How to Score Denali's Choicest Permits

The system was rigged, says a former ranger. Here's how to beat it.

I was a newly minted ranger in Denali National Park when I learned the true meaning of power. There were five of us first-years, and we were backcountry rangers, not campground rangers, or interps, or those glorified toll attendants doling out maps at the entrance booth. We staged rescues and faced down grizzlies and patrolled remote quadrants on 10-day hitches that took us up glaciers, over mountains, and across rivers so swollen with ice melt they lapped at our sternum straps.

We were hard, and we knew it. But our power didn't come from our badges or backcountry exploits. What made us gods was what we did back at the visitor center, behind the permit desk. When we stepped up to that counter, we became arbiters of escape. Barely out of college, we were possessed of the awesomest license in all of rangerdom: the power to grant–or deny–the planet's most coveted backcountry permits.

Denali famously limits visitation in its 87 units to as few as four permitted campers per day–and for good reason. The park's sprawling valleys embody the fundamental promise of backpacking: that freedom–the kind you can only taste by walking self-reliant into the wilderness–really can go on forever. But therein lies the rub: For Denali to remain primitive and free, its fragile ecosystem must be fiercely protected during Alaska's all-too-brief growing season.

Ergo, quotas. And with them a system of rules and regulations that guarantee fair permit-granting, right? Uh, sorta. The more time we spent in the backcountry, the more we came to believe that Denali's best units should go to people like us–the true hiker people. And the system afforded us that wiggle room. Those two guys vying for the last space in Unit 13? We went with the suntanned dude in the pilled Patagonia over the pasty fellow with creases down the center of his zip-off pants.

It's too late for me to repent these youthful indiscretions, but not to atone. So here's my million-dollar secret: To boost your chances of getting that perfect Denali permit, exploit the kid I used to be. Let your beard grow, scuff your boots, mention your annual pilgrimage to the headwaters of the Savage River. And for god's sake, Alexander Supertramp, never, never ask how to get to "the bus."