Photo courtesy of Natalie Morawietz.

Denali National Park, Alaska: 5 Steps Off the Beaten Path

Explore Denali! Video courtesy of Natalie Morawietz and Infinite Adventures.

Most likely you have heard about Denali National Park in Alaska. It is home to the highest peak in North America, Mt. McKinley, also called Denali. Unless you are a passionate mountain climber, you won’t make it up to the 6,186 m peak. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go and experience Alaska’s wilderness. Although the park encompasses more than 6 million acres (24,500 km²), it only has one road, which covers roughly 150 km. The rest is pure wilderness with hardly any serviced hiking trails. The moment you step into this wilderness, you’re truly into the wild.

Photo courtesy of Natalie Morawietz.
Photo courtesy of Natalie Morawietz.

1. Hop on one of the green shuttle buses.

The beginning of your Denali adventure will be shared with around 400,000 other visitors a year. This is quite a big number, isn’t it? Yellowstone National Park has over 3 million visitors a year! Still, you might feel a slight disappointment hopping on a bus with 50 other tourists. This isn’t quite the wilderness experience you were hoping for? Just be patient! The park’s shuttle service is your only chance to get far into the park, as no private vehicles are allowed beyond a certain point. If you are traveling in a group, it might be wise to pre-book a shuttle bus. Even though the buses leave every half hour, departures are booked quickly.

2. Sit back and enjoy.

Relax and enjoy the scenery of the park, which is a mix of taiga forests, tundra, braided rivers, mountains, and glaciers. You want to spot animals? Usually the chance of spotting moose is best during the first half hour, followed by caribou and, finally (after you have passed Igloo Creek campground), climbing up Sable Pass is your best chance for grizzly bears! This area is perfect for spotting bears because it forms a nice valley optimal for blue and soap berries along the road and up on the nearby slopes.

Photo courtesy of Natalie Morawietz.
Photo courtesy of Natalie Morawietz.

3. Get off the bus and explore!

Now the moment has come! Just let your bus driver know you would like to get off the bus at Sable Pass, and he will stop at the sign signifying the summit. Make sure you don’t leave the road for the first few miles hiking back down, but keep your eyes open: On either side there is a good chance to spot grizzly bears! Often they will be far away at a safe distance, but now that you’re on foot, your chances are even higher of seeing them. I guarantee that the experience of spotting these big creatures while hiking rather then being in a vehicle is vastly different, even from a distance!  To make sure you are safe (Even on the road there is a chance of seeing a mama bear and her cubs coming around a corner.), hike in groups, make noises, and potentially carry bear spray with you.

Once you have reached the bottom of the pass, it is time to explore and blaze your own trail! Making your way through the wilderness can be very difficult but extremely rewarding. Creeks and bushes block your path, and the soft tundra ground doesn’t make it easy to find solid footing. Following a dry riverbed or small creek uphill will allow you to traverse the terrain much quicker. After five minutes you won’t see the road, and most likely you will feel some goose bumps: You are finally experiencing the remote wilderness of Denali National Park. Take a deep breath, look around (always mindful of wildlife and weather), and enjoy!

4. Be aware of yourself and your surroundings.

Trailblazing even for a few hours will make you tired. It is definitely more exhausting than hiking on a serviced trail. When hiking in Denali, always be over-prepared in terms of your supplies and gear — dress in layers as the weather can change quite quickly and dramatically. Always look at your surroundings for special features that can help you find your way. Don’t forget along with your food and water to pack a park map and compass.

Photo courtesy of Natalie Morawietz.
Photo courtesy of Natalie Morawietz.

5. Return to civilization.

After your trek into the wild, you will make your way back to the road. Here you will be able to flag down any of the green shuttle buses to take you back to the park entrance. Keep in mind that especially during the peak hours around 3 to 4 pm, some of the buses might be full, so it can take a while until you get a lift, or you may have to split up the group to get seats on a few different buses.

These are my recommendations for how to explore the remote and unspoiled wilderness of Denali National Park. If I have piqued your interest, have a look at my Alaskan trips with Infinite Adventures!

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