Denali National Park and Preserve Feature
Geology and Terrain
The most prominent geological feature of the park is the Alaska Range, a 600-mi-long crescent of mountains that separates South Central Alaska from the Interior. Mt. Hunter (14,573 feet), Mt. Foraker (17,400 feet), and Mt. McKinley (20,320 feet) are the mammoths of the group. Glaciers flow from the entire Alaska Range.
Another, smaller group of mountains—the Outer Range, north of Denali's park road—is a mix of volcanics and heavily metamorphosed sediments. Though not as breathtaking as the Alaska Range, the Outer Range is popular with hikers and backpackers because its summits and ridges are not as technically difficult to reach.
Several of Denali's most spectacular landforms are deep in the park, but are still visible from the park road. The multicolor volcanic rocks at Cathedral Mountain and Polychrome Pass reflect the vivid hues of the American Southwest. The braided channels of glacially fed streams such as the Teklanika, Toklat, and McKinley rivers serve as highway routes for both animals and hikers. The debris- and tundra-covered ice of the Muldrow Glacier, one of the largest glaciers to flow out of Denali National Park's high mountains, is visible from Eielson Visitor Center, at Mile 66 of the park road. Wonder Lake, a dark and narrow kettle pond that's a remnant from Alaska's ice ages, lies at Mile 85, just a few miles from the former gold-boom camp of Kantishna.
Hiking Terrain and Backcountry Travel
You can have one of North America's premier hiking and wilderness experiences in Denali with the proper planning: know your goals; consult park staff before setting out to learn Leave No Trace and bear etiquette; carry proper clothing, food, and water; and don't try to cover too much ground in too short a time.
Most of Denali is trail-less wilderness, so you have to make your own way across the landscape. Distances in the wide-open tundra can be deceiving; what looks like a 2-mi walk may in fact be 6 mi or more. Main lesson: be conservative in route planning. Also deceiving is the tundra; though it looks like a smooth carpet from a distance, it may have bogs and thickets of willow, and the tussocks can drive you insane as you try to avoid twisting your ankles into pretzels. You won't walk through the park at the speed you're used to hiking most places in the Lower 48. Besides the distractions of drop-dead gorgeous landscape, the territory is simply rougher and more varied here than most places down south. Plus it's a good idea to plan for animal delays here. Remember, moose, bear, caribou—pretty much anything with fur—have the right of way.
A big draw for more experienced hikers and backpackers are the foothills and ridges accessible from the park road. As long as you don't go deep into the Alaska Range, it's possible to reach some summits and high ridges without technical climbing expertise. Stamina and physical fitness are required, though. Once up high, hikers find easy walking and sweeping views of braided rivers, tundra benches and foothills, and ice-capped mountains.
Logistics and Details
If you're camping overnight in Denali's wilderness, you need to get a special permit (free of charge) from rangers at the Backcountry Information Center. This must be obtained in person. Advance reservations are not accepted. Only experienced backpackers should try this option. At the center you can look at descriptions of different areas in the park to decide where you want to go. Denali's backcountry is divided into 87 units, and only a limited number of campers are allowed each night in most units. The most desirable units are near the middle of the park, in areas with open tundra and wide-open vistas. These fill up faster than the low-lying areas, many of which are moist and full of mosquitoes in summer. To get time in the best backpacking areas, arrive a couple of days early, stay at one of the facilities near the park entrance (or at the Riley Creek Campground), and check in at the backcountry desk early each morning until your desired unit opens up. Before heading out into the park's wilderness, check the park's Web site in advance (www.nps.gov/dena) and read up on bear and wildlife safety, clean camping, river crossings, and proper food storage (bear-proof canisters are required in many units; you can borrow them, free, from the Backcountry Information Center); when you're at the park, talk with the rangers and tap into their local knowledge. For $31.50 you may ride a camper bus for the duration of your stay.
Nature Trails and Short Walks
The park offers plenty of options for those who prefer to stay on marked and groomed pathways. The entrance area has more than a half-dozen forest and tundra trails. These range from easy to challenging, so there's something suitable for all ages and hiking abilities. Some, like the Taiga Loop Trail and McKinley Station Loop Trail, are less than 1½ mi; others, like the Rock Creek Trail and Triple Lakes Trail, are several miles round-trip, with an altitude gain of hundreds of feet. Along these paths you may see beavers working on their lodges in Horseshoe Lake; red squirrels chattering in trees; red foxes hunting for rodents; sheep grazing on tundra; golden eagles gliding over alpine ridges; and moose feeding on willow.
The Savage River Trail, farthest from the park entrance and as far as private vehicles are allowed, offers a 1¾-mi round-trip hike along a raging river and under rocky cliffs. Be on the lookout for caribou, Dall sheep, foxes, and marmots.
The only relatively long, marked trail for hiking in the park, Mt. Healy Overlook Trail, is accessible from the entrance area; it gains 1,700 feet in 2.5 mi and takes about four hours round-trip, with outstanding views of the Nenana River below and the Alaska Range, including the upper slopes of Mt. McKinley.
Tent and RV Camping in Denali National Park
If you want to camp in the park, either in a tent or an RV, there are five campgrounds, with varying levels of access and facilities. Two of the campgrounds—Riley Creek (near the park entrance, essentially no scenery at all) and Savage River (Mile 13; on a very clear day, you might be able to see the mountain from here, but not much of it)—have spaces that accommodate tents, RVs, and campers. Visitors with private vehicles can also drive to the Teklanika campsite (Mile 29; check for rules about minimum stays, which help keep traffic down), but they must first obtain park-road travel permits; in recent years no tent camping has been allowed at Teklanika, but visitors should check with park staff for updates. Morino Backpacker Campground (Mile 1.9, about the same as Riley Creek, but tents only), Sanctuary River (Mile 22; the smallest campground in the park, ideal if you want to be alone but can't backpack), Igloo Creek (Mile 43, comparable to Sanctuary River), and Wonder Lake (Mile 85, the cream of the crop in Denali camping—best views of the mountain and great easy hikes) have tent spaces only. The camper buses offer the only access to these sites.
Visitors to the Sanctuary and Igloo Creek campsites should come prepared: both campgrounds lack treated drinking water. All campgrounds have vault toilets and food lockers. Individual sites are beyond sight of the park road, though within easy walking distance.
Fees for individual sites range from $16 to $28 per night. Campsites can be reserved in advance several ways: online, through the Denali National Park Web site (www.reservedenali.com); by faxing a reservation form (form available at www.nps.gov/dena 907/264-4684); by calling the reservation service (800/622-7275 or 907/272-7275); or by email to email@example.com Reservations can also be made in person at the park. It's best to visit Denali's Web site before making reservations, both to see the reservation form and to learn whether any changes in the reservation system have been made.
Denali National Park Headquarters (907/683–2294 information; 907/272–7275; 800/622–7275 reservations. www.reservedenali.com. All but Riley Creek (no visitor facilities) closed mid-Sept.–late May.)
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