In a world built around technology, deadlines and sometimes utter chaos, it can often times feel like a strenuous task to take a step back and return to an innocent and nomadic nature. Some people will never have the chance to grasp the sensation that the purifying aspects of a desolate wilderness can provide. If this is what you are seeking Denali National Park is a destination that speaks louder than words. A 265 mile drive northeast of Anchorage, this pristine piece of the interior epitomizes the vastness of the state of Alaska with stretches of tundra, dramatic milk covered peaks and an array of wildlife that spans from grizzly bears to dall sheep to herds of caribou. An easily reachable point of isolation at its finest and a journey into this untamed landscape could be a defining point in reconnecting with the roots of origin.
Denali National Park sits on the perimeter of the Alaskan mountain range where Mt. McKinley, the largest peak in North America, reigns as the king of the sky. Referred to as Denali (meaning “the high one”) by the native Athabaskan, the massive and often cloud covered peak stands with authority at 20,320 feet (6194 meters).
The park is a spectacle on its own accords, offering up breathtaking landscape views and ample opportunities to spot wildlife. The park also allows visitors the chance to dip there toes in the backcountry that stretches for miles of end. Even with these opportunities 80 percent of the tourists who flood Denali every summer will rarely leave the road network or their cars or buses, catching sights of animals via the roadside. This can be annoying given that the attractions will fill quickly with tourists dressed in safari gear, binoculars, short shorts, fanny packs, long white socks topped off with sandals sitting in drones alongside the road snapping away at what lay in the distance. Although this can be rather discouraging it shouldn’t prevent you from visiting the park. Use this break to get out and explore the bountiful land.
Visit the park’s website (see below) to get an idea of what to bring and stock up on supplies before the entrance because prices for equipment in and around the park will be staggering. Start off at the backcountry permit office just after the entrance to the park on the right. A friendly and knowledgeable staff of rangers will load you up with a wealth of information on backcountry zones, bear safety, and preparation.
The park is split up into 87 units with 6 million acres to choose from with the goal of putting the visitor in a zone with as few people as possible so that this exhilarating encounter with nature yield a genuine feeling like no other – a remote setting with nothing but what lay in the distance. There are no set trails and trekking in which ever direction is a recommendation, allowing the discovery of the utmost awe-inspiring land. No fires are allowed and abide by leave no trace principles; “pack out what you bring in” is strictly enforced in order to keep the land at an original state. Bear canisters are issued and are containers a little bigger than a gallon of paint. Weighing about 3 pounds, they will store up to about five days worth of food. This system is used to keep bears out of contact with human food because once they associate a delicious bag of cheetos with a human they become like a junkie in need of a fix. A key ingredient to enjoying the experience is preparation, so go PREPARED!
My friend Erik and I chose to spend four nights in this mystifying back county and were welcomed with gorgeous sunny skies, delightful views and numerous encounters with wildlife. It was mid-May and the land was recovering from a grueling winter. Mountaintops were still covered with snow, plant life was trying hard to bloom and animals foraged for any food source they could locate. We were rather deep inland which meant that spotting animals other than grizzlies was difficult because most creatures had moved to lower lands where snow was not covering as much of the countryside. Our encounters grew more expansive when we moved toward this area and the primrose ridge for our last night away from humans. One encounter included a startling face to face brush with a large grizzly bear. This clash resulted in a calm conversation, us throwing our hands up as if we were being apprehended by a cop and a bear casually muttering off into the hills. Perhaps he couldn’t stand our god awful stench but I like to think that it was our intimidating beast like tendencies that forced it into hiding.
A couple of tantalizing hikes over icy shelves, knee high snow at spots and persistent winds on the ridges and we were blessed with exciting views of rugged ranges that stretched out endlessly. The sun hung in the sky as driving as an assiduous group of starving wolves on the prowl for food. It never seemed to disappear. The great flames would tumble behind a group of hills laying pink and orange hues along the obscure carved shapes of faraway white surfaces. The sky would grow dim but the illustrious light would carry on. A no rush, serene ambiance took hold of me each day. Constant relieving sighs filled my days as every breath was fresh in a terrain that could only encourage a peaceful state of mind.
Some things to consider:
- Weather can drastically change from warm to freezing even in the summer months.
- Skill level: if you are a beginner let the Rangers know. That way you aren’t sent deep into the remote terrain without a clue. The land offers a bit of something for everybody.
- The bus system in Denali is the main form of transportation in the summer months. No private car transportation is permitted past mile marker 15. This is used as a means to controlling traffic in the park.
- Backcountry permits are FREE!
- Summer months can get busy even in the backcountry. If you want to avoid the crowds arrive in May. There still may be a little snow resonating but typically the weather is starting to change for the better and you will practically have the park to yourself.
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