Hiking/ Trails, Denali National Park and Preserve
On our third full day, our Denali Backcountry Lodge guide took a small group of us on a moderate hike through the tundra to the east of the lodge. Unlike our hike on the previous day, we had more mosquitos on this day, and had to wear our very attractive mosquito net head gear. (We were very glad we brought these along.) The hike was beautiful and took us through hundreds of acres of blueberry, cranberry and salmonberry bushes.
The three lodges - North Face, Kantishna Roadhouse and Denali Backcountry Lodge - all coordinate their hiking schedules so you won't have 3 groups of hikers all descending upon one area at the same time. At Denali the hikes were also classified as Easy, Moderate or Strenuous, so you would know what you are getting yourself into. If you are reasonably fit, you'll need to adjust the ranking - Strenuous is really Moderate, Moderate is really Easy, and Easy is, well, just a walk in the Park.
When I visited Rocky Mountain National Park several years ago, I learned that the tundra was a very fragile environment, and so much as one footfall could destroy that spot for years. Imagine my surprise when I learned that hiking around Kantishna (and much of Denali) meant walking right on top of the tundra and no one is going to tell you to keep to the trail! If there is a trail, you might want to use it, but Denali is so wide open, has so few trails, and experiences relatively little human traffic in any one spot, that most of the hiking actually occurs right on the tundra.
They call this "bushwhacking". When I first heard we were going bushwhacking I visualized slashing my way through the brush with a machete. Very wrong. No machetes are furnished. You bushwhack with your hiking boots. And that's an experience in itself!. The tundra is extremely spongy, so it is like walking on a huge sponge or mattress. Of course, it requires a different hiking technique and different use of muscles than normally required. Nonetheless, it was a blast!
One of the greatest things about Denali is their efforts to keep the place as wild as possible. This includes limiting cars on the main road (and note: there is only one road in Denali), keeping quotas on backpackers and campers, and a massive effort to keep human-animal interactions as wild as possible. In addition, they have not blazed any new trails for hiking since 1972.
This means there are thousands upon thousands of acres out there begging to be explored on your own. No trail, no signage, just point your feet towards one of the valleys or river basins and head in that direction. You won't be disappointed. It is very rewarding to forge your own path through the wilderness, not seeing other people's footprints or trash. Indeed, you probably won't see other people either - I hiked for 6 hours one day and didn't see another human soul. I did see two grizzlies, which is a very different experience from seeing them from a bus. More visceral.
Many people don't take the time to do this, fearing the unknown. But with no real forests out on the tundra, finding your way back to the road (to get back on the bus to head to camp/hotel) is easy... you don't really need a compass and map (though they are HIGHLY recommended). It makes you feel like you're an adventurer, a modern Lewis and Clark, in this most wild of places. So get off the bus and give it a try!
You can hike nearly anywhere in the national park. You need will a backcountry permit for some areas and a few areas are prohibited wildlife areas where hiking is not allowed. But other than that, the area is yours to explore. There are no maintained trails in the backcountry so its important to have a good topo map, compass and the knowledge of how to use both
If you want to take some short walks near the park's entrance, check out the website below for information on the designated trails ranging from easy to moderate.
In fact, Denali National Park is so vast that most of the places in the national park can be considered as off the beaten path ! You can stay for a few days and do some exploration of your own, just remember not to get lost :)
As you are entering the park road from the main highway, you will see the sign that reads "Denali National Park". Look at the mountain behind that sign. This is Mt. Healy. For avid hikers who do not have a lot of time here and are staying in this area, this may be a good hike for you. In the summer, it should be a nice hike and will give you lofty views of the surrounding area. A trail leads most of the way up this mountain, and the rest of the way is very easy to figure out. Watch out for loose rock on the upper part of it.
Although not as well known as Denali National Park and not as big, Denali State Park is worth a visit if you have the time. It is located just south of Denali National Park.
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