Alaska – Denali National Park
Did you know that Alaska is bigger than Texas, California and Montana combined? Regular maps shrink the size of Alaska to fit it in perspective, which skews our impression of this vast state. Not only is Alaska the largest state in the US, but it also has the highest mountain of North America: Mt Denali thrusts 20,310 feet above sea level. When we were planning for our one week in Alaska, hikes around Denali were a must.
Unlike other national parks that I have visited, Denali has very few hiking trails. One road starting from the northeast entrance cuts diagonally into the heart of the park, and that’s the only access road of the entire park. The first 15 miles of this road is accessible by private vehicles, the rest by park by buses only. Going from the visitor center at the entrance to the heart of the park, a stop called Kantishna, takes approximately 5 hours, which means you can spend 10 hours in the park and never get off the bus! And according to a park ranger, the entire bus ride only allows you to see about 5% of the park!
Shooting off from the road were a few hiking trails, mostly 1 to 2 miles long. So how do people hike in this park? I was still baffled after researching on the internet, so I brought this question to the rangers. The answers were consistent– off-trail hiking. I was still confused by the concept: so you bushwhack the whole way? Yup, try to follow river beds where you will find it easier to hike. But also be on the lookout for bears as they may not hear you approaching and attack you when they get startled. What about damages to the vegetation and flora? The flora can withstand your steps well, but repeated trotting can cause real damage. Once real damage occurs, it can take up to 120 years to recover. So don’t follow other people’s footsteps. They sounded like the worst answers: as much as I love exploring nature, it felt unconscionable to destroy it as a result of my presence. I’m too much of a tree hugger.
Once we started hiking, I realized that there was more to the trailless hiking concept, but I will get to that later. In our three days in the park, we hiked all three days and only needed to buy bus tickets on the second day.
Day 1: Mount Healy
Half of our first day was spent driving up from Talkeetna. It was a clear morning with few clouds so we had an unobstructed view of Mt Denali from south. Once we arrived at the park, clouds moved in and we never saw the peak of Mt Denali again. As unfortunate as that may sound, the park was so grand and beautiful, I don’t think I walked away any less impressed.
Mount Healy Trail starts from the visitor center at the northeastern corner of the park. The hike starts on a flat Taiga Loop, which was intercepted by Mt Healy Trail from the left side after crossing a creek. The first part of the hike was gentle in elevation gain, but the slope got steeper after the first half, zigzagging up the mountain towering overhead.
In about 2 miles, we emerged above the trees and the view extended to the horizon in front of us. A white water river meandered all the way to the end of earth at the bottom of the valley. Looking towards the heart of the park, Mt Denali was obstructed by low hanging clouds but the surrounding lower peaks looked just as awe-inspiring.
Once we arrived to the top of Mt Healy, where my gps showed the end of the trail, I noticed the path continued along the ridge. That’s when it dawned on me: even though there are few miles of marked trail on the park map, the trails don’t just end. The path continues and extends as far as previous hikers were willing to march forward. And there were a whole lot more miles of hiking trails than what’s labeled on the official map and my gps! That’s an exciting and frustrating realization because it’s difficult to plan a long hike when I have no way to know where the trails were leading us.
We kept marching forward along the mountain ridge. I noted a jagged peak in the distance and made it my target. The ridge top trail was well trodden for a mile leading to the peak. By the time I stood on top of the jagged rock, my gps showed a total distance of 3.5 miles and elevation gain of a little more than 2500 feet.
The hike took us about three and a half hours. We drove to Denali Bus Depot after our hike and purchased tickets for a bus ride to Eielson Station for tomorrow. The bus ride was usually three hours long and we hoped to encounter as many wild animals as we could spot from the window of a moving vehicle.
As we chilled in the 49th State Brewing Co that evening, with a beer in our hands and hot food on our plates, we realized that clouds had gathered and rain drops started to sprinkle, which eventually turned into a storm with occasional thunder that night. Later that evening, as I pulled over my eye patch to shield my eyes from the endless daylight of summer Alaska, I crossed my fingers for better weather in the morning.