In the Anchorage Bowl and Up Ptarmigan Peak

Ptarmigan Peak by Szalay 2004

Looking east toward Ptarmigan Peak's pyramid, just off the Powerline Trail (All Rights Reserved 2004).

Good morning.  I went through some photos from my trip to Alaska I took several years ago and thought one hike was worth sharing; while most hikes are in Denali National Park and Preserve or on the Kenai Peninsula, visitors often overlook the convenience of peaks in the Anchorage Bowl. 

Anchorage is surrounded on three sides by water and ringed by the Chugach Mountains on the eastern side.  If you are visiting Alaska for the first time and possibly only time, I recommend you hit up the traditional sites, like Wonder Lake for Denali, Talkeetna for beer, and Resurrection Bay for dramatic scenery.  But if you have a day or so in Anchorage, as I did when I was waiting for the friend I was visiting to get out of work, a hike or climb up Ptarmigan Peak (4,880 ft./1,487 m) might be called for. 

The mountains outside of Anchorage are often overlooked, and for good reason.  The peaks are small compared to the others deeper in the Chugach Range, or in the Wrangell-St. Elias region.  When there is plentiful supply of big, beautiful mountains to be had, the hills surrounding Anchorage can easily be dismissed.  

As many visitors to Anchorage do, we visited Flattop (3,510 ft./1,070m.) in South Anchorage at the Glen Alps entrance of Chugach State Park the evening I arrived.  Flattop is known as the most climbed peak in Alaska.  Perhaps because of its popularity, it reminded me a tourist trap (of course, I think Niagara Falls would be so much nicer if the casino and railings were removed).  But the view was nice.  But it was near the trailhead I first saw Ptarmigan Peak. 

The peak is named for Alaska’s state bird and it has beautiful lines.  Later in the week, after visiting some more exciting landmarks of the 49th State, I returned to the Glen Alps trailhead and hiked down the Powerline Trail approximately three miles before turning right and heading up the spongy slope to Ptarmigan Pass. 

I was hoping to scramble up the steep north face.  After moving delicately and foolishly over the scree field I soon realized why this field was here; the slope was full of rotten rock.  Much of it came apart as I gripped the wall.  Since I was climbing alone, I opted for a more conservative approach to the top.  While I did not know if then, back in 1997 a group of students from the University of Alaska were practicing here and two died and 11 were seriously injured from a fall, according the 1998 edition of Accidents in North American Mountaineering

The western ridge from Ptarmigan Pass provides a mostly narrow path to the summit.  Portions are only three feet wide and the views to the tarn below can be thrillingly dizzying.  The last one-hundred feet or so require some scrambling and is not for the faint of heart.  A rope and a partner may be recommended for most travelers. 

Return the same way, hop back on the highway and head for Snow Goose and order a beer from the Sleeping Lady Brewery.  If the weather is right, you might catch a glimpse of Denali from their back deck. 

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Denali: Exploring Alaskan Backcountry

Savage River, Denali National Park and Preserve

The Savage River at 11:30 p.m. in Denali NPP (Szalay)

For those of us lucky enough to visit Denali National Park and Preserve, the pure backcountry experience can be found away from the parking lots and picnic benches (which are available too, for those that travel with friends and family in need of a tether to civilization) that sometimes breakup our hikes through state parks, or (ahem) Shenandoah.  To make the most of the opportunity in Denali NPP, we have to know some things unique to navigating it and the far north in general.

We’ll assume that we all read the last post, “Denali: Planning for a Summer Visit,” so that we’ve already determined that hiking into the backcountry of Denali National Park and Preserve will suit us and our companions.  If our companions are not on the same page, the backpacking trip by misery through association with irritating hiking buddies with annoying habits that only come out on the trail, or buddies that say, “what do you mean we have to camp outside?”  It’s best to find out these things well ahead of time.

