Denali National Park, Alaska – An Ancient Magic.

Time becomes meaningless here. There is an unfathomable energy, an ancient force of magic that stirs, and it is so very real. If a mountain range can be alive, if an entire ecosystem can speak, this is the place to listen. There are traces of wildlife everywhere. Feathers, hides, bone, fallen antlers and animal footprints of abundance dot the varied landscape. The animals are here, yet you cannot always see them. They do see and sense you. With every part of their being they sense your intrusion, as you stumble around foreign in every sense.

The birds chirp merrily, at all hours. Those winged spirits are the sign of a warm season, passing too quickly. Their joyful song resounds across a sunlight bedecked night. Green of every imaginable shade paints all surfaces, impeded only by dots of snow and steep mountain peaks. Mosquitos lazily buzz, but not much, with the frost that creeps along the ground on a mid-June night.

Words are not enough. Language, and humanity at its attempted descriptive words cannot reach here. Photos are but a speck of the whole. This place is everything. It is life. I am entranced, smitten with the ancient spells. I want more of it; it has lured me and will forever pull at my heart. I believe this place was given extra care by God; his hand graced this place with a little extra divinity. That we were able to share this place with our children, that we were able to give them this gift, was powerful stuff.

How could we ever forget flying into Alaska at midnight? Oh, those colors and that sky, pink pastels as the sun lay barely hidden. The hazy light swirled with a whisper and gently colored everything in not quite day, and not quite night shades. The clouds coming into Alaska were thick, life like and brooding. That sky was alive, both ominous and entrancing.

Itinerary:

We started our trip flying into Fairbanks, taking the hotel shuttle. A short night of rest, and we were off the next morning via hotel shuttle to meet something I’ve dreamed since I was a child, the Alaska Railroad! The thrill of that trip, the gentle sway of the rail car as it pulled away and was enveloped into the wilderness, will never be forgotten. This train is a destination, an experience of its own. The history of Alaska is entwined in its establishment. The road from Anchorage to Fairbanks was only completed in 1971, and road travel is still difficult if not outright unavailable in most of Alaska.

Arriving in Denali National Park feels like entering another dimension. Stepping out of the train, we waited for our backpacks to be unloaded in the bright noon sunshine. The pine trees cascaded their shadows, and other visitors disappeared quickly onto tour buses. We repacked for the walk to the back country office, where we would obtain our backpacking permit.

After getting our permit and camper bus ticket, we boarded the back country bus and entered wilderness like never before. We were dropped off, along the Denali Park Road, at our back country unit. It was early evening when we exited the bus, and it was surreal when our driver pulled away leaving a faint cloud of dust. There was not another living soul within sight or sound. Every sense heightened as we were now truly alone in a vast wilderness.

The glacial till river that marked the entrance to our unit flowed quickly beneath a bridge. Without trails to follow in this place, we attempted to follow the river. It was running quickly, carrying the melt of winter still full to its banks. It was slow going through the adjacent willows, and there were moose tracks everywhere! I was terrified we would crash into one in the thick brush and was relieved when we pushed out onto open terrain. Odd holes along the riverbank caught my eye. I remembered them as some sign of bear but couldn’t remember the exact details. We later learned bears dig along the riverbanks, harvesting and eating Eskimo Potatoes. They are an important source of alpine food for many different animals, but bears leave tell-tale divots in the pebble strewn banks when harvesting.

We were exhausted from our travels the day before and didn’t make it far that evening. We set up our brightly colored tents and placed our bear vaults and eating location in the form of the golden triangle, each 100 yards away. This is a safety measure required in the back country to keep both you and the bears safe, so they don’t associate human smells and food with humans. We tucked in for the night after a quick meal.

That first night was restless, I can’t lie. After going to the bathroom repeatedly, I realized no matter how late, it was still light enough for me to see everything! It was such an odd sensation; we would never need a flashlight! Uniquely, the birds here chirp all night. Their tunes were enough to lure me into a gentle sleep.

We needed to avoid a closure area along the river, and so took to the ridge line the remainder of our trip. We were continually drawn to the incredible vastness, the unique terrain of glacial remnants, and the mountain range views. The next two days went swiftly. We wanted to explore more, to adventure more. I wanted to cross the glacial ridge lines above tree line in the distance. As much as I love being outside though, I was on edge. I felt like we were trespassing in a place we didn’t fully understand. A two-night stay was enough here for our first time in this back country. The constant state of alert was taxing, as it should be. The freshly placed bear paw print, found in the mud near where we had camped the first night, assured me it was time to leave.

We met a bus on the road, not the camper bus but a park tour bus. Fortunately, it was early enough in the season for there to be a few empty seats to enjoy a tour further into the park. That was a safe place to view a grizzly bear, the caribou, and even the Denali Dall Sheep we were thrilled to see. I think perhaps we brought good luck with us on that bus. That trifecta of viewing is rare! We were even able to see Mount Denali, barely cresting in the distance. With the current road closure at mile 43, this was a special opportunity.

