditions. I recall a time when I nearly drowned when I was swept away while crossing the melt-swollen McKinley River, the result of inexperience and over-ambition. So instead of guilting Kevyn into hiking through her pain, like some “friends” might do when they think everything is riding on one trip, we stop for the night, fluff our sleeping bags atop the memory-foam tundra, and sleep beneath bright green, buzzing northern lights.
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
AVOID HIGH-SEASON CROWDS
Dayhike all night.
Between late May and early August, it stays light enough to hike 24 hours a day in Denali. As long as you don’t pitch a tent (or even take a nap), you don’t need a backcountry permit. Yes, conventional dayhiking is always possible, but by hiking through the night you’ll share choice units with only the permitted backpackers—and they’ll likely be sleeping in their tents. Explore some of my favorite units (6, 7, 8, 10, 13, 15, 18, 32, and 34) by taking the bus to Wonder Lake (last daily departure at 10:15 a.m.). Hop off at your starting point (on the way back from Wonder Lake, if you want the round-trip ride). Some ideas: Hike to Upper Glacier Creek (unit 18) near the Muldrow Glacier; explore the old East Fork wolf den site (unit 7) along the East Fork of the Toklat River; or circumnavigate Mt. Eielson (unit 13), with views of the entire Alaska Range. Hop back on the bus the next day. You can sleep on the ride out. (Note: Park officials tell us they discourage this strategy, as weary hikers could make poor decisions. Your call.)
Pedal the park road.
All hiker buses are equipped with space to carry two bikes. Load yours, along with camping gear, and overnight at Wonder Lake Campground. Your plan: In the morning, bike back toward the park entrance before the buses start up. The first one doesn’t hit Eielson visitor center (mile 66) until 10 a.m., so you can spend the morning riding east in solitude. (A few overnight buses might pass you on their return trip from Kantishna.) Grab a shuttle back to Wonder Lake when you’ve had your fill. In the morning, before the bus traffic ramps up, you’ll be amazed at the wildlife you encounter.
EMBRACE THE RAIN
During my second summer in Denali, it rained for 37 days straight. I learned you either go on with life and hike as planned, or you might as well stay home. (Indeed, a lot of unprepared backpackers abandon their permits when the forecast is horrible, opening up prime units for the ready and willing.) September is often drier than summer, but if you’re going to backpack in Denali, prepare for wild weather anytime. The right gear—bomber shell, tent with a big vestibule, waterproof boots and gaiters—is just the start. The key to really beating Denali’s legendary deluges? Attitude. Don’t hide out in your tent, which just makes the storm sound worse than it likely is. Gear up, and get out. And besides the usual, try these techniques:
Load up on socks and underwear. Pack not two but three pairs of long underwear: one for daily wear, one for sleeping, and one double-bagged and marked “emergency.” Don’t pull that third pair out unless you absolutely need it. Just knowing it’s there will boost your confidence when your first two pairs get damp. For socks, pack three or even four pairs. Dry socks prevent blisters and athlete’s and trench foot, and keep you warmer at night.
Wear a wide-brimmed, waterproof hat. Normal jacket hoods muffle sound, decrease visibility, and lead to feelings of claustrophobia, while a wide-brimmed waterproof hat, like the full-coverage Outdoor Research Force 9 Sombrero ($75, outdoorresearch.com), acts like a small roof over your face, neck, and shoulders.
Keep your tent’s inner canopy dry. Set it up the second you get to camp (since air, however saturated, leads to some drying), and swab the ceiling, walls, and floor with a pack towel before laying out your sleeping pads. Have friends hold the fly over the inner tent while you pack it, so it stays as dry as possible.
Have fun. Chilled and need to warm up? Pull on your raingear and play hacky sack or tag. Hike to a vantage point, even if the view is diminished. Take photos with your waterproof camera (you packed one, right?). Whatever you do, don’t become tent-bound. Nothing kills a backpacking trip faster.
SWITCH TO DENALI TIME
With all due respect, I don’t care how many trail miles you’ve hiked. Forget everything you’ve done before when it comes to planning a Denali itinerary. The golden rule here? Assume you’ll hike at best one mile per hour. With no trails, you’ll find no easy path across glaciers, over scree fields, or through forests. Mile-wide rivers flow directly from glaciers, fanning into quicksilver braids that slow your pace to a crawl.
Examine the map. Green on a Denali quad often means thick, scratchy willow and alder that put the brakes on backcountry travel. Option one: Do everything in your power to avoid it. Option two (often the only option): Put on a long-sleeved shirt, use trekking poles to help create a “tunnel” in front of you, and yell like crazy, because bears like to nap in these shady briars.
Budget time for rivers. Don’t let your “schedule” force you into attempting an unsafe river crossing, where the current is too swift or too deep. Both rain and warm temps can cause river levels to rise. Allow an extra hour or more to scout the safest place to cross, or to change your route if necessary.
STAY PUT TO SEE WILDLIFE
On the East Fork of the Toklat River, I once plopped down in camp early. I wanted to rest awhile before going off to explore. Good thing. By sitting still, I lucked into the most amazing wildlife sighting of my life: First, I saw three grizzlies digging on the riverbar. Then two wolves appeared. They charged the bears, which in turn charged a third wolf that had appeared, and then they all came toward me. The entire mass of fang, fur, and claw thundered within feet, and then disappeared into the brush.
The point: If you want to see wildlife in Denali, sit and be silent. Hiking is noisy—especially when you’re crashing through alder shouting, “Hey, bear!” Instead, do something radical. When planning your backcountry itinerary, build in a whole day—or two—to sit on a perch overlooking a hillside, river, or valley. Pack binoculars and a picnic, and, above all, keep quiet. Here are some of my favorite wildlife haunts:
Grizzlies Look for them on gravel bars throughout the park; the gravel highways act as natural thoroughfares for all wildlife. Higher up, look for bears along the open hillsides of Sable, Highway, and Thorofare Passes.
Wolves Two different wolf packs currently inhabit the Sable Pass and Highway Pass areas. Look to ridgelines at dawn and dusk, where you might see a long line of wolves heading out to hunt.
Moose Scan the alder thickets along the Savage, Sanctuary, and Teklanika Rivers. In late August and September, look for them along the first eight miles of the park road, where they typically rut.
Caribou They favor wide-open riverbars, so sit patiently on a bank along the Toklat River.
Black bears Unfortunately, they prefer the mosquito-infested willowlands near Kantishna and Wonder Lake.
Bobcats, hares, and lynx Head to the bridge near Igloo Forest, and duck into the woods on the east side of the wildlife closure (off-limits due to a wolf den site). Be careful: Bears favor wooded areas, too, and you can’t see them as well as you might from a vantage point on a hillside.