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The Big Easy
Denali National Park, AK
By James Vlahos


Photo: NEED ALT
GO HIGHER: Exploring the backcountry of Alaska's Denali National Park is easier than you think. Here, the camp-ready tundra beneath Mount McKinley. Photo courtesy of Michael F. Jones/AlaskaStock
 
Denali's six million acres (2.4 million hectares) could swallow Massachusetts. The Kahiltna Glacier is longer than 700 football fields; Mount McKinley (aka Denali) stands at 20,320 feet (6,194 meters), taller than 16 Empire State Buildings. The near-trailless park can certainly seem overwhelming, but Denali is, in its own way, user-friendly. An access road cuts through the heart of the wilderness, shuttle buses make custom stops for hikers, and backcountry quotas all but ensure solitude. You can scale the highest peak on the continent here—or walk half a mile from the road and make camp in the wildest place you've ever been. "What people can experience is a taste of real Alaska—self-reliance, abundant wildlife, glaciers, and river crossings—in a place that is accessible and affordable," says backcountry ranger Joe Van Horn.

Map: Denali
Map courtesy of Rob Kemp

 
*GOALS: Explore the Outer Range, hike the Thorofare Valley, and relax at Wonder Lake.

*GAME PLAN: Upon arrival, head to the visitors center to pick up backcountry camping permits, awarded no more than a day in advance. Your goal is to spend two nights in the sprawling tundra north of Park Road and two nights hiking up a river valley to the south. Try for the Polychrome Mountain Unit and the Sunset/Sunrise Glacier Unit, but have alternates in mind in case these choices are booked. On the bus ride in, you'll have a good chance of spotting moose staking out a valley, Dall sheep skittering across a hillside, or a grizzly bear shambling down the roadway.

Begin your first hike near the Polychrome Overlook, where you can step from the road onto firm tundra and pass orange, purple, and yellow rocks on ridges high above the East Fork River as you head into the steep hills of the Outer Range. "You'll have excellent views of Denali and the Alaska Range since you're not right in it," Van Horn says. After spending a couple of days in the region, return to the Polychrome Overlook and catch a bus 19 miles (31 kilometers) down the road to Eielson Visitor Center, where you'll follow the gravel bars of the Thorofare River into the Alaska Range. After six or so miles (10 kilometers), make your base camp and spend the next day taking short hikes—to the toe of the Sunrise Glacier, or to a meadow brightened by mountain avens, lupines, and bear flower. Cap your trip with a relaxing stay at the Wonder Lake Campground—"by far the most spectacular campground in Denali," says ranger Roger Robinson. "You've got the lake on one side of you and Denali's tremendous massif right on the other."

*GETTING READY: Denali National Park (+1 907 683 2294; www.nps.gov/dena). For campground reservations, call 800 622 7275.

*PARK SMARTS
Best Strategy
Scoring camping permits for popular backcountry districts is tough, since reservations can only be made a day before you head out. Savvy hikers take advantage of the "consecutive nights" rule: It's legal to book a couple of days in a less competitive district, followed by a few days on a highly sought-after zone. In effect, you'll have made an advance reservation.

Best Accommodations
Of the park's few lodgings, only the North Face Lodge and the Camp Denali cabins have views of Mount McKinley ($1,200 per person for three nights, including meals, gear, and guides; +1 907 683 2290; www.campdenali.com).

Best Battle Scene
Come early September, moose bash antlers, hoping to win breeding rights. Spot them along the first 15 miles of Park Road.

Best Bad Habit
Everything you've heard about Alaska mosquitoes—that they're the size of flying hampsters, that they amass in sky-blackening clouds—is true. Well, more or less. Nineteenth-century explorers discovered that their pipes were the best repellent. The pesky insects hate the smoke, and the smell.

What wild land do you think deserves national park status? Cast your vote for one of three front-runners for National Park billing in Adventure's first reader poll. Vote now >>

For our National Parks 2004 coverage, we polled the pros for their national park game plans. Now it's your turn. Send us your detailed itinerary including goals, game plan, and how to get ready. Your trip could be published in an upcoming issue. E-mail us >>


For all 20 expert-tested game plans to the best national parks, pick up the May issue of Adventure.

Additional Excerpts
From the Print Edition, May 2004

National Parks 2004 Messner's Burden >>
West Highland Peace Walk >>
The Adventures of Tim Cahill >>

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May 2004



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