Guide References. We should familiarize ourselves with the park’s layout and major features before we go.   Start by getting oriented through the park’s website, in particular its page on the backcountry.  These days, it is the best resource.  For guide books on the backcountry, the two books that were readily available until relatively recently were Denali: The Complete Guide by Bill Sherwonit or Denali: A Backcountry Companion by Jon Niernberg.  Both are not currently in print but used copies may be obtained through Barnes & Noble’s website.  I suspect that they are out of print due to technology trends and because the Denali’s backcountry is difficult to quantify in writing.  By contrast, covering the Adirondacks, which has an elaborate network of maintained trails, is a subject ready for a guide book since it covers fixed trails rather than areas of tract that is subject to change.

Maps. Maps are always king, especially in trail-less Denali.  For general park orientation, my favorite is map 222 from National Geographic, which covers Denali National Park and Preserve.  It provides a general lay out of the entire park and wilderness backcountry units (into which the park is divided for management purposes) as well.  But when actually traversing cross country, nothing beats the square maps from the United States Geologic Survey (USGS).

Permits. The first thing we need to know is that the National Park Rangers manage the backcountry of Denali through a permit and a quota system for each backcountry unit on the park map.  Day hikers do not need backcountry permits.  All trips start, essentially, at the Park Headquarters, where we file what amounts to our “flight plan.”  Permits are issued by the Rangers for specific backcountry units on a first-come-first-served basis.  Because each backcountry unit has a maximum number of hikers permitted each day (around eight, depending on the unit), the unit we may have preferred to go through may be closed to us on our arrival.  So it is good to have plan Bravo and even Charlie ready.

Bears. Before the Rangers allow us to go in-country, we are given BRFCs, for Bear Resistant Food Container, also known as a food canister.  These are necessary, especially if we plan to camp on the open tundra where a place to hang our food bag out of reach from bears is impossible.  The canister closes flush without a handle, with the help of a little screw head-like notch, so the bear cannot get in no matter how much he or she hits it, squeezes or punts it.  It is great that the National Park Service issues them to backcountry hikers, but if we plan to backpack elsewhere in the far north, we should invest in one to take with us.  They run about $70.  In addition, we should make noise when we travel – human conversation is a unique sound and simply saying “Stay away, bear” repeatedly should do the trick.  Bear spray is also popular and might be good to keep accessible on the hip belt of our packs.

Cross Country Travel. If we have backpacked in the lower forty-eight, we probably have the basic skills necessary for hiking Denali.  But in addition to the basics – such as camping, protecting food from animals, packing, basic map and compass skills, and general physical fitness – we need to acquire additional skills for the Alaskan backcountry.  For example our expectation for our anticipated rate of travel needs to be tweaked.  This is because in the far north, sometimes the ground feels spongy.  Still, other terrain may feel like it is falling out from under us, particularly on a scree field or sometimes on a gravel bar.  While wildernesses like this make for slow going, it is just part of the challenge of negotiating routes in the far north, where there are no established trails or maintained trails.

River Crossings. There are numerous rivers throughout the park and finding the safest and proper place to cross them can take a great deal of time.  Preferably, cross at the widest braids where the river runs shallow.  We should get advice on the rivers we expect to cross from the Rangers before setting out.  Also, while some hikers are comfortable crossing in their boots, I remove mine despite the temperature of the water and wear old sneakers or Teva sandals – whichever I brought to wear in camp.

Campfires. Unfortunately, for backcountry travelers in Denali NPP, campfires are prohibited.   So plan to cook on a camp stove and stay warm in our fleece jackets or sleeping bags.  Most of us respect (as we should) the rule and know that an absurd portion of forest and brush fires are cause by people, but the satisfaction of light and warmth of a fire is the chill on the beer.  It may not be a bad idea to spend a night at a car camping site along the park access road before leaving just to use one of the permanent fire rings.

In a later post I will talk about some recommended day hikes and overnighters in Denali NPP. As well as what gear to bring.

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.