Before I get into storytelling mode, here is the overall summary of our single backpacking trip we took in Denali National Park:
Unit 9 – East Branch Toklat River
Total mileage: 15.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 1578 feet
Elevation Loss: 1567 feet
Max Elevation: 3465
Number of Nights: 2
I was equally nervous as I was excited about backpacking in Denali National Park.
Nervous you ask? What’s a girl who’s backpacked 6,000+ miles got to be nervous about?
Quite frankly, Denali holds 2 unknowns for me: off-trail wandering and grizzly bears.
I don’t think there’s any need to explain my fear of grizzlies in the wild (and for the record, I have NO problem being around black bears), but the fact that DNP is a trail-less park gave me heart palpitations. I am best when I have a destination planned, mileage set and even an idea where I might camp. Navigation is not my strong suit (nor is it really Justin’s). We know how to use a map & compass and other navigational tools, but it seems to bring out the worst of us!
Not to mention, without trails, travel in Denali’s backcountry is not easy. One Denali mile is equal to about 3 miles elsewhere. There’s a lot of bushwhacking through thick plant cover—like willow & alder trees, bounding across wide-open tundra (seriously feels like walking on sponges), crossing braided glacial rivers multiple times along gravel bars and detouring to keep distance from wildlife (give a wide berth to grizzlies, like at least 300 feet). Justin has backpacked in Denali and assured me my fears were unfounded and we would be fine.
Spoiler alert: we did totally fine, it was wonderful and I would do it again in a heartbeat!!!
But backpacking in Denali is just like the park itself, big and wild.
The 6 million acres of Denali National Park is broken into 87 units. Overwhelming, I know. The best place to start is the NP’s website, which gives descriptions of the units, and a Nat Geo map.
You need to secure a permit up to 1 day in advance (in addition to go through a briefing about how to stay safe in grizzly country). Since most units have a quota, you should have several trip itineraries and are left to the mercy of the system. I did all the planning and research I could and we picked 5 units as possibilities.
We showed up to get our permit, and the quota for units we picked were full. OF COURSE.
The ranger was awesome at offering an alternative and general guidance. Signed and sealed, we had our permits.
Next you board the camper bus ($40 per person) to make your way into the park (because remember, no personal vehicles allowed beyond mile 15). We were going to about Mile 51, which takes a little over 2 hours to get to.
This is where things get exciting even before we hike any miles. The bus driver pulls over at mile 51 and says: “Yeah, so there is a grizzly and her cub down in that drainage, so you’d be wise to avoid that area.”
That area just happens to be the path of least resistance to get into Unit 9. I guess cross-country travel is meant to commence immediately.
The rest of our trip was eventful, but uneventful.
We saw (and avoided) a total of 5 grizzlies, 5 caribou and tons of marmots (including one not pictured that had to be 25 lbs). We ate in the rain far, far away from our tent to discourage any grizzlies from entering our zone and couldn’t even zoom the camera enough to get a good shot because of the overcompensating distance we kept from them.
We tried valiantly to rock hop, which was successful until one of our last river crossings, as pictured below.
The weather cooperated (mostly, according to Alaskan standards). The views stayed mostly shrouded, but there are glaciers beyond those clouds, I swear!
We discovered waterfalls and appreciated the wilderness experience you can only have deep in the heart of Denali when you brave a backcountry permit.