Hiking in Denali National Park, A Photo Gallery

This photo gallery of Alaska is a collection of images from my trips to Alaska in August 1992, December 1992, and August 1994. The destinations along the way include:

  • Seattle, Washington
  • Vashon Island, Washington
  • Anchorage, Alaska
  • Denali National Park
  • Talkeetna, Alaska
You can also read about an interesting night on the Thorofare River here.

In 1992 I set out on my first independent wilderness vacation, chosing Denali National Park as the destination. This was my first summer living in the Boston area, and I was eager to get as far away from the city as possible. During the first leg of the trip I stopped over in Seattle, Washington and it was during that flight that I met Isabel Rodriguez, an exchange student from Madrid who offered to let me listen to the group Mecano during the flight. Later, upon arriving in Anchorage, I spent the night sleeping under a pine tree outside the Alaska Railroad train station. Mount Spur, a volcano not far from Anchorage, had erupted the day before my arrival and the streets were filled with a thick layer of fine, gray ash.

The next morning I departed on the train, headed for Denali park, some 8 hours away. I knew that when I arrived in Denali that I had to go to the ranger station in order to obtain a backcountry permit.

If you go, it will greatly expedite matters if you review the National Park Service info before you arrive. It does get a little competitive at the Ranger Station when applying for a backcountry permit. If you arrive by train go immediately to the Denali Ranger Station. There will literally be a train load of people who will also be heading there. Be there first. In advance, know which of the 45 or so park sections are the most interesting to you. Then check the board behind the backcountry desk which lists how many people are in those sections for each day of the upcoming week. Each section has its own limits on how many people are allowed within it. Usually this means a limit of 6-8 people per section, but each section could be roughly from 50 - 100 square miles. The smaller your group is, the easier to get a permit for the area you want.

I have always gotten a permit for just one, and this is pretty much a ticket for anywhere you want to go. Travelling in groups of 2 or 3 increases the limitations a bit, but you can still get into some nice areas. You see, the more attractive areas usually stay near their limit, so there are not many opportunities to get a permit for more than 3 people into those places.

When you get to speak to a ranger, they will take you through a series of lessons, including a 30 minute interactive video, some pamphlets, and even a little quiz -- all to make sure you know how to behave in the many different situations you will encounter. The training goes over where and how to make a camp, how to cross the rushing glacial rivers (probably the most risky task you will encounter), how to store and handle food to prevent attracting bears, and oh, yeah, the bears... well the ranger will be quite sure you know how to handle all the possible scenarios. Ask about the bus system to get you deep into the park.

Once you have your permit, head for the Morino Campground which is just for backpackers who arrive by train. It's just up the road a kilometer, and only a few bucks a night. There you will also find a metal garage which all guests must keep their food in overnight.

There is a little gas station/convenience store across from the train station where you can pick up a variety of items. They will fill up your fuel bottles for you, rather than make you buy a whole gallon like many other places.

Once your backcountry permit is secured, you may have to wait until the next day to begin. Arrive at the Ranger Station to catch your bus. The full trip to Wonder Lake at the center is about 5 hours or so, and if you just going for a day trip to sightsee, then the full round trip might be 12 hours. There aren't any refreshments or restaurants along during the day trips, so you must bring your own food and drink. If you're taking to the bus to your backcountry destination, then should should be fully prepared with enough supplies and your bear canister.

Polychrome Pass is one of the most beautiful areas. But, if your permit is for the south side of the road, you will have trouble finding a place to put your tent. The valley you will find between you and Polychrome Pass is miles wide, and so flat and open that you will have great difficulty finding a place to hide your tent. This is one of the requirements -- to make sure your tent is out of sight of the road to avoid color pollution.

Cathedral and Igloo Mountains were the first interesting peaks that I saw on my ride in. These are great places to see Dall sheep, like the one's I photographed below. The park discourages trying to get close to the animals, but if you do so anyway just be concerned not to disturb them. If you approach the sheep, watch to see if they continue eating normally, and see if they are interacting with each other normally. What is normal? Well, observe them carefully from a distance and watch for changes as you approach. If you think you're disturbing them, stop and backup a bit. If you try to be sneaky by crawling behind rocks or such, they will suspect you may be a predator and will flee. The best approach is to be obvious. Stand straight up, talk softly, move your arms slowly, all to let them see that you are a Human. They relaxed and played while I sat with them, after I approached them in this way.

Just west of Cathedral mountain is Sable Pass. This is a thick grizzly area, and often is off limits for overnight camping. On several occasions I have witnessed bears there, and have heard the stories of people hiking in the area. The bears have not learned to associate people with a source of food, mostly due to the habits the ranger will teach you. Follow these habits!

The Toklat river area is the best area for wolves. I was very lucky to have a wolf approach me from a distance to check me out. It trotted quickly by me while sniffing me out, and kept on going. Several Blackbilled Magpies were flying in company with the wolf, probably to capitalize on any leftovers.

The Eilson visitor center is a great place to get out from the bus. You can walk down the river bed for miles. The landscape is gouged with these little canyons, under gleaming white rim of peaks. It reminded me of one of those bas-relief maps. They make great places to pitch your tent out of sight. I stayed in front of Mount Eilson, facing Sunset Glacier. I hiked up the backbone of the mountain from the east and over its south side. Here there are outstanding views of the Alaskan Range. I did have to carefully make my way over a loose slope by using a sheep trail for a short stretch. Continue west over the back and you descend in a rocky gorge until you bottom out near Muldrow Glacier. Muldrow really is a creeping glacier, but covered in dirt and vegetation so that it just looks like an unusually bumpy stretch of field. Turn right and continue North along the creek, it will take you back to the front of Eilson. Hike overland back to your starting point and enjoy all the blueberries while you do. Remember, be careful when crossing back over the river. Look for the braids where the water branches out. There it is the slowest and often the shallowest. Overall this loop will be 12 miles or so. It took me 9 hours.

To ease your way back into civilization, you could try staying at one of the small Campgrounds in the park. You should book this while getting your backcountry permit. I stayed at the Wonder Lake Campground for day. You can do a day hike into the Kantishna hills, and listen to the Park Service Talks given in the evening. Now, try getting adjusted to being around people again.

During my first trip to Alaska, I met the Huls and Belgard families from Anchorage while returning from Denali abord the train. They are neighbors along Muldoon Ave near the east end of Tudor. These families welcomed me to stay with them and generously included me in their family meals and activities, and I'm very grateful to them. One event worth noting is that I asked to join them when delivering newspapers one morning, and that was great fun for me& the volcano ash from Mt. Spur was still swirling in the streets, I ate green apples off a tree, and even got to see a moose wandering down the sidewalk. That year I continued to correspond with many of them, and they invited me to return.

I finally returned one more time in the summer of 1994 to visit my friends in Anchorage, hike in Denali for a week, and stop over in Seattle to visit my friend Isabel who was once more visiting her former host family. I was much better prepared for hiking in Denali this time, and much less 'green behind the ears' as they say. While stopping in Seattle I stayed at the Vashon Island Hostel. Here they offered a choice of log cabin, tipi, or conestoga wagon. The hostel also had bike rentals and free do-it-yourself pancakes, which were flavored with the blackberries picked from the roadside.

Please enjoy the photos.