Note: Guns are not permitted within Denali National Park (this may change if the NRA has its way), but many hikers carry Counter Assault or other pepper-based sprays for protection. There has never been a fatal bear attack in the park, but bears certainly are a potential hazard. Obey all park regulations and follow safety tips from the rangers. For more information about safety in bear country, please read the Coexisting with Bears and Protecting Yourself During a Bear Encounter pages.
Ranger-led walks are available daily all summer at both the Denali Visitors Center and Eielson Visitors Center. More ambitious are the half-day Discovery Hikes led by rangers to more remote areas. These cost $31–45 and include several hours on the bus; reserve a day or two in advance.
Entrance Area Day Hikes
Several paths take off from the Denali Visitors Center, including two easy ones: the Spruce Forest Trail (15 minutes) and a longer Murie Science and Learning Center Trail (20 minutes). Horseshoe Lake Trail (3 miles round-trip) starts at the shuttle bus stop and then descends to the lake, where you might see waterfowl and beavers.
Hiking the five-mile round-trip Mt. Healy Overlook Trail is a great way to get the lay of the land, see the mountain if it’s out, quickly leave the crowds behind, and get your heart pumping. Once at the overlook (1 mile in), keep climbing the ridges for another several hours to get to the peak of Mt. Healy (5,200 feet).
The 2.3-mile Rock Creek Trail starts near the post office and climbs to park headquarters, gaining 400 feet along the way. You can then loop back along the road via the 1.8-mile Roadside Trail. Taiga Trail is an easy 1.3-mile loop that also begins near the post office.
For details on backcountry hikes and camping, head to the Backcountry Information Center (907/683-9510, daily 9 a.m.–6 p.m. May 20–Sept. 20); the office is just across the parking lot from the Wilderness Access Center.
Popular backpacking areas include up the Savage River toward Fang Mountain; down the far side of Cathedral Mountain toward Calico Creek (get off the bus just before the Sable Pass closure); up Tatler Creek a little past Igloo Mountain; anywhere on the East Fork flats below Polychrome toward the Alaska Range; anywhere around Stony Hill; and the circumnavigation of Mt. Eielson (get off 5–6 miles past the visitors center, cross the 100 braids of the Thorofare River, and walk around the mountain, coming back up to the visitors center). There are backcountry description guides at the backcountry desk, or you can find the same info online, with photos. For additional details and hiking tips, get a copy of Backcountry Companion ($9).
On all these hikes, you can get off the outbound bus, explore to your heart’s content, then get back on an inbound bus, if space is available. Consult with the driver and study the bus schedule closely; the camper buses usually have space coming back.
Large as it is, it’s hard to get lost in Denali—you’re either north or south of the road. And since the road travels mostly through open alpine tundra, there aren’t any artificial trails to follow—just pick a direction and book.
Usually you’ll want to make for higher ground in order to: (a) get out of the knee- to hip-high dwarf shrubbery of the moist tundra and onto the easy hiking of the alpine area, (b) get to where the breeze will keep the skeeters at bay, and (c) see more. Or walk along the river gravel bars into the mountains, although depending on the size of the gravel, it can be ankle-twisting.
Hiking boots are a must, and carry food, water, a compass, binoculars, maps, rain gear, and a bear-proof food canister. Keep your eyes and ears wide open for wildlife that you don’t want to get close to, sneak up on, or be surprised by.
You need a free permit to spend the night in the backcountry. Permits are issued 24 hours in advance from the Backcountry Information Center, and reservations are not accepted. Check the big maps and look over descriptions of the 43 units, where a limited number of backpackers are allowed. (The same info can be found online at www.nps.gov/dena to help you plan prior to your trip.)
Now check the board to find the vacancies in the units. Make sure the unit is open (some are always closed; others periodically close because of overcrowding or bears) and that there are enough vacancies to accommodate your whole party.
Watch the 30-minute backcountry video that describes bear safety, river crossings, minimum-impact camping, emergencies, and other topics; listen to a 10-minute safety talk; and finally get a permit from the ranger. You might have to wait a few days for openings in your chosen area, or have a plan B or C in mind.
The park loans out free bear-proof food storage containers; be sure to get one for your hike. Finally, reserve a seat on one of the camper buses ($31) to get you and your gear into the park.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition