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“You won’t find any social trails out there,” the driver says, motioning to the tundra over his shoulder as I unload my gear from the back of the bus.
Promise? I think to myself.
I just spent six hours riding into Denali National Park and I’m ready to head into the kind of challenging terrain that comes with a warning. My objective is Peters Glacier, which winds around the base of Denali’s Wickersham Wall. Rising 14,000 feet, the wall is the second tallest unbroken mountain face in the world, and my 22-mile route to it passes through areas of Denali that the guidebooks never mention.
Mist clings to the McKinley River in the morning and though Denali is nowhere in sight, I can still feel its pull. I inflate my packraft and push off into the water, heading swiftly downstream for 7 miles to the confluence with the Muddy River, where I paddle ashore. That’s when the rain starts. I huddle in my tent until night falls and all those dreary thoughts seep in: What if I’ve come all the way out here and never even see the wall?
Dawn arrives with a new sense of hope. Clouds still stick to the Alaska Range, but the sun is quickly burning them off and revealing dazzlingly bright new snow on the foothills in the distance.
With my gear drying in the sun, I pace around the gravel bar studying wolf, moose, and caribou tracks as the fog draws back to reveal a snow-capped behemoth—17,400-foot Mt. Foraker. A few minutes pass and Denali’s North Peak rises above the clouds, dwarfing Foraker.
I stow my raft and start hiking up along the roiling Muddy River. After 10 miles, a bull moose escorting two females appears on the opposite side of the river with Denali towering over them like a scene from a postcard. This is wild, unspoiled Alaska, and I’m getting closer to its heart. That night, from my camp on a spongy bed of moss and lichen, I see an avalanche tumbling down. Several seconds later, I hear its rumble. The mountain seems alive.
The next day I clamber across the moraine of Peters Glacier and up the adjacent hillside where the hiking is better. I’m walking atop the same foothills I’ve seen in every photograph of Denali taken from Wonder Lake since Ansel Adams, except now I’m in the picture, noticing tiny details in the patchwork tundra.
One more hill brings my first close-up view of the Wickersham Wall—it rises higher than I think possible. But, oddly, it isn’t the scale that awes me; it’s the silence. Having left the river behind, the quiet adds to the sense of space. It almost seems unfair to have it to myself. Almost.
But then, in the other direction, I see the 20-plus miles I need to hike by 4 p.m. tomorrow to catch the last bus back to the park entrance. I take one last look at Denali and decide it’s not unfair to claim a front row seat you’ve earned. It’s the entire point.
Trailhead McKinley Bar Permit Required; obtain at the Denali Visitor Center no more than 1 day in advance. Season For experienced packrafters, late June to early September; for hikers fording the McKinley River, late August to early September Note Experts only