Hiking in Denali National Park

Published: December 28th 2015
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Hiking in Denali is very freeform. In general, visitors are encouraged to just explore and create their own paths but there are a few marked trails. Near Wonder Lake, there is a hike to the McKinley River and a separate short path to the southern edge of Wonder Lake. Both were pretty underwhelming.

Walking to Wonder Lake from the camp puts the mountain at your back. The best views are from the north offering reflections of Denali as seen in the previous blog entry. The trail to the McKinley River is an easy meander through a forest and over many small streams before reaching the McKinley River. Normally, hikers can walk along the McKinley Bar but when we reached the end of the trail, the river was very high and blocked any further passage.

An amusing encounter near the trailhead was with a man we privately nicknamed Yosemite Sam. He had a backcountry pass and carried an antique pistol. Backcountry campers are assigned a general area when they pick up their passes and can camp anywhere they like within that designated area. We met many intrepid backcountry campers of every sex and every age. In addition to dealing with animals while camping in the wild, they have to sterilize their own water and carry all of their food and sleeping and cooking equipment on their backs.

Once inside the park, visitors can hop on and off at any point. The variety in demeanor and personality of the bus drivers was astounding. One was growling like a combination of Dirty Harry and Swingblade. His commentary was so incomprehensible, we were laughing every time he spoke. My least favorite was a driver originally from New York who raced around all the steep mountain ledges. There is little room to pass and even less shoulder. I learned later from another passenger he was always in a hurry so he could take a cigarette break at the next stop.

Having exhausted the trails around our campground, we hitched a ride on an eastbound bus and got off at Eilson which has two great established hikes.

Because Denali was still cloudless, we chose the steep one mile uphill climb to the Thorofare Ridge to enjoy the panoramic views of the entire area around the Eilson Visitor Center and full Denali mountain range.

The following day we walked down to the McKinley River basin, where the riverbed is miles wide with “ropes” of streams in the gravel. In one area, there was a slight elevation about 1 foot off the riverbed covered with cottony plants and occasional thin copses of trees.

We encountered one other couple coming from the opposite direction and asked them if they had seen any wildlife. Our vigil somewhat relaxed, we meandered about 300 feet more when a large bull caribou with an extremely tall rack of antlers rose from his camouflaged spot and towered in a warning stance just in front of us. We had been told to move behind trees if we ever found ourselves to close to a moose or elk but there were no large trees near us. Terry turned me around by my shoulders and told me to walk quietly but steadily away. As we moved slowly in the opposite direction, the buck finally sat back down. I took out my camera to snap his picture but he was again seated and nearly invisible among the vegetation.

We did see another younger caribou running along the riverbed later but no other wildlife. I loved the open expanse and great visibility. There were grizzlies and moose in the area but we had only observed them on distant plateaus and mountains.

The clouds began to come in the next day and with the rainy weather, we decided we were ready to leave Denali. The new visitors couldn’t see any of the mountain behind the coverage and we realized again how amazingly lucky we had been. We enjoyed one of the most majestic mountains in the world under perfect conditions.

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