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Backpacking in Denali

by Amanda Phillips

When I planned on walking into the Denali wilderness, I never imagined I would sit at the base of a glacier, surrounded by animals straight from a folk tale and fear that I was in way over my head. When you tell someone you are going backpacking in the Denali wilderness–a place with no trails, they imagine two things: you will become lost in an Arctic tundra and you will be consumed by bears. We had walked for 12 miles in a straight line with excellent visibility, getting lost would be difficult. We have been backpacking in bear country for years without incidents, so death by bear felt unlikely. We felt ready.

However, as we sat beside a glacial stream, watching a grizzly mother bear and her two sub adult cubs guard a food cache 100 yards from where we planned to set up our tent, I began to ponder the real possibility of not finding a place to sleep. Back in the comfort of my summery Seattle apartment, a dinner shared with Dall’s sheep sitting high upon a cliff, three grizzly bears and a herd of more than one hundred caribou feels like a dream, too spectacular to be true. But what I remember most from that moment was not complete awe for the natural splendor we were witnessing, but real concern over where one can rest when surrounded by wild animals. Backpacking in Denali meant embracing this uncivilized fear. 

We visited a wildlife refuge the following week and saw many of the same animals, much closer, yet it felt nothing like that moment out on the tundra. Was it because we were visiting them in their habitat? The incredible feeling of seeing something free, where it is supposed to be? Certainly yes, but the feeling of becoming a participant in this ecosystem, rather than a spectator is what calls me again and again to the trail. I felt the silty river push sediment between my toes, moved from place to place to avoid an apex predator, and was mentally exhausted from traveling without a path to show me where to go. To say that it was a trip teeming with metaphors is an understatement. 

Denali. It is a place like no other and I can’t wait to go back.  

 

Man and woman backpacking in Denali National Park

We watched the bus round the corner, leaving us alone on the Denali Highway. The sun was warm on our backs while a persistent wind whipped around us. We looked at each other and shrugged, I guess it is time to do this thing. We shouldered our packs, stepped off the road and started walking.

We were backpacking in Denali National Park. Unlike the areas we frequent in Washington, backpacking in Denali is an entirely different beast. There are no established trails–if you see one that means an animal made it. No established campsites, just a requirement to be out of view of the road. No bridges, privies, infrastructure, few people. Just the Alaskan wilderness and us, carrying our belongings and hopes on our backs.

birds in denali national park
Man backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

We set off down I Scream Gulch, a moderately steep gulch that led down to the river bed. Ptarmigan rushed out from under bushes, clucking like the alpine chicken they are. We aggressively hollered for bears, as the thick brush and alder made it difficult to see very far. Then we made it to the wide river bed stretching nearly a mile across.

Gravel left from retreating glaciers spread wide under the peaks of the Alaska Range. A river thick with glacial sediment braided through the rocks, meeting and separating again and again. We took a seat on the river’s eastern edge and I pulled the hard boiled eggs I had been carrying since the early morning out of my pocket. Strange, yes, but also rather delightful. 

We were following the river to the headwaters, which made navigation easier. With visibility for more than 7 miles, we could see the bend we needed to get to in order to find a spot out of view of the road and acceptable to camp. Opting to walk on the durable surface, we began walking on the riverbed. Every now and again the river would come close to the bank and we would hop onto the alder-strewn floodplain.

backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
Man backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

After walking for about a mile, Michael stopped me to point to the hillside. Two caribou stood on the hill above the opposite bank. As we shared the binoculars, they began to walk down the hillside and delicately crossed the river. We looked at each other, shocked that our best animal sighting happened in the first two miles. Little did we know what Denali had in store for us.

backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
caribou in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

After a few miles we noticed a Dall’s sheep up on the bluffs. With a huge set of curled horns, it was clearly a large male. Another sheep with joined the first. They seemed to glow a bright white against the red rocks. At this point we were feeling especially lucky, as Dall’s sheep were high on my list of hopeful species. The park as initially established as a way to preserve Dall’s Sheep, seeing them seemed essential to the Denali experience.

We continued moving along, seeing more caribou across the river. We saw an adult bear foraging up on the hill to the right, digging at ground squirrels. It was so far it was barely noticeable but we made sure to keep an eye on it. 

sheep in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
Man backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

At last, we reached a portion of the river we could not jump across or skirt around and the time had come to ford. We rolled up our pants and tightened our hiking boots and found the widest, most gentle section of the river. As the icy river flooded our boots, I was surprised to find it was not as horrifyingly cold as other fords I had done in Washington.

We poured the water out of our boots on the other side and let our socks air-dry. Michael had his eyes set on a wide, flat section of tundra on the west side of the river, so we started making our way in that direction, attempting to find a campsite for the night.

