Denali: Planning for a Summer Visit

Mount McKinley, Alaska

A view of Big Mac from the East (Szalay)

A visit to Denali National Park and Preserve is to cross a big item off all of our life lists.  Hiking or backpacking in the shadow of Denali – officially known as Mount McKinley for a forgotten president – is special even for people that don’t live in Peaklessburg, deprived of mountains and the real outdoors most of the year.  Perhaps it is extra special for us.  We work up to 50 weeks a year and may not even be able to use the full vacation time allotted us to take-in whatever our definition of a full Alaskan adventure may be.  We should know what our options for enjoying the park are and have realistic expectations about our visit, based on our limited vacation time or the companions we will be travelling with that may have less of an interest in the backcountry than ourselves.

Why Denali?  Denali National Park may be one of the best wilderness destinations for those of us with such constraints.   Even while about 75 percent of Alaska is publically accessible and there are plenty of other mountains, valleys, forests and tundra to seek wilderness and solitude throughout the far north, primarily Denali gives you the opportunity to hike in the shadow of Big Mac.  It is also not as remote as other great ranges such as the Wrangell Mountains or the Brooks Range.  However, the largest benefits of choosing to hike in Denali is for the chance to have a clear day to take in the full breadth of the Alaska Range (I did in 2004) and utilize the park’s infrastructure, from the shuttles to help put a controlled number of hikers and backpackers deep in-country, to information about animal activity (mainly concerns about Grizzlies) from the National Park Service staff.  This will help visitors from different comfort-zones for the outdoors enjoy Alaska’s wilderness at various levels without sacrificing the sense of the place.

Expectations.  There seems to be a hundred ways to experience Denali National Park based on location, terrain, length of stay, type of stay and so forth, so the options may seem overwhelming.  Much of the type of trip we take depends on our traveling partners.  Some people want an outdoor adventure and others want to just sit-back and roast marshmallows.  We should identify these expectations before we go so when one wants to hump a pack and go through McGonagall Pass, we won’t be disappointed or dragging a miserable companion through scree.  If we plan on backpacking, it is best to go with a buddy we have gone with several times before, especially if either our buddy or we have experience with traversing the landscape obstacles of the far north, where river crossing skills and navigation skills without trails are essential.  There are next-to-no trails in Denali National Park and Preserve.  If our team is less experienced, taking the time to travel in places like Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, where there are established trails but the terrain can present similar challenges, would serve as a good warm-up for other trips farther north.

Traveling with Family.  Of course, if our families are joining us, and their collective outdoor skills and interests are not as strong as ours (the frequent plight of the Suburban Mountaineer), and there is demand for creature comforts (and I don’t mean the comfort of a quality camp mattress), then making reservations far in advance at one of the lodges located at the park entrance on Route 3 between Anchorage and Fairbanks is wise, especially if we plan to visit in June, July or August.  The park’s few established trails are around the park entrance and still offer spectacular views of the whole range on a clear day.  Of course, car camping in one of several camps along the early portion of the Denali Park Access Road may also be an option.  Car camping in such conditions may make the difference in keeping we Suburban Mountaineers satisfied with the opportunity to use our new tent and sleeping bag, as our family takes advantage of the power from the car for their electric shaver.

The Access Road.  Whether you plan on going deep into the backcountry wilderness or not, any of us visiting should take the time to board one of the numerous shuttles and ride the park’s sole access road all to way to Kantishna, 92 miles away.  Whether we take a bus with a nature interpreter or ride the camp site shuttles, it is well worth the journey to take in the park’s various landscapes and habitats before setting out in-country.

Bush Planes.  Another way to get up to the see the park is to hire a bush pilot out of Talkeetna, which is south of the park entrance.  Some services can start in Anchorage and fly you to the park as well.  They can take passengers around Denali and the Alaska Range and even land on a glacier for an additional fee.

Take the Red Eye.  If the trip we planned is brief and we are coming from the east coast, we should travel on the earliest flight of the day available so that the rest of the long Alaskan summer days can be used to its fullest.  On the return, take the red eye home.  This will maximize our limited time.

Being realistic about our time limitations and our expectations as well as having a good understanding of the expectations of our companions will go a long way into getting to the point of the trip: Seeing the highest point in North America and immersing ourselves in the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness.

In my next post I will cover what we need to know about hiking in the backcountry of Denali National Park and Preserve.  I will talk about permits, river crossings and campfires.


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