On our return to Denali Park Village, we stayed at the beautiful Riley Creek Campground. We watched as a mother moose and her twins cautiously wandered through, ravenously stripping the green leaves from small trees. We spent time in the visitor center, learning more deeply about the park and obtaining junior ranger badges. We enjoyed an evening park ranger talk in our campground about the brilliance of corvids (crows, jays, magpies, raven). In the village, the safety of civilization hummed around us.

On our last evening, the gentle patter of rain fell on our tent, the first drops of our trip. It was welcoming and soothing: “Safe, safe, you are safe, your family is safe, now keep this place safe in return. Keep the animals that call this place their own, their ways, their life intact,” it whispered. 

It’s difficult to go forward with this blog, to tell you the ins and outs of a perfect vacation here, because this place is so much more than a destination. Your time here shouldn’t feel like an ordinary vacation. The best way I can explain how to enjoy the ideal trip is to do things you know will take your breath away, that will make you put your camera down, your phone down. Do the things that make your children content to witness the wonders. Your time here should lead you to something so damn extraordinary, so precious, your soul is changed. The experiences that pull at your spirit are those you need to seek when you visit.

Extra Tips:

I planned our vacation to Alaska in its entirety without a rental car, our only sure means of transportation being our feet. It was completely doable, because of the available connections and their exacting timeliness. This was both more environmentally friendly and cost conscious.

You can take a bus everywhere you want to go within the Denali Park Village, and even into the park. The bus schedules at Denali allow for exploration of the park with very little un-intended foot travel. If you are physically able though, I would recommend the walking paths. They are incredibly well marked, with routes everywhere within the village.

You need to have back country experience before you backpack overnight in Denali. It is NOT a place for beginners.

Obtaining a back country permit takes concerted advanced planning. We spent hours researching the back country system in Denali. To keep everyone safe, back country permits cannot be issued unless everyone in your party has watched required safety videos, available on the park website. Every hiker may be quizzed by back country rangers on the video contents before issuing your permit. Both our children had to answer questions, and they were well prepared!

The park is divided into units where a limited number of hikers are allowed. Do your research in advance and have some units in mind. The most popular unit is 6, and it was already full. The rangers were not helpful in guiding us to choose a unit we should explore. I’m not sure why, but they were intentional at not giving us any hints as to which units we should see. It was a bit of a ‘yes or no game’ to get them to give us some concrete advice. It really is up to you to pick your destination and route, so plan accordingly.

You are REQUIRED to take a bear vault with you to the back country, where you will place ALL smellable items. There are many approaches to backpacking with supplies. I prefer for every person I am with to be self-contained. It helps our family members be more self-sufficient, organized, and responsible. So, we each had our own bear vault that I purchased in advance and pre-packed. They do have bear vaults at the ranger station for rental.

There are no trails in the Denali back country! Backpacking here is an entirely different experience, intentionally. Ah muskeg. You’ll get to loathe that word quickly if you veer too far off a ridge line or riverbank. Imagine backpacking along mattresses, you get the idea. It’s doable, but incredibly slow and frustrating. The experience is part of the adventure here, especially for your first visit.

Junior Ranger Badge:

  1. Leave No Trace
  2. Big Five: Grizzly, Wolf, Dall Sheep, Caribou, Moose
  3. History
  4. Botany
  5. Sled Dogs
  6. Mountaineering
  7. Dinosaurs
  8. Change

Remember:

Bear spray is a must, even if you are only exploring the more populated Denali Park Village trails. There may be bear spray available for purchase at the park, but they may sell out. Each member of our party had their own container. The bottles were clipped within easy reach the entire time we were in the back country and walking in the park. Most importantly, you MUST take the time to educate yourselves on Alaska bear behavior! One of the required videos on the Denali National Park back country site discusses bear behavior. But there are others that go into more depth. Our favorite is ‘Staying Safe in Bear Country’, provided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website. I won’t discuss bear safety further here, as I’m not an expert. Take the time to research this subject, as it pertains to bears in the areas you will be visiting (coastal and brown bears may behave differently). It will give you confidence and make your trip to Denali more comfortable and safer. REMEMBER: DON’T DO ANYTHING THAT COULD HABITUATE THE BEARS INTO ASSOCIATING YOU WITH FOOD. KEEP THEM SAFE AND THAT WILL KEEP YOU SAFE.

Where to Eat:

Dining within the park is limited. You should plan to bring all meal essentials. There is cafeteria style eating near the visitor center at the Morino Grill. There are some basic snacks available for purchase at the bus station and at the Riley Creek Campground Mercantile.

When to Go:

We enjoyed our visit in June, but I think it would be spectacular in the fall or winter as well. I think I would avoid spring/early spring. The walking paths would probably be muddy/and or icy. Travel would probably be difficult.

Where to Stay:

If you are able, I highly recommend tent camping within Denali National Park. The accommodations at Riley Creek Campground were very nice with showers and clean restrooms. There are RV spots within that campground as well. There are numerous hotels and lodges near the entrance to the park. Lodging within the park boundaries is available by private concessionaires only, and while the park road is closed, only reachable by aircraft.

Posted on August 4, 2022             

Visited June 2022