If you want to experience Denali National Park up close and personal, backpacking through this jewel is the way to go. The chance of coming face to face with a wild animal is pretty much 100% guaranteed. Currently you cannot drive through the park on your own, you must take one of the school-bus transportation options back and forth along Park Road – the main artery through the park. It is all fun and games when you see a grizzly from the safety of a bus, but when one is about a football field away and there is a 50 lb pack on your back in 40mph head winds – that is quite a different situation. It will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up and/or make you pee your pants. At least that was my experience.
Lexi, Todd, Greg and I originally planned 3 nights in the Denali wilderness but it was reduced to one night for 3 reasons: 1) The unit we were allocated did not provide views of Mt. McKinley, so we took a last minute detour to the Wonder Lake Campground (post coming soon) where this massive natural wonder is front and center; 2) One of Lexi and Todd’s tent poles broke. Fortunately they were prepared and had duct tape to keep it together but it made for a challenging tent situation; 3) The winds were howling like mad so our tents were making hideously strange noises during the night. We were ‘confident’ there was a grizzly (or 2) circling around our campsite which happened to be smack dab in the middle of a river bed. Pretty sure none of us slept a wink.
How did we end up bunking in a river bed, prime territory and stomping grounds for grizzlies and other creatures like wolves, moose and caribou (we saw the footprints in the dry mud)?? When we started our trek to our campsite, 5 miles away in Unit 31, we had the option to navigate along the slopes of the East Fork River Bar (EFRB) or increase our chances of a grizzly encounter and make our way directly through the EFRB. Because of the unsettling wild animal encounter videos we were required to watch, we decided the slopes might be the ‘safer’ route.
The slopes at the edge of the EFRB are vegetated with stands of spruce trees or tall willows. One thing to note, there are no marked trails in Denali so you have to bushwhack and find your own way via a topo map or GPS unit. We found out quickly that willows would become our worst enemy. They grow so tightly together, navigation can be tough and slow – it took us 4 hours to go 4 miles loaded with 40 to 50 lb packs strapped to our backs – for experienced backpackers, this was pathetically slow. By the time we got to the 4 mile mark, we were exhausted, cranky and desperate to set up camp at the first dry, flat spot we could find – in the EFRB.
After 24 hours of wild winds, broken tent poles, irrational visions of a highly unlikely animal attack, we decided one night was probably good enough for all of us. In order to avoid some approaching bad weather, we decided to take the path of least resistance back to Park Road directly through the EFRB. All went well until we emerged from the EFRB and were about .5 miles from hopping a bus to safety. The winds were about 35 to 40 miles/hour so we were forced to walk heads down to avoid falling backwards. After several minutes of fighting said evil headwinds, I hear Greg say, “Is that a bear?”. We all stopped DEAD in our tracks and looked up – sure enough there was a male grizzly about a football field away – his big hump bulging high on his back – in our minds, he looked like the size of a VW bug. He stopped for a few seconds, sniffed into the wind and began to head in our direction – I nearly piddled in my pants. The 4 of us huddled together must have looked like too much to handle (or maybe our legs were too skinny to be an enjoyable snack) as he eventually changed his plans and dropped down into the EFRB in search of a tasty morsel.
Although my description of the trip sounds a little crazy – it was one of the most exhilarating experiences on the Life Bus. I highly recommend this trip if you are an avid backpacker seeking an adventure in an iconic Alaskan wilderness. We learned to take the bear and leave-no-trace videos seriously – you never know when a wild animal will cross your path in Denali and it would be nice to keep it pristine for generations to come. One area we could have improved upon was to find a few extra minutes to relax – if you are conscientious and follow the rules, you will be in great shape to survive the journey!
All in all, this is a true, off-the-charts Life Bus experience words cannot fully describe!! The best place to start researching where to hunker down is via the Denali Backpacking Guide documented from the National Park Service. ENJOY!!