Trekking and Backpacking Overview: Denali National Park

Gorp.com
Thin air in Denali
The air at Denali (pictured) is thinner than the air in the Himalayas at the same altitude.

Denali National Park, Alaska Highlights

  • While trekking in Denali National Park presents spectacular vistas, encounters with wildlife, and the experience of being alone in wilderness, the park itself has few trails. Most hiking is cross-country. Be prepared for uneven terrain, streams, and brush. The different Denali terrains present distinct challenges as well as distinct rewards.
  • Start off on the small trail system near the park entrance. Also, the Savage River trail system provides a range of hikes that vary in length.
  • One approach to day hiking (and scouting longer backpacking adventures) in Denali is to follow the park road. Take a shuttle bus, get off at an interesting location, and hike from there. When you feel you've gone far enough, turn back and either wait for the next shuttle bus or walk along the road until the next bus comes.
  • Overnight backpacking is a popular activity for wilderness trekking enthusiasts. Backcountry stays in Denali National Park require a free backcountry permit available at the visitor center during the summer months and at park headquarters during the winter months. Most areas require the use of Bear Resistant Food Containers, distributed free of charge with your backcountry permit. Bear encounters are fairly common, so learn how to handle them ahead of time.

The rewards of hiking in Denali are many: spectacular vistas, encounters with wildlife, and the experience of being alone in wilderness. However, Denali has practically no trails. Most hiking is cross-country. Be prepared for uneven terrain, streams, and brush. The different Denali terrains present distinct challenges, as well as distinct fascinations.

The Taiga Forest, found in the lower elevation areas, consists of primarily spruce trees, willow, and other brush. This dense cover may impede hiking, but the struggle is often worth it for the vistas possible when you break through to the higher tundra areas.

The front country of Denali offers trails through the taiga forest, making it easier to travel in this scenic area. The taiga forest is home to many different plants and animals including moose, bear, red squirrels, woodpeckers, and many varieties of berries.

Once you get above the taiga, you'll encounter tundra. Denali has two types:

Moist tundra has a ground cover of sponge-like mosses and small brush. Hiking in this habitat offers a chance to spot caribou, fox, and bear among the wildflowers and berries.

Dry tundra is found in the higher alpine areas, interspersed with scree (small, loose rocks). It is home to spectacular wildflowers. Dall sheep, caribou and arctic ground squirrel thrive in this seemingly barren ecosystem.

A great way to take a moderate hike with good visibility is to walk along the wide gravel bars of Denali's braided rivers. It is possible to see impressive animal tracks, many varieties of wildflowers, and wildlife as they travel this relatively easy route.

Just as Denali has few trails, there are few bridges in the backcountry of Denali. Stream and river crossings can be tricky.

Permits

Overnight stays in the backcountry of Denali National Park require a free backcountry permit available at the Visitor Center during the summer months and at Headquarters during the winter months. Permits are issued only one day in advance; reservations are not accepted. Here's how the permit system works. Denali's backcountry is divided into 43 units; only a limited number of backpackers are allowed each night into most units. During peak season, many units may be full for several days, and other units may be closed due to wildlife activity. Before you leave home, pick up a copy of the Denali Backcountry Companion, and have in mind a few areas that you might want to explore. Or you can do research on the spot at the Backcountry Desk, which has a collection of Backcountry Description Guides. A Quota Board on the wall behind the Backcountry Desk will tell you what units are available.

Most areas require the use of Bear Resistant Food Containers (BRFCs), distributed free of charge with your backcountry permit. Or buy your own and you'll always have them handy.

You do not need a special permit to dayhike, but you do need to avoid areas closed to entry. Ask for a current closure map.


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