Stony Creek Bridge Park Road (Unit 33) to Unit 39 Stony Creek
Mileage- 7.6 miles
Elevation Gain- minimal
Elevation Loss- minimal
The day before beginning our seven days in the backcountry of Denali we secured our backcountry permit, picked up our complimentary bear can, and scheduled our transportation to our drop-off point. The park really makes the entire process seamless and painless, but we came in with a game plan as well, and that helped. In terms of the transportation, the easiest way to get to your drop off destination is to get a ticket for one of the green school busses designated for campers. This can be done at the Wilderness Access Center. For my ticket it was about $35, I think. The rate varies based on how far you plan to travel into the park. You can find more information about the shuttle here. Our ticket has us being picked up at 6:50am at Riley Campground. We were able to park our car in a designated area for backpackers next to the shuttle pick-up at Riley. All of this was very easy and I was even able to pick up a cup of Starbucks that morning at the Wilderness Access Center. The shuttle ride was over three hours to the Stony Creek bridge. It wasn’t an official stop for the bus, but the drivers are cool with dropping you off wherever you need to go. We exited, grabbed our packs out of the back of the bus, and began to gear up.
One of the most unbelievable moments of the trip happened within the first seven minutes. Three of us headed down a gravel bar, while the other guy took a small detour up a little ridge. We were still very close to each other but separated by ten feet of thick brush. We were all heading to the same point- the small ridge and gravel bar eventually would converge. As we were walking the gravel bar… a grizzly walked out of the brush just to our right. It stopped 60 feet directly in front of us. We did everything by the text book. We stopped, began backing up slowly with our bear spray in hand, and talking gently to the bear. While Patrick Fosdick and I were preoccupied with our cans of bear spray, Josh Brown somehow was able to snap a low quality photo of it. Until just the other day, I did not know anyone got a picture of it.
The only problem with this situation was that Kevin Fiesbeck was on the other side of the brush to the left… and did not know that a bear was heading his direction. We were not sure what to do. We didn’t want to make a ton of noise to startle the bear, but we wanted to alert him. Also, even if he heard us would he believe that a bear was REALLY heading at him with the first five minutes of the trip? We joke around so much with each other that there was no way he would believe us. The other problem was that the lady from whom we bought the bear spray shamed us into buying two cans of spray rather than four. Well, guess who didn’t have any spray? By the time we caught up with the pale white Fiesbeck he told us that the grizzly came out of the brush and stood five feet in front of him and just stared at him. Not sure if he peed his pants, but he got the scare of his life. Anyway, the lessons were learned even for four guys who has a ton of backcountry experience: 1. Just because you are AT THE BEGINNING of your hike… it doesn’t mean that there isn’t danger right around the corner. 2. Just because you are AT THE BEGINNING of your hike… it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be calling out for bears and making noise. 3. Just because you are AT THE BEGINNING of your hike… it doesn’t mean that you should be careless and not stick together. We didn’t make any more mistakes over the next seven days.
One of the greater challenges that we faced on this trip was creek and river crossings. I will get into this more on Day 3, but the creeks and rivers very often braided, which made our hiking more like a game of Frogger. We were always trying to find the path of least wetness. You may say, “What’s the big deal with getting wet? Suck it up.” Two reasons: 1. For me staying dry is less about comfort than it is protecting myself. If my boots are soaked and water-logged… then I have to deal with that for the next few days and risk foot related problems that could inhibit my hiking and slow us down. If my pants are soaked… am I guaranteed sun to dry them out? Not at all. And without the ability to start a fire in Denali… clothes stay soaked. Cool temperatures could potentially lead to hypothermic symptoms or even hypothermia. 2. Even though most of the crossings were knee or below, the force by which the water was moving could EASILY sweep us down stream and compromise our safety. On day 3 we dealt with water too deep and too fast moving to cross individually, but more on that later. Be safe when crossing!
In terms of terrain from Unit 33 into Unit 39, it may have been the easiest of our seven days. Granted it is trail-less and you can make your own route, many times your route necessitates rougher terrain. This day took us along creek beds, shallow creek crossings, spongy tundra, thigh high scrub brush, and Alder bushes. I suppose it may have been the adrenaline of the first day (because the spongy tundra, thigh high scrub, and Alder bushes would take it’s toll on us on Day 3), but we didn’t have any trouble tackling the terrain on Day 1. In fact, covering 7.6 miles in the trail-less Denali was somewhat impressive. I can’t recall exactly how many hours we hiked the first day, but my guess is around four, which would make our speed close to 2mph. We very, very rarely made it above 1mph the rest of the trip. This is a testament to the roughness of the terrain and the amount of time it takes to find the least obstructive route. But, always make time for blueberry breaks no matter where you are!
The weather in Denali was unpredictable. It could start the day cloudy and rain, but then later be blue skies with sun. And believe me… the weather could change quickly. On this particular day it started off quite cool in the low 50’s with gusty winds but then late in the afternoon the clouds broke and the sun popped out. The blue skies and sun made for some really sweet picture taking!
We finished Day 1 setting up camp close to Stony Creek. The next morning would take us on a day hike across Stony Creek and up 1800-2000 feet to the peak of some unnamed mountains for epic views of the surrounding mountains and valley, including our route through Bear Draw on Day 3.
An edited, day-by-day version of my adventure in Denali National Park appeared in the fourth issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine.