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No matter what yardstick you use–size, challenge, scenic grandeur, wildlife, solitude–Denali is the park by which you’ll measure all others. “Discovered” by Americans Harry Karstens and Charles Sheldon in 1906, the six-million-acre wilderness is as raw today as it ever was, with 250 grizzlies, 100 wolves, and a caribou herd of 1,800. Backpacking here is just like the park: big and wild. Your way in is on a school bus retrofitted for hikers, but unlike your third-grader driver, the cheerful chauffeurs here will drop you anywhere along the 90-mile road. From there, it’s wide-open tundra hiking, miles of braided rivers, and giant glaciers pouring off Mt. McKinley. And the certain knowledge that no other place will ever make you feel so small.
Getting There Alaska’s two major airports are in Fairbanks (120 miles north) and Anchorage (237 miles south). If you’re renting a car, take the George Parks Highway, the main north/south thoroughfare through the state, and follow signs to the park. Not interested in paying to let your car sit? The Park Connection motorcoach offers trips from Fairbanks to Denali ($56 one way) and Anchorage to Denali ($79 one way). (800) 208-0200, alaskacoach.com
Season Go during the two weeks on either side of summer solstice for 650 different blooming wildflowers, 167 migrating bird species, and 20 hours of daylight; August for stable weather and northern lights; early September for fall colors, fewer crowds, and cold, bug-free nigt.
Gear Shop Denali Mountain Works, mile 237.5 on the Parks Highway, has bear spray and bear canisters. (907) 683-1542
Pre-trip breakfast Chances are you’ll get your permit one day and leave the next. Storm the visitor center early (it opens at 9 a.m.) and then head to McKinley Creekside Cabins, Mile 224 on the Parks Highway, for a leisurely breakfast of meatloaf and eggs. (907) 683-2277; mckinleycabins.com
Best frontcountry campground 147-site Riley Creek is the only frontcountry campground in the park, located just inside the entrance. Adjacent to mercantile and shower/laundry facilities. $20 drive-in, $12 walk-in/per night. (800) 622-7275; denali.national-park.com/camping.htm
Permits Backcountry permits (available at the Backcountry Information Center, 907-683-2294) are limited by daily quotas that vary in number from unit to unit, and you can only make reservations in person one day in advance. Allow at least two hours to plan your trip, watch the mandatory backcountry video and safety talk, and purchase your camper-bus tickets ($29 per person).
Predator Patrol. Track big game in the Toklat Valley.
The Toklat River is a virtual expressway for the park’s legendary big game. In this wide-open, trailless drainage, we’ve watched wolves hunt snowshoe hares, dodged caribou running up riverbars, and stood our ground while grizzlies bluff-charged camp. And oh, the views: When it’s clear, you can’t get a better look at McKinley without a bush plane or climbing guide.
Your trip starts with a ride to Ice Cream Gulch at mile 51 on the park road. Hop off the bus and bid goodbye to the tourists headed toward Wonder Lake. You’re going south for six miles, along the east branch of the rushing Toklat River, where the Toklat wolf pack hunts and howls from the ridgelines of their ancestral home. You’ll know you’ve hit your first campsite when seemingly out of nowhere a 400-foot waterfall explodes out of the glacier-carved mountains. Throw your tent down anywhere with good visibility (so you can see bears approaching), walk your food canister at least 100 yards from camp, and consider the thrilling and disconcerting fact that for the next five days you’re no longer at the top of the food chain.
The mistake every Denali rookie makes? Overestimating your travel speed. Squishy tundra and bushwhacking make for slow going, but the solution is easy: Allow an hour per mile, adjust your goals accordingly, and build in down days for exploring.
Basecamp on day two, and then follow the river south for two miles to the toe of an unnamed glacier that pours off the northern spine of the Alaska Range in alternating strips of ice and moraine. One-tenth of Denali is covered in glaciers; spend a few hours exploring the clear blue crevasses and strange wormlike insects called springtails that thrive on the porous ice. Back at camp, pad around the tundra looking for a kettle pond–shallow pools left in the wake of receding glaciers–to soak in under the midnight sun.
Break camp early the next morning and cross the Toklat (facing upstream and side-stepping, but never looking directly at the dizzying current). Follow the west bank north for four miles to an unnamed pass just south of Divide Mountain. Climb the 4,000-foot pass, which opens onto a panorama of whitecapped mountains and is a great place to shoot sunrise or sunset pics of alpenglow on the distant peaks. Descend to the west branch of the Toklat and turn south, hugging the east bank for another half mile until you come to the first side canyon to your left. Set up camp and digest dinner with a 1.25-mile walk to the back of the steep-walled canyon, where a lush green bowl attracts Dall sheep ewes and their cotton-white lambs.