Day 1: Campsite Searching

Backpack in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

Sure enough, the tundra had a perfect campsite, right in the middle. As we stepped over dig sites, bleached bones and grizzly bear scat, we felt a little concerned about being woken up by grizzlies. However, the only bear we had seen so far was the lone adult high on the hill and we had seen evidence of bear activity throughout our entire route. We decided to continue on and attempt to find a durable surface to pitch our tent.

As if it was designed for us to camp there, a small stream cut through a gravel bank, leaving a tent-sized flat gravel space and a crystal-clear creek for a water source. It was near a large, rocky bank and we were able to be protected from the persistent wind that pushed through the valley.

Bone in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
Bone in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
Woman in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

Believing it to be too good to be true, we decided to rest for half an hour on the spot and then pitch the tent, after we had thoroughly surveyed the area. We watched sheep on the other bank play in the sunshine and enjoy the spectacular views. We traded the binoculars and marveled at our good luck. Nearly half an hour had passed and we were discussing where to pitch the tent when Michael brought the binoculars down from his eyes and calmly stated that we needed to pack up our gear and leave the area as fast as we could.

Not interested in asking questions, I hurried to re-pack my backpack and we quickly began walking back towards the river bank. A quick glance through the binoculars confirmed that a momma grizzly and her two sub-adult cubs had just slid down a snow bank about 250 meters away and were walking towards where we were previously sitting.

They seemed to pause for a bit and we recognized they were gathered around what looked to be a Dall’s sheep carcass. Not wanting to be anywhere near a grizzly cache, we picked up our pace and walked off the tundra. At this point we had a decision to make: do we continue to walk directly away from the bears, return from where we came, which we knew to be relatively safe, or walk further into the valley, putting the greatest distance between us and the bears?

Grizzly Bears in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

Ultimately, the greatest distance was the most appealing and the bears became smaller as we moved away from them. They traveled across the tundra, occasionally stopping to dig. When they were small beige dots in the distance, we stopped to rest and collect our bearings. The spot where we planned to sleep was now precariously close to a grizzly bear cache, something we were not interested in sleeping next to.

A flat section of tundra that looked lovely for a tent was our next choice, until we realized it was two river crossings away and underneath a large herd of Dall’s sheep. We watched as a sheep dislodged a loose rock and sent it tumbling down to where our tent would have stood. So, that spot was out.

Brown Bear in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
Backpack in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

Farther down the valley stood a large section of open tundra, nicely protected from the wind and against a large cliff, making it impossible for bears to sneak up behind us. Unfortunately, summer came to Denali the day of our backpacking trip. While it was excellent in many ways, the first sunny day in weeks meant that large amounts of snow and glacier melted throughout the day, turning our easy ankle-biting ford into one over our knees and rushing fast. We could see two significant crossings from where we stood, but knew there could be more. So, that campsite was out. There was a fourth spot we were feeling hopeful about, around the corner looking upon a marvelous glacier.

backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
Backpack in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

As we glanced about, my stomach reminded me that it is hard to make decisions when you are hungry. So, we took a timeout and pulled our stove out while sitting next to the river, scoping campsites while we ate. To the east lay a large group of Dall’s Sheep, high on the cliff. To the west, our three grizzly bears continued to dig for ground squirrels. To the southwest lay a glacier stretching out to the gravel bank in elegant fingers. Alongside that glacier sat a herd of 150 or so caribou. Little beige dots stretched as far as the eye could see, dotting the hillside like small bushes.

It was truly the most spectacular dinner view I have ever experienced. We were so tired and stressed about finding a space to sleep we hardly paused to appreciate the moment we were in. Denali National Park. Surrounded by Dall’s sheep, grizzly bears and a massive herd of caribou. This was truly a once in a lifetime moment.

Still, fears about where we would sleep were looming large and we imagined walking through the night as the sun never set. We opted to go check the final campsite on our list, hoping it would suffice. It was not our ideal spot, as it was awfully close to where the bears were walking earlier, but we hoped they would continue traveling north and not return to the glacier. Michael wandered close to the small hill, taking one last scan of the tundra. It was then that he turned to me and exclaimed, once again, that we needed to get out of there right away. The bears were headed back this direction and they were moving fast.

Backpack in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
Backpack in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

We pushed back onto the river bank and began moving away. I stopped to look through the binoculars myself and discover our situation. Michael grew concerned as I nonchalantly lowered the binoculars and stopped my hurried movements.

“These bears have antlers” I told him. What appeared to be bears from a distance, large and beige, were in fact a group of about 6 caribou, running towards the hill we were about to cross. They ran along the edge of the tundra, the sun lighting their backs until they all crested the hill and disappeared.

Caribou in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
Caribou in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9
Backpack in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9
Backpack in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9
Backpack in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9

We gave them a five minute head start and resumed popping over the hill to find a spot. We climbed over massive dig sites to find the flat section perfect for a tent. There was only one problem, the only tent suitable spot had a game trail that passed directly through it. Having just seen a group of caribou use this exact game trail, we opted to find an alternate spot to sleep. At this point, we had mostly run out of options.

