Most likely you have heard about Denali National Park in Alaska. It is home to the highest peak in North America, Mt McKinley, also called Denali. Although the park encompasses more than 6 million acres (24,500 km²), it only has one road, which roughly covers 150 km. The rest is pure wilderness with hardly any serviced hiking trails. The moment you step into this wilderness, you’re truly into the wild.
1. Hop on one of the green shuttle buses
Denali runs shuttle buses along the only road in the park. You might feel a slight disappointment hopping on a bus with 50 other tourists. This isn’t quite the wilderness experience you were hoping for? Just be patient! The shuttle service of the park is your only chance to get far into the park as no private vehicles are allowed beyond a certain point. If you are traveling in a group, it might be wise to pre-book a shuttle bus. Even though the buses leave every half hour, departures are booked out quickly.
2. Sit back and enjoy!
Relax and enjoy the scenery of the park, which is a mix of taiga forests, tundra, braided rivers, mountains and glaciers. You would like to spot animals? Usually the chance of spotting moose is best during the first half hour, followed by caribou and finally (after you have passed Igloo Creek campground) climbing up Sable Pass is your best chance for seeing Grizzly Bears! This area is perfect for spotting bears because it forms a nice valley optimal for blue and soap berries along the road and up on the nearby slopes.
3. Get off the bus!
Now the moment has come! Just let your bus driver know you would like to get off the bus at Sable Pass and he will stop at the sign signifying the summit. Make sure you are not leaving the road for the first few miles hiking back down, but keep your eyes open: on either side there is a good chance to spot grizzly bears! Most times they will be far away at a safe distance, but now that you’re on foot, your chances are even higher to see them. I guarantee the experience spotting those big creatures while hiking rather then being in a vehicle is vastly different, even from a distance! To make sure you are safe (even on the road there is a chance to see a mama bear and her cubs coming round a corner) hike in groups, make noises and potentially carry bear spray with you. Once you have reached the bottom of the pass it is time to explore and blaze your own trail! Making your way through the wilderness can be very difficult but extremely rewarding. Creeks and bushes are in your way and the soft tundra ground doesn’t make it too easy to find solid footing. Following a dry riverbed or small creek uphill will allow you to traverse the terrain much quicker. After five minutes you won’t see the road and most likely you feel some goose bumps: You are finally experiencing the remote wilderness of Denali National Park. Take a deep breath, look around (always mindful of wildlife and weather) and enjoy!
4. Getting back to civilization
Trailblazing even for a few hours will make you tired. It is definitely more exhausting than hiking on a serviced trail. When hiking in Denali always over prepare with your supplies and gear (dress in layers as weather can change quite quickly and dramatically.) Always look at your surroundings for special features that can help you find your way. Don’t forget along with your food and water to pack a park map and compass. After your trek into the wild, you will make your way back to the road. Here you will be able to flag down any of the green shuttle buses to take you back to the Park Entrance. Keep in mind that especially during the peak hours around 3-4 pm some of the buses might be full, so it can take a while until you get a lift or you may have to split up the group to get seats on a few different buses.