Denali National Park: Hiking the colorful Alaskan tundra

Tips for hiking in Denali National Park

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The view at the end of the Alpine Trail

This is one in a series of articles about our trip to Denali National Park.


We expected Denali’s alpine landscape to be bleak and monochromatic.  After all, tundra is supposed to be a vast, perpetual wasteland, right?

Wrong.

The mountains were rugged, certainly, and in spots the terrain was the color of frostbit skin.  But barren?  No way.

While the taller mountains are devoid of almost any vegetation (about 1/3 of the park’s mountains are glaciated), the lower-lying ones were surprisingly colorful.  In fact, there’s one area along the park road that has earned the name Polychrome Pass because of its multi-colored rocks, which were formed by volcanic eruptions eons ago.

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Near Polychrome Pass

Denali’s autumn was also in full-swing when we arrived; the tundra vegetation, with its fall splendor, made the the mountains even more colorful.

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The colors of the tundra: red blueberry bushes, yellow willow, green grasses, and pink wild flowers (this picture doesn’t do it justice!)
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The red leaves of the blueberry bushes, still with berries on them

Autumn, however, is short in Denali, and the fall hues faded quickly, with the mountains becoming less red and more rust-colored each day.  The long winter season was right around the corner.

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Denali’s ecosystem

The ecosystem of Denali National Park consists of three zones: the boreal lowland (<2500 feet in elevation), sub-alpine (2500-3500 feet), and alpine (>3500 feet).

We camped at Teklanika Campground, mile 29 on the park road, which, at 2580 feet in elevation, was in the middle of the boreal forest.  As it moves further into the park, the road climbs into the sub-alpine zone and then reaches the alpine tundra, which is above the tree line and consists mostly of grasses and small shrubs.  Sable Pass, the highest point on the park road, is 3900 feet in elevation.

Hiking the tundra

Denali is unique in that it is about the size of Vermont but has very few established hiking trails.  With the exception of areas closed by increased wildlife activity, where posted signs say “Restricted Wildlife Area,” visitors can hike just about anywhere they please.  The stated goal of the park is “to provide visitors with the means of self-reliance and self-discovery; to encourage hikers to find what appeals to them rather than following specific routes.”

It’s a pretty admirable policy, but when you’re accustomed to hiking on well-marked paths that have a beginning and an end, it can be a little unnerving to have a huge swath of unmapped territory in front of you.  We were also getting accustomed to hiking in bear and moose country, so our longest hikes in Denali were on established trails.

Alpine Trail
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Steep climb up…

The Alpine Trail is one of two trails at Eieleson Visitor Center, at mile 66 of the park road.  The hike was challenging, with 1000-feet elevation gain in about a mile.

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…and down

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Up top we experienced bone-chilling wind and rain, but this didn’t stop us from roaming for quite a while across the rolling mountain top meadows, which offered sweeping, 360-degree views of the park, including areas that we wouldn’t otherwise see because they can only be reached on foot.  It was thrilling to be off-trail and free to wander wherever we wanted.

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The tiny plants scattered across the tundra came in a surprising variety of colors:

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And here’s a sample of the brightly colored rocks that exist in Denali:

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Wonder Lake and the McKinley Bar Trail
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Wonder Lake

One of the main stops on the park road is Wonder Lake, mile 85, which has a campground and large alpine lake.  The area just begs to be explored, and we spent several afternoons here, picking blueberries:

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Blueberries that the grizzlies hadn’t yet discovered!  Wonder Lake is in the background
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View of Denali on the McKinley Bar Trail

We also did our first hikes through more remote grizzly country in this territory, and I was pleased to say that we both felt pretty comfortable.  We followed the number one rule of hiking in bear country–make noise.  We clapped, talked loudly, called out “Hey bear,” and even, on occasion, sang.

One afternoon we went off-trail and roamed the area near Mirror Lake, a pond not too far from Wonder Lake.  Another afternoon we hiked the McKinley Bar Trail, which is about about 4 miles round trip through open tundra and spruce forest, and it ends at the McKinley River.

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One of the creeks along the McKinley Bar trail

The terrain was boggy in spots and we sometimes had to traverse it via boardwalk:

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The tundra is very spongy:

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It may be hard to tell from this picture, but it’s amazing how much we sunk down into the vegetation with each step.  It would’ve been comfortable to lay on if it weren’t so boggy.
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Random, bright red plant

Tips for hiking in Denali:

The National Park Service offers extensive tips for backcountry hiking and backpacking that include information for both beginners and advanced explorers (it’s a great resource for hiking just about anywhere), so I’ll keep it simple and share what we learned during our ten days in Denali:

  • Like I mentioned above, you can go almost anywhere you want, and hiking off-trail is encouraged.  Unlike most parks, where the off-trail ecosystem is fragile and not able to tolerate the endless footsteps of humans, the tundra is durable and fairly impervious to damage.  The park does, however, control backpacker access to different areas of the park through the Backcountry Information Center, thus preventing too many multi-day hikers from entering at once.
  • Take advantage of the bus system.  There are several established stopping points along the park road, but the bus drivers will drop you off anywhere.    Note: you have to purchase a bus ticket at the park entrance when you first arrive at the park.
  • Learn old-school navigation skills (i.e., map and compass), especially if you want to do a multi-day, off-trail trip.  When we were in Seattle we took several seminars through REI, a company that offers excellent classes in all-things outdoor.  Every park website and hiking expert will tell you that real navigation skills, and not just reliance on GPS, are critical for wilderness hiking (even single-day trips).  The techniques are easy to learn but also easy to forget if you never use them, and Dale and I will need to brush up on these skills before we embark on a multi-day backpacking trip, something we’d really like to do next year.
  • Those who want to do overnight hikes have to obtain a free permit at the Backcountry Information Center.  Campers also have to watch a safety video, fill out a planning worksheet, and talk safety with a park ranger.  Note: anyone (not just overnight backcountry campers) can watch the safety video, and the park rangers also offer seminars on how to explore Denali safely.
  • Walk the park road.  When we wanted to stretch our legs, we got off the bus, walked the road for a while, and then hopped on another bus when we were ready.
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View of Denali and the Alaska Range from the park road

Hiking the road enables you to see the terrain without getting lost, and if you’re lucky it also offers the occasional wildlife encounter.  Jenny (the moose hunter that I mentioned in a previous post) and her friends happened upon a grizzly when walking the road near Eielson Visitors Center.  It was foraging on a hillside not too far from them.  They tried to put distance between themselves and the bear and booked it down the road, but it was headed in the same direction and walked parallel to them.  The group grabbed the next shuttle that came along, and not long after, the bear came down the hill and crossed the road right in front of the bus.  (Note: while Jenny and her friends were apprehensive, she said that the bear seemed oblivious to their presence and probably posed little danger to them.)

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Walking the road; our next bus was emerging from the clouds
  • Walk the riverbeds.  Along the park road, there are several vast areas that are crisscrossed by ribbons of glacial rivers, the water white with glacial flour (the powder scraped off of the rocks by moving glaciers; also called rock flour).
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Toklat River

The river valleys are wide, shaped millions of years ago by massive glaciers that covered the area, and hikers have open views of the landscape as well as any large animals that may be approaching!

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The Teklanika River, after which our campground was named. We walked along the river several times.
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Toklat River

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The experience of hiking in Denali was positive for so many reasons: it gave us intimate views of the amazing landscape while also increasing our comfort level for exploring wild places.  Denali National Park also offers tools to help hikers feel more comfortable hiking the backcountry, and we now have the confidence that we can put our skills to the test next year with a longer-term camping experience.