Denali Backpacking Trip- Quick Summary

I will give a day-by-day breakdown of our 7 day backcountry backpacking trip to Denali National Park and Wilderness over the next few weeks, but I would like to give a quick summary of the trip with a listing of the units in which we stayed and a few additional thoughts about the trip.

1. We flew into Anchorage from Seattle with our beginning destination as Indianapolis (which is a long story that I will not bore you with). We were about 6 hours later arriving in Anchorage than we anticipated. Being that I like to have all of the logistical stuff ironed out EXACTLY… this killed me. Our initial plan had us arriving in Denali at 6am, which is three hours BEFORE the Backcountry Office. I thought that arriving AFTER the Backcountry Office opened would put us in a real pinch for getting the units that we really wanted. Despite arriving six hours after the office opened we were surprised that there were plenty of space available in the units we preferred. We had already ranked all of the units based upon our preferences, so it was really easy to put together a plan. The backcountry staffer we worked with in the office was really helpful and gave us quite a few hints and advice on navigating from one unit to the other. The Backcountry Office was busy. I think there were three or four other groups trying to get permits while we were there. All in all I think the whole process took about 45 minutes… and that includes us watching the mandatory safety video and safety talk. It all went pretty fast.

*One additional tidbit that may help. When we initially went into the Backcountry Office and went to the desk the guy who helped us immediately began by giving us an overview of the park. It went something like this, “Welcome to Denali. The park is divided into 87 units…” I immediately stopped him and said, “Ok. We have done all of our homework. We know how the park is divided… so on and so forth. We have all of the units ranked based upon our preferences so let’s get started.” I wasn’t tired or grumpy… it’s just that I figured people got the standard overview BECAUSE the majority of folks go into the office without a plan, without doing their research, and likely only want to go out for a night or two. My point in telling you this is so that you will do your homework in advance. It will save you time if you already have a few plans put together. Know your top units and be prepared to plug them in on the application sheet once you arrive. With other groups competing for the same spots… it just may give you the advantage when you are trying to get that super sweet unit with McKinley views.

2. Our unit itinerary was as follows:

Day 1 – Unit 39 -Stony Creek ~7.6 miles
Day 2 – Unit 39 -Stony Creek ~3.5 miles
Day 3 – Unit 32 -Toklat River ~7.5 miles
Day 4 – Unit 32 -Toklat River~3.4 miles
Day 4 – Unit 18 – Green Point ~4.9 miles
Day 5 – Unit 19 – Muldrow Glacier – ~3.9 miles
Day 6 – Unit 13 – ~5.1 miles
Day 7 – Unit 13 – ~9.2 miles

Total Trip Distance – 45.1 miles

We did two loops. The first was north of the road and the second was south of the road. That is why on Day 4 you see a split in the mileage, because we finished the first loop and started the second loop. The first loop was in the lower foothills along tundra, knee-high scrub, dense Alder bush and pine trees, and then the Toklat River gravel bar. The second loop was primarily along open, rocky creek areas, non-technical glacial, and gravel bars. The second loop proved to have minimal brushy areas, which was welcomed. While I will detail each day and the units, we were all asked to not provide specific information as to our camping areas or specific routes. Denali National Park prides itself on minimizing impact on the environment, which is commendable.

3. Have an expectation that you will absolutely get wet. Yeah, we all read the book by Ike Waits. We knew that his advice was to find the closest puddle and jump in it. But, somehow I think we, optimistically and unrealistically, were hoping that somehow we could avoid getting completely soaked. His advice was spot on. Find a puddle and jump in it. In fact, lie down in it and do the snow angel thing in it. Because if you are planning to spend any amount of time in the backcountry (and in our instance 7 days), I almost guarantee that you will get soaked. It will either be from the rain that always seems to be lurking around every turn of the creek or over every saddle- or- it will be from the endless river crossings that you will tackle. Plan to get wet. Fix it in your mind. Know that it will happen. And just enjoy the experience.

4. Everything is harder in Alaska. Despite the significant amount of experience that each of us brought into this trip… Denali was tough. There was a point during Day 7 when we finally came to the conclusion that Alaska was out to get us… was always trying to get the upper hand… was trying to give us the big middle finger. There wasn’t anything that was easy. Not having trails was difficult due to the terrain. Intermittent to continuous rain with cool temps was taxing. Crossing braided rivers took time and required patience. And every time that we could see our final destination for the day… there were more obstacles to getting there than we could imagine. If it wasn’t going over one ridge line only to see the next ridge line with dense bush in the way… then it was seeing the gravel bar and river from 700 feet up but having to fight a couple of miles of dense Alder. And all of that in the rain. I am not crying here… just stating a fact- when you backpack Denali and you cover a few dozen miles over a many days you will find it to be a “take no prisoner” experience. Your feet will hurt… will be wrinkled from being soaked… and you will have blisters. We all did. This isn’t to say that you won’t have an absolute blast… because you will. It is amazing and life-changing. Just go in with proper expectations.

That’s it for now. I will get to the daily summaries soon.

Peace…

Brandon

7 thoughts on “Denali Backpacking Trip- Quick Summary

  1. Hi – this post, and your detailed summary are the best and most honest descriptions of backpacking Denali I’ve found! I have a few questions regarding the Denali trip if you are willing to answer.

      1. Hi Brandon – Some quick details. Six experienced backpackers are planning a 4 night trip in August. Through reading your post, and research, I know that some units are limited to groups of 4, so we are working ranking Units as you had done to facilitate the process.

        My questions are related to gear. Was there a piece of gear you wish you had brought but did not? Conversely, was there something you brought that was not of use? Did you bring all of your gear or did you rent any in Alaska? I know we cannot fly with bear spray…did you find a place to rent? Did you bring the bear canister or did you rent one? I really appreciate your comments about being wet! Did you bring ‘camp shoes’ or sandals? I was advised to cross the rivers in my boots because of the potential for large rocks to be moving in the rivers. Did you keep boots on to cross or did you use sneakers or sandals? Did you buy the topo quads at the office or did you just navigate by GPS.

        Thanks again

      2. Was there a piece of gear you wish you had brought but did not? — Believe it or not, I think we packed perfectly for this trip. We put so much time into planning that everything was really dialed in.

        Conversely, was there something you brought that was not of use? — Everything we brought was used.

        Did you bring all of your gear or did you rent any in Alaska? — We brought all of our own gear. I can’t recall the bear can situation, but I think they provide them at the backcountry office for free. Not sure if you are allowed to use your own. You may want to check on that.

        I know we cannot fly with bear spray…did you find a place to rent? Denali Mountain Works sells bear spray. The lady recommended two cans for four people.

        Did you bring ‘camp shoes’ or sandals? — We brought camp shoes. I had barefoot type shoes. Sometimes it was a little cool in the evening. I would just put socks on with them.

        I was advised to cross the rivers in my boots because of the potential for large rocks to be moving in the rivers. Did you keep boots on to cross or did you use sneakers or sandals? — We took off our boots and put on our camp shoes to cross. The camp shoes worked great. On the last day we just crossed in our boots… 😊

        Did you buy the topo quads at the office or did you just navigate by GPS? We got the topos from the office and also carried the National Geographic. We used both. I don’t think we used GPS at all during that trip.

        If you have any more questions just let me know!

    1. hey Karlton… I talked to the other guys about your questions and here are some of the things they said. Things they wish they had brought- deck of cards, more robust clothing for all the bushwhacking. Things they said they didn’t need- large knife, additional pair of shoes for river crossing. One of the most invaluable items- gaiters. Hope some of that helps in your planning.

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