Backpacking Denali National Park provides an environment that will both mesmerize you with it's beauty and intimidate you with it's trail-less, massiveness! Alaska was always on our list and for our 20th anniversary hike, we planned a trip to Denali National Park. We were all accustom to trail hiking and when we read that backpacking Denali means no established trails, we planned a very conservative and cautious trip into the Alaska back country.
We were going for a 5 day route backpacking Denali's back country and then we planned other activities exclusive to Alaska. We didn't have an predetermined hiking plan. While most national parks limited the amount of hikers allowed on a particular trail per day, Denali does something very different since they don't have trails. Denali is divided into boundaries and on the morning of your hike, you reserve an available boundary. Since we don't know what boundaries would be available, we had to be flexible. Once reserved, that Boundary would be allocated to us for the duration of our trip. This assures we wouldn't come across any other trekkers on our hike unless they were trespassing on our boundary.
This permit dynamic didn't change our backpacking gear preparations. The only difference with this trip, is we would be carrying a couple firearms since we would be in very populated Grizzly Bear territory. We were taking a redeye flight into Anchorage and then driving 250 miles straight to the Denali National Park Ranger Station to claim our Boundary as soon as it opened. Denali doesn't allow visitors to drive into the park. Instead they have a 3 hour tour bus that allows visitors to view the park in it's entirety. For trekkers backpacking Denali, the bus will drop them off once they reach their reserved boundary.
We'd reviewed the Boundaries options prior to our Alaska trip and, though we didn't know which ones would be available, we had a criteria established. We wanted a boundary section that was pretty deep into the national park, so we can see as much of the park as possible along the long bus ride. We wanted a boundary section that had views of Mount McKinley. You could get the boundary section at the base of Mount McKinley, but never see the mountain since it would be blocked by the lower mountains in between you and it. And we wanted one with alpine tundra terrain. There are different terrains in the park. The lower elevation forest sections, the bushy tundra that makes for tough trekking, or the alpine tundra which is short vegetation which is much easier for hiking in a trail-less wilderness.
We got exactly what we wanted in Section #34! An alpine tundra terrain, 2/3 of the way on the bus ride into the park, and on the opposite side of the park as Mount McKinley, so on clear days we would have unobstructed views of the largest mountain in North America.
After receiving our permit, we were required to view a 45 minute wilderness safety video prior to boarding the bus. We then jumped on the bus and began our backpacking Denali adventure. Immediately into the bus ride we started seeing Alaska's amazing wildlife variety. Dolly sheep speckled the high peaks. We started seeing herds of Caribou in snow patches on the lower hills.
As we got deeper into the park, we started seeing more and more Grizzly Bears. And as we approached the entry point to our boundary section at the Eielson Visitors Center, we past a mama grizzly with her two cubs. This was no more than a 1/2 mile from our boundary section. Needless to say, it was pretty unnerving. We had a Colt 45 and a 44 Magnum but let's be honest, it's a false sense of security. If we are charged and it's close enough for us to use them, we're in serious trouble.
One last look across the valley and we headed up more than 1000ft over the Thorofare Ridge into our Boundary section. We planned to immediately make camp once we were on the other side. We'd all been up for over 36 hours traveling on a redeye, a 250 mile drive, a 2 hour shuttle ride and 1000ft climb. We were exhausted!
Despite the obstacles, we all slept great our first night in Denali. The obstacles I mention is something we knew about, but had forgotten until this first night. The sun is always out in the land of the midnight sun! The sun dips over the ridge for a couple hours but that doesn't mean it's any less bright. It was really cool and it put us at ease with Grizzly Bears since we were really only worried about them at night. Well, there was no night! Problem solved.
We started hiking and making our way down to and up Moose Creek. We realize quickly that hiking without a trail is much more strenuous and much more time consuming. Alaska is such big country. You can see for miles when your backpacking Denali. We pick our path, which looks like easy trekking from a distance, but when you get there, its waste high thickets that's exhausting and slow to trek through. You can also see bears foraging miles away crossing over the path you chose. The thing they tell you, is if a bear is on your path, choose a different path. And that takes time, because we're seeing a lot of bears! If we can find a glacier to hike on, it's saves us a lot of time. It took us all day to travel about 5 miles up Moose Creek to an outlook shelf that we saw on the map. It looked like a great camp site that had a water source and faced out directly at Mount McKinley.
We planned to take a layover day, but we left it open as to where. Usually we base our layover day around a lake or stream so we can fish, but because of the massive amount of Grizzly Bears in the area, we decided to leave the fishing gear in the car. Plus our boundary section didn't have any fishing lakes, just Glacier run-offs. We decided that this would be the perfect spot. We just had two exhausting travel/hiking days and the views in this particular spot were extraordinary.
We were on top of a grassy outlook shelf at the base of some grassy rolling hills. Below the shelf was Moose Creek Valley and beyond that in the distance we knew was Mount McKinley. But when we first got to this site, there were afternoon clouds and we had a hard time trying to determine which mountain was Mount McKinley. We did a lot of speculating trying to compare two of the highest visible mountains with similar elevation and so on. It wasn't until early the next morning when the clouds disappear that Mount McKinley revealed itself and it was unmistakable.