On day four, pack your gear, but leave it in camp while you hike three miles south up the Toklat’s meandering west branch, glassing the ridgelines for wolves hunting caribou and sheep. Backtrack to your gear, and hike north two miles to the Toklat bridge at the park road. Cross the bridge and hug the northeast bank for 1.5 miles north to the second of two rock-filled draws.
Turn east, following the draw to a grassy divide. Set up camp in the forget-me-nots, and scramble to views of the East Fork Valley, multicolored Mt. Sheldon, and, on a clear evening, the behemoth of all North American mountains, 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley. Trace an unnamed ridge east, then south up Polychrome Mountain. Make camp in a grassy divide below the summit and scout a line up 4,961-foot Cabin Peak, the next day’s climb.
The hike to Cabin’s summit transitions from fragile mountain heather to jagged rock. Watch for moose down low, marmots sunning themselves up high, and arctic ground squirrels scurrying away at the top. The views from the summit include the lush Wyoming Hills and the pastel Polychrome Mountains. Return to camp. The next morning, hike back to the road, flag down the bus, and head out. PLAN B: Mcgonagall pass Get in-your-face views of McKinley and walk up to the sweeping Muldrow Glacier on this 38-mile hike. From west of Wonder Lake Campground, walk four miles through big timber to a crossing of the mighty McKinley River, which seeps out of the Muldrow Glacier at an average of 34°F. (Ask backcountry rangers for the latest information on water levels, but regardless of depth, prolonged exposure to glacier-fresh water is always a challenge.) Across the gravel bar, pick up the social trail and head to the highest barren tundra bench, known as Turtle Hill. Ford rushing Clearwater Creek and follow Cache Creek toward the mountain, climbing to tundra and then onto the glaciated pass.
Clean up Located just inside the park entrance, the Riley Creek Mercantile has women’s and men’s showers for $4 each.
Pig out 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern dishes up tangerine duck salad and pistachio-crusted Alaskan silver salmon. Bonus: The salads come straight from a local organic garden, where potatoes grow to softball size and the lettuce leaves are as big as fans. (907) 683-2567; 229parks.com
Best Dayhike: Healy Overlook On a clear day, Healy Overlook is the only place dayhikers can score a view of McKinley–and what a view it is. From the trailhead, hump 2,000 feet and two miles to the popular view spot. Then break free of the (usually sparse) crowds by continuing two miles over well-worn but undeveloped trail to the 5,715-foot summit of Mount Healy, where marmot and Dall sheep pose in front of lesser-known Alaska Range peaks Mts. Deborah, Hess, and Hayes.
Try something new The Nenana River Canyon’s Class III and IV wave trains are possibly the wildest–and certainly the coldest–water you’ll ever paddle. If the water’s low enough, guides will let you dive into the 36°F water–wearing a dry suit. Denali Outdoor Center, (888) 303-1925; denalioutdoorcenter.com
Denali is a wonderland of megafauna, but it can also be hell to hike in. Here’s how to get the most out of the park.
Survive your river crossings Trailless also means bridgeless, at least in the backcountry. Cross rivers safely by scouting shallow spots (throw a rock and listen for the telltale “ker-plop” indicating deep water), facing upstream, and linking up with your strongest teammate out front. Watch BACKPACKER’s How to Cross a River video.
Spot a bear The best way to see a grizzly? Get out your binoculars and focus them on one hillside. Watch for fur balls ranging in color from dark brown to tawny gold. You’ll notice the movement first; then the shape.
Attack the schwack Bushwhacking through willow sucks the life out of anything larger than a lynx. Detour if there’s an option. If there isn’t, go with–not against–the branch growth. If you find yourself floundering, follow a game path–but alert bears by making noise.
Forage Supplies Don’t buy stove fuel until you’ve scoured the food lockers at the Riley Creek Campground next to the train depot. On past visits, we’ve seen enough leftover gas and food on the shelves to provision an entire weeklong trip.
You’re a Tourist, Now Act Like One
Ride the park bus all the way to Wonder Lake. Yes, you’ll jostle for window space with the camera crowd, but you’ll also see roadside bears and Alaska Range views on the 12-hour roundtrip drive–and you’ll get a dozen different views of Mt. McKinley on the way.
Miles of trail 36
Phone (907) 683-2294
2007 visitation 458,308 (total), 30,919 (backcountry)