 

tent in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
tent in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

We decided to retrace our steps and see if there were any spots we may have missed, and if we didn’t find anything in 2 miles, we would camp on the empty river bank. We expected the wind to howl, so we would have any protection, but the riverbank provided a flat, durable surface, with a lower likelihood of animal interactions. Eventually, we found a section of riverbank far from any channels of the river. Previously part of the channel, it scoured a small indent into the land, which we hoped would help a small bit with wind protection.

We could see the three bears from the tent, far in the distance, which I found comforting and Michael less so. While the wind promised a fitful sleep, the extra 5 miles we walked that day made so I dropped off shortly after my head hit the pillow, despite the midnight sun at the solstice. 

backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toleak River

Our tent threatened to collapse under the wind as we woke in the Denali wilderness. Our initial plan was to hike in 7 miles on day one, establish a basecamp then explore the rest of the valley. However, in attempting to avoid the bears, we managed to cover 12 miles and see the glacier on the previous day. My body was exhausted, with pack sores on my hips and blisters on my heels. The sunny evening had turned into dark clouds and it looked like rain would be coming soon.

We considered our options and realized that we could stay and explore for one more day, then hurry out and try to catch a bus by 12 on Friday. Which meant we would need to cover 7 or more miles in 4 hours. Usually, that would be an easy feat, but without a trail to follow and a river running high, I started to worry that we would make it to the road that quickly.

As we discussed our options, we realized we would be staying an extra day just to say we did it. Our plan for the day would have been to sit in the tent and watch wildlife, which would have been grand, but not at the expense of misery the next day and seemed less appealing with the rain. Leaving a day early also meant we had more chances to see the rest of the park. It was decided, and we packed up and prepared to leave. It seemed unlikely we would get the stove to light in this wind, so we opted for cliff bars for breakfast and hoped the wind would die down enough for a hot lunch.

backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

Shortly after packing up, we looked to the nearby mountains and saw a large bear next to two small rocks. Then the rocks started to move and we realized that we were looking at a mother grizzly and her two small cubs. They were far up a mountainside looking intently at their dig so we had plenty of time and space to watch. The cubs wrestled, tumbled and generally performed adorable bear antics.

We set out for the road and almost immediately had a ford to complete. Remembering the relatively warm water we forded the day before, we opted to try and see if we could ford in our sandals. We quickly learned that there was a lot of snow melt the previous day and the glacial water was icy. I took about 5 steps before my feet went completely numb and my spine shortly followed. I ran to the closest dry bank and suffered through the screaming barfies, loudly expressing my rage. Though my feet felt better as feeling came back, I looked forward and realized there were several more sections of river to be navigated. We put our boots back on and decided to ford wearing our hiking boots, hoping it would be warmer. It was not.

At long last, we made it to the other side and found a sheltered spot to make some peanut noodles. After the cold water the warm meal was well appreciated. We looked down the river channel and realized that the water had risen significantly and we would be unable to retrace our steps from the previous day. At this point, the mixed tundra and rock on the steppe above looked far more promising. We pushed up off the riverbed and slowly made our towards the road, walking over alpine wildflowers, small rocks and tundra. A herd of caribou kept us company as we attempted not to disturb their snacking.

backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
Man backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River
backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

Before we knew it, we made it back to I Scream Gulch. Unfortunately, entering the gulch the way we exited required a significant river ford. So we turned early and scrambled around a large hill, cutting closer to the road. While this looked like a shortcut, we quickly realized the route crossed a large bog, rather than following a rocky streambed. Crossing required carefully navigating the soggy pools of water and low shrubs before we reached the gulch.

The gulch seemed to last forever, as we slowly pushed forward. My feet were covered in blisters that had popped long ago, staining my wool socks red. My backpacking pack had rubbed sores onto my hips, and each step was a challenge. At last, we stumbled onto the road and set our heavy packs down, eyes straining for the green bus that would take us back home. After three full buses passed us heading towards the entrance, we decided to try our luck in the opposite direction. We hopped on a bus traveling farther into the park…for the rest of the story, check out the traveling to Denali post

backpacking in Denali National Park backcountry unit 9 Toklat River

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Backpack in Denali National Park for the ultimate wilderness experience
Backpack in Denali National Park for the ultimate wilderness experience

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2 comments

Gabby August 22, 2018 - 9:11 am

Wow! I cannot imagine being there. The pictures look stunning, but I am far too much of a wuss to do something trail-less, much less backpacking in an area filled with grizzly bears. I’m scared to even backpack in Yellowstone!

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Patrick August 22, 2018 - 1:42 pm

Coming from a place which has no large animals like bears ect, I think i would be terrified being so close to them! But it would be so incredible at the same time! Great writeup and the place looks just epic 🙂

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