We had our first real grizzly bear encounter at this campsite. A bear came foraging over the rolling hills behind us and towards our campsite. They say to adjust you path when your hiking to avoid bears but we were camped! This wasn't from a distance either, he was right there! We all got together and stood our ground with our side arms out and we yelled, "Get out of here, Bear!" He stood up on his back legs and took a sniff or two. He decided to stick close to the hill and away from our camp until he dropped down below the shelf. Once he was below the shelf, he made his way directly below our campsite and laid down. We sat in our camp chairs and watched him from the shelf. Every time one of us would stand up to go the bathroom or get something, he would stand up and watch us. This went on for several hours and was very unsettling. Eventually he moved on down into Moose Creek.
We left our cozy shelf and started toward the base of Stony Hill, our last campsite of this fairly short trip. It was a gradual downhill hike through upper moose creek with clear views for miles of the valley and our destination. It was still very time consuming and strenuous. We had to adjust out path several times due to bears in the distance and, to avoid them, we ended up in shoulder high thickets. It took most of the day to go about 5 miles and get to our camp site.
We arrived at our campsite, jumped in Stony Creek, made camp and then had dinner. It was late in the evening, but since it was our last night backpacking Denali, nobody felt like going to sleep. We decided to go on a midnight hike up to the top of Stony Hill and scope out our exit path out Stony Creek the following day. The top of Stony Hill gave us breathtaking 360 views of the Alaska wilderness. We could see where we started and where we would exit. We've hiked several times in the middle of the night, but never when we didn't need to bring any sort of light. These photos were taken from the top of Stony Hill in the middle of the night!
We packed up the next morning and started our hike down through Stony Creek. It narrowed at some points around blind corners so we were talking loudly and constantly yelling out, "We're Here Bear!" Worst thing you can do is creep up behind an unsuspecting grizzly bear. We made it to the park road a little before noon. We didn't have to wait long. A tour bus heading back to the park entrance arrived within 15 minutes. We were back at our car after about 2 hours, on to our next Alaskan Adventure!
We still had a 300 mile drive to do as soon as we got off the mountain and got back to the car. We had a guide scheduled to take us fishing for Sockeye Salmon down the Kenai River first thing the next morning. Pus, we had a friend joining us. We didn't like backpacking, but he loved fishing. We made it just in time to met him for dinner, and then we all crawled into bed.
We meet the boats at about 4am. Of course, it's as bright as mid-day. It was a beautiful day with intermittent sunshine coming in and out behind puffy white clouds. The Kenai River is as beautiful as it comes; winding through the Forest with Mountain Peak and Glacier backgrounds, with Bald Eagles diving into the river catching Salmon and Trout.
It's important to have a good guide. No motors are allowed on the River, so your depending on your guide to know the river and be able to get over to those fishing spots without the use of a motor. We fished for Rainbow Trout from our boat in our guides favorite spots along the river, as our guide looked for the Sockeye moving up river. Our guide would spot the Sockeye moving up stream and pulled over in time for us to intercept them. He also warned us to pay attention when were on shore fishing for the Sockeye. When we were backpacking Denali, Grizzly Bears are foraging, berry eaters that weigh about 800lbs. The Grizzly Bears around the Kenai River get big eating on protein rich Salmon and weigh about 1500lbs! Quite a difference.
We had an amazing day! We caught a couple Sockeye Salmon a piece and several monster Rainbow Trout. You really can't beat floating down a mountain river with a cooler of beer, fishing for Sockeye Salmon and monster Trout. We gave the fish to our guide to take home to his family, since we couldn't take it with us. We had another big day planned for tomorrow!
The next morning we had to be at the harbor before 3am. We had a charter boat reserved to take us Halibut fishing out of Seward. We were told by many, that we had the best captain in Seward. It started off calm and sunny as we were leaving Seward harbor. But after a 3 hour boat ride to the captains secret fishing spot, it was cold and wet! All of the clothes I had brought for backpacking Denali, I had on. It was all worth. Immediately, we started hooking up! I pulled in 40lb Halibut with in 5 minutes, only to have the captain tell me to throw it back. I didn't understand, this was a monster from where I was from. The captain explained that we can only keep 2 Halibuts per person, so we wanted the biggest. We kept releasing 40 to 60 pounders for the 1st hour or so, until we landed a 120lb halibut! "These are the ones we want!" the Captain explained.
We were having a blast, but it was exhausting! We would be pulling up 60lb Halibuts from 350ft down, let it go, and then another pole would get hit. Plus, the biggest fish seemed to hit the jig. So we would be working the jig for 15 minutes, get hit, pull up a 100lb Halibut and the captain would say, "Get that Jig back in the water!" Holy smokes, we probably caught 50 fish but only took our 12 biggest back to the dock. At the dock, they fillet all the fish and prepared it for shipping. They ship it back for about $5 per pound. Which is a steal since Halibut is usually $20 per pound at the store. After sorting out the fish, we drove back to Anchorage, checked into our hotel, and hit the bars that night. The following morning we all flew back home. What an amazing trip! Our final Halibut fishing tally photo is below!