In a place as vast and wild as Denali, the typical conventions of national park backpacking simply don't apply. Stay on the trail? Forget it. There are none. Not in the backcountry, at least. Your Denali strategy is simple yet challenging—take the park bus to where a river crosses the road, get out, and start hiking upstream. Sanctuary, Teklanika, and Toklat are the three main arteries, but your river route will be dictated by the park's strict quota system the day you pick up your backcountry permit. It doesn't matter anyway. All of them (and many smaller ones) transect spectacular alpine tundra as they guide you toward their headwaters in the Alaska Range. Hike five to seven miles, set up a base camp, and spend your long summer days exploring higher ground and watching for wildlife. The self-reliance you'll need to execute a successful trip in Denali is complete—but so too is the freedom you'll gain.
For such a backcountry park, only a backcountry lodge will do. Located at the end of the road, Camp Denali offers woodstove-heated pine cabins scattered across 67 acres. A short walk to showers and facilities gives you a slight sense of roughing it (open early June to mid-September; $1,365 for three nights, all-inclusive; campdenali.com).
Backcountry permits are available only at the main visitor center no more than 24 hours in advance. Fee included in cost of camper bus ticket ($29). Seven-day entry pass, $25 per vehicle. Campsites, from $12. Mandatory bearproof canisters are provided free. Note: Park road closed mid-September through mid-May (nps.gov/dena).
Originally published as part of "America's Ultimate Parks 2008," National Geographic Adventure magazine