Situated in the mountainous fastness of central Alaska, Denali National Park encloses over 6 million acres of pristine wilderness. That alone makes it prime hiking real estate. And when the rugged terrain and outdoor attractions like Mt. McKinley are added, the allure of hiking in Denali only grows. For hikers looking for demanding routes, the terrain, weather and even the wildlife combine to create many difficult hiking possibilities in Denali National Park.
Grizzly bears are just one hazard to hikers in Denali.
Denali National Park has several marked or partially marked trails rated as moderate-to-strenuous or strenuous. Most of these are concentrated in the area around the park entrance, but some are situated deeper in the park. Some of these trails are of the type familiar to most US national and state park visitors, but with harder going. The Mt. Healy Overlook Trail, for example, climbs 1,700 feet over the course of 2.25 miles, on a path that is exposed to high winds and features some skree. Another kind of difficult hike is the Savage Canyon Trail, located 15 miles into the park. While not challenging in and of itself, hikers on the Savage Canyon Trail can increase the difficulty by adding off-trail side trips in many areas, making the hike a mixture of trail hiking and off-trail hiking.
Most of Denali National Park is only accessible through a multi-night hiking and camping expedition, better known as backcountry hiking or backpacking. These are often off-trail, requiring the use of a map and either a GPS receiver or a compass. One of the better known backcountry hiking expeditions in Denali National Park is the trek to Mt. McKinley, a trip for those who want a closer look at the mountain, and by mountaineers seeking to scale the peak. While off-trail day hikes do not require a permit and may be made almost anywhere in the park, the sort of overnight hikes needed to reach the wildest and most challenging parts of the park require a backcountry permit. Backcountry permits must be applied for the day before the proposed backcountry hike, and prospective hikers must participate in a short safety and planning program before departing.
There is only one paved road in the park, and it is traveled by park buses ferrying hikers and campers to the remoter parts of the park. Some of the marked trails begin far from the visitor center, and it is not uncommon for a backcountry hiking trip to start from a convenient, but unmarked, part of the park road. A day hiker can use the bus system to reach a hiking trail and then return in the same day. Backcountry hikers can take the bus close to the areas they really want to explore and thereby spare extra days of hiking.
One of the main reasons to pursue some of the most difficult hikes in Denali National Park is to reach remoter areas and increase your chance to see the park’s diverse wildlife. The National Park Service describes the park’s “Big Five” as grizzly bears, wolves, Dall sheep, caribou and moose. In addition to these animals, other creatures including red foxes, wolverines, beavers, golden eagles and more live in the park.
One type of wildlife in the park poses a possible hazard to hikers: the grizzly bear. Both backcountry hikers and day hikers with picnic lunches or other provisions must exercise bear safety measures. Whenever food and cooking utensils are not in use, they must be stored in bear-safe containers. Backcountry hikers stopping for the night need to hang those containers either from trees or off the ground using bear poles. Finally, hikers should go out of their way to make at least some noise on the trail, as it warns bears of their approach.
- Brown Bear 2 image by Robert Ulph from Fotolia.com