Backpacking Denali National Park: Unit 6

Backpacking Denali National Park: Unit 6

What now is a few weeks ago (I’m behind on posts!), we embarked on another backpacking trip deep into Denali National Park! Last year, we did Unit 9, and this year Unit 6.

Total trip mileage: 18.1 miles

Time Spent in the Wild: 2 nights / 3 days

Elevation Gain: 1,850 feet

As I explained last year, backpacking in Denali is both equally nerve-wracking and exciting for the same reasons (grizzlies, off-trail hiking, multiple river crossings, glacier views).

We had it all.

The adventure begins when the bus leaves you in the dust, which in our case happened around mile 43, right before Polychrome Pass, about 2 hours from the Denali National Park Visitor Center.

Under clear(ish) skies and views, we headed along Cathedral Mountain on a pretty distinct social trail toward 3 ponds. From the ponds, we headed south off trail up the tundra ridges. I’m not quite certain how I feel about walking on tundra. It truly feels like you are walking on a sponge and I think I like the forgiving surface. Thankfully, it was a dry sponge since there hadn’t been rain in a few days. On the other hand, it kind of feels like post-holing through snow (AKA, freakin hard work). If I may add a Leave No Trace note, tundra is not a durable surface, so please do disperse your group a bit to avoid creating a beaten down path.

The rolling tundra hills gave a great vantage point for keeping an eye on the 2 sets of grizzly families grazing the blueberry patches within a very safe distance from us. Grizzly bears are consistently seen around this unit; my guess is the ongoing wildlife closure in a portion of unit 7 leaves them unbothered by human impact. Anyway, we spied mom (sow) and her 2 cubs up above us to our northwest, and a sow and her 2 cubs down below us to our southeast. Then the southeast family starting making their way uphill … toward us. They move fast! Not that they saw us or were intending to come into our path, but it was time for us to change our course. It messed a little with our planned camp destination for the night, but better to be safe than sorry! We still tracked them on the hillside, but after about an hour, they moved way far into the distance.

I spy 3 grizzly bears.
Time for us to change directions!

We ate dinner and set up camp before it started raining that evening. That rain event actually continued for 6 days straight and the park measured 12 inches of accumulation in that time. Anyway, when we woke up to continued liquid sunshine and decided we weren’t going to beat the weather, we geared up for some exploration along Teklanika River. I should say IN the river. Because we crossed it dozens of times in a 4-mile stretch! If not wet from the falling rain, we were soaked (and quite frigid) from the rushing river, which at times was extremely swift.

The goal for many people in Denali’s backcountry is to get to the toe of the glaciers, especially in units 6-9. We had parts of Pendleton, Cantwell & Polychrome (I think those were the names) glaciers in view. We almost made it to where the Teklanika River splits into 2 glacial valleys, but we knew the shortest route out the next day would be to backtrack, and with our 1MPH rate, we didn’t want to push it. They always seems so much closer than they are!

Thanks to the persistent rain, our hike out included a lot of squishy tundra. Fun!! We timed our arrival at the road pretty well, only having to wait 30 minutes for the camper bus. Although I believe hypothermia would have set in at 31 minutes, so I count our blessings.

Another beautiful Denali unit in the books!!! As with last year, we didn’t score a permit for our first choice of units (we had 7 picked out), as the quotas were all full. But that sometimes seems to make it all better.

What a cool discovery along the gravel bar in Unit 6.
In case you were curious, Dall sheep horns are heavy—even just the one half!

Justin has informed me that now that we are nearing the end of our goal to visit all 61 national parks and all 50 state high points that we should have a new goal. He wants us to do a backpacking trip in every unit of Denali National Park. There are something like 87, so basically he is nuts.

5 responses to “Backpacking Denali National Park: Unit 6”

  1. Misti says:

    LOL Patrice doesn’t look happy in a few of those river photos! Very reminiscent of the TA??

    I’ll have to pick your brain soon before we leave!

  2. John Haffner says:

    I would not have the goal to visit all the Denali Park units. To each their own. Glad you got out there!

  3. Alicia B Hamilton says:

    I thought that was a dinosaur tail… AHH!

  4. Jason Ledder says:

    Love absolutely everything about you guys! Keep being awesome and sharing these incredible stories

  5. Jamie L says:

    You guys are tough! Hiking in the rain can be a true damper 😉 Way to get after it!

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