Alaska—Denali National Park, in particular—is big. Like, bigger than anyplace you’ve probably ever experienced big. Its six million acres encompass a great deal of the Alaskan Range—its crown jewel being Denali peak, which, at 20,310’, is the highest point in North America.
While there are certainly other places and mountain ranges in the world that beg for more attention—few are as grand, or as all consuming, as this one. Last week, Greg Balkin and I spent 40 action-packed hours discovering just how vast Denali is.
I got the call from Allison and Anders at Cotopaxi a few weeks ago. I was in Washington state, climbing in the North Cascades. They asked if I could go to Alaska to shoot at the end of the month. My answer to those types of questions is always “yes,” but sometimes it takes a bit of finesse to squeeze them in. Fortunately in this case, Greg and I had five days to work with. Almost three of those days would be dedicated to travel and logistics—leaving us with about 48 hours to get as deep into the Denali backcountry as we could. Thanks to Alaska’s extended summer days, light was on our side; we’d make the most out of our limited time.
In my experience, researching for a trip can only take you so far. I like to have an idea of what I want to do, then wing it from there. Why wing it? Things don’t always go as planned. Flights get delayed, luggage gets lost, weather windows limit options, and permit quotas fill up. For this trip, it was the latter; with time being a limited commodity, we had to be able to pivot fast.
All of the research that we did pointed us to Anderson Pass, a 31-mile “expert cross-country hike” that awarded views of Denali peak on a clear day. We got to the Wilderness Information Center (WIC) around 11 a.m. on Monday, but the permits for Unit 12 and 13—where Anderson Pass is located—were already taken. Time to pivot.
Conveniently, the WIC was much more informative than any resource that we found online; a set of binders with information and photos pertaining to each wilderness “Unit” (as the land divided within Denali National Park is called) allowed us to choose a destination on the fly. Then we got our permits (all wilderness permits in Denali are walk-up/first-come, first-serve only), listened to a safety briefing from the ranger, and watched a few safety information videos—Alaska is bear and moose country; they roam wild throughout the park, and the videos taught us what to do in the event of an encounter, and how to prevent close encounters in the first place—before heading on our way.
A quick stop by the Wilderness Access Center (WAC) next door allowed us to drop some extra gear in the rental lockers there and hop on the free shuttle bus, which would drop us off at mile marker 12 on the Denali Park Road—where we’d begin our journey into Unit 4.
“They beckon you to go in deep. Real deep. Just pick a point in the distance and go. Then pick a new point and keep going. Go as far as you can. So that’s what Greg and I did. We went. As far as we could.”
In order to help preserve its wilderness, Denali has been maintained as a trail-less park. Immediately after leaving the road, Greg and I learned firsthand just how wild the land could be. Within 30 minutes, we had already crossed one river and had begun bushwhacking through thick, wet, scratchy brush. Bushwhacking would become the norm for much of our travel in this area; we relished every step in which the brush was clear.
Despite its thick low-country brush, Denali National Park is extremely inviting to the backcountry traveler. Its foothills and sweeping glacial valleys stretch as far as the eye can see. Its landscapes are epic, but not intimidating. They beckon you to go in deep. Real deep. Just pick a point in the distance and go. Then pick a new point and keep going. Go as far as you can. So that’s what Greg and I did. We went. As far as we could.
Worried about setting up camp and cooking dinner before dark? Don’t be, at least during the summer. Sunsets weren’t until 12:30 a.m.—sunrises followed closely behind at three. During the time in between, it never actually got dark. So we just packed our backpacks and hiked. When we were hungry, we ate. When we were tired, we slept. You can invent your own days there. Live by your own rules. The land had a definitive freedom to it. A freedom that I have not felt in any other place.
It’s that freedom we seek when venturing into the backcountry. Freedom from the stresses and pressures of life. Liberation from the mundane. You will find deliverance in Denali. So what are you waiting for? Go.
—Train travel for this trip was provided by Alaska Railroad.