Denali Backcountry Adventure

by Mike Still
Denali Backcountry Adventure

Locals will tell you that only 30% of visitors to Denali National Park & Preserve are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Denali in this massive 6 million acre stretch of Alaskan wilderness.  Whether that’s true or not has no relation to how stunning it is when you catch that first sight of this magnificent mountain; a pinnacle so massive that, when measured from the base to summit, is miraculously “taller than Mount Everest!” (Live Science, 2017).  It was a clear sign that this 4-day Denali backcountry adventure would be a wild success when we caught a white sliver of Denali on the bus ride to Igloo Creek.

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Day 1 – Climbing Cathedral Mountain
Denali National Park & Preserve

We passed a few moose and one caribou with velvety antlers on the 90-minute drive along the Parks Highway before getting off at mile 35 for Igloo Creek Campground.  The plan was to climb Cathedral mountain as a pseudo shortcut to the Teklanika River valley on the other side.  From there we had three nights to explore zone 6; we could wander into neighboring zones if we wanted as long as we camped in our zone and stayed out of two restricted areas.

Sable Pass, a wildlife corridor teething with grizzlies and other large mammals, was our north-western border.  The pass is the only permanently closed area for wildlife in the Denali National Park.  A wolfpack built a den to the northeast of zone 6 so the park set up a temporary restricted area there too. 

That left Cathedral Mountain to the south with the Teklanika River and Cantwell Glacier beyond it.  Looking at a topographical map we agreed to try and climb over Cathedral Mountain and then head to a ridgeline on the west side of the river valley separating zone 6 & 7 where we could, with a little luck, see some wildlife!

Navigating our way through the underbrush and higher up Cathedral Mountain proved to be easy at first.  We zigzagged our way across the tundra spotting a few curious arctic ground squirrels and slowly making our way higher.  We had no agenda and stopped frequently to enjoy the view.  Life in the backcountry is simple.  Unplug from everything and enjoy the natural beauty surrounding you.

Denali Gear List

Some of this gear was communally carried.  All four of our packs weighed about 40lbs before we started.  Feel free to comment below and I’ll try to answer any questions you have about gear.

  • Flip Flops
  • Raincoat
  • Puffy Jacket
  • Sleeping Pants
  • Zip Away trekking pants
  • Long underwear
  • 3 boxers
  • 5 Pairs Wool Socks
  • 2 Long Sleeve Shirts
  • Lightweight gloves
  • Trekking Poles
  • Trekking Boots
  • Jetboil (also magical!)
  • Ultralight Backpacking Stove
  • “Gardening” Shovel
  • Deet
  • Iodine

All food and anything that smells has to go into your bear can.  The park provides you with one but you might want to buy your own carrying case.


My eyes glanced from the mountains to the ground as I walked, staring at colorful lichen and wildflowers while making sure my feet landed in a safe spot.  We’d climbed well over a thousand feet already when without warning Denali came into view on the horizon.

There she was, Denali, not quite in full glory while well camouflaged in the clouds but very clearly standing as a pearly guardian to the rest of these rolling hills.   Natural colors littered our view in a beautiful splendor, hills to the right sporting a Martian red with mixtures of green and beige coating other mountains.   The mountain has been called Denali for centuries by the native Koyukon and means “Great One.”

From this vantage point, it became clear that the way up and over Cathedral was going to get considerably tougher.  Scree fields covered vast stretches of the mountain, especially on the westerly faces.  Rock slides were beginning to pop up between the greenery and we’d already crossed a few sketchy sections.  None of us wanted to abort the climb and take a long way around.

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Ben and Aaron crossed the next rockslide without incident when a healthy dose of fear hit Max and me.  We shouted across the mountain saying that this was a crazy way to start our 4-day hike.  We had no idea what the back side of Cathedral looked like but there was a good chance that it would be a sheer cliff with nothing but landslides waiting for us.  This realization forced a decision that ultimately ended with us taking the safe route down and around.  Ben and Aaron dropped their packs and went scouting ahead while Max and I ate lunch and reaffirmed our decision NOT to finish this climb with 40lb packs on our back.  Our companions’ return sealed the deal and we worked our way back down, satisfied with a majestic view of Denali and eager to find an easier path to the other side of the mountain.

The next few hours went by uneventfully with a few ground squirrels announcing their presence as we passed.  We decided to walk along the road rather than sticking to the varied terrain on the side of the mountain, a few more miles straight ahead was Sable Pass so we kept our eyes peeled for a good place to cross the stream and head south past Cathedral Mountain.   This time Max led the charge, taking his boots off and scrambling across the ankle-deep water in the first of what would become many river crossings.

I think the best way to see wildlife is by trekking through one of the Denali backcountry units.  Many people prefer a Denali National Park Bus Tour or guided Denali National Park.  Either way, backpacking Denali is sure to be some of the best Backpacking in Alaska!


We followed a semblance of a trail around the west side of Cathedral mountain knowing that once we were a half mile from the road we would truly be in the backcountry!   As soon as the road was blocked from our view we were allowed to camp and it was getting late which meant we should start scouting for a campsite.  By now we all were ready to ignore those pesky ground squirrels but starting to get a little disappointed that they were the only wildlife we’d seen on foot.

I pushed thoughts of wildlife out of my mind and focused on a campsite.  Our path wove back and forth between a stream and a few lakes as the Alaskan mountain range slowly came into view.  Cathedral Mountain was behind us and the next ridge blocked the road completely.  Somehow it was nearly 7 pm even though the sun looked like it was high noon.  The June sun in Denali National Park doesn’t set until 2 am or later meaning we had plenty of light to set up our first backcountry campsite.

Day 2 – Searching for Wildlife
Teklanika River

Freeze dried dinners and oatmeal breakfasts might not taste great at home but when you wake up surrounded by wilderness you don’t mind in the slightest.  We enjoyed a lazy first morning soaking in the sun and discussing the best route to the ridge separating zones 6 and 7; the trail didn’t look too difficult but we knew there could easily be a snowmelt river coming off those white patches.  Well, actually there wasn’t really a trail.  Any semblance of the western social trail around Cathedral Mountain disappeared into the lakes beneath us as we all picked our own path through the tundra.

Tundra is an arctic biome with no trees and a frozen subsoil.  The ground is typically covered with soft mosses and lichen that gave way with each step. 

I likened the trek to hiking up sand dunes where each step sinks up to half a foot lower than planned.  A few more switchbacks of this open country brought us to the ridge where we found yet another ridge and more mountains ahead of us.  I scanned the expanse for wildlife but again came up short.  Instead of animals my attention shifted to the beautiful wildflowers underfoot and reaching the next vantage point.


Denali Backcountry Meal Plan

Everything that you bring into Denali National Park MUST be packed IN & OUT.
Denali has plenty of water available but it MUST be filtered!
As a result, we tried to keep our meals simple and limited cooking.
Max brought a Jetboil Flash Cooking System and I HIGHLY recommend buying a Jetboil!
Ben brought an Ultralight Backpacking Stove which we used for dinner too.
Breakfast – 3 Oatmeal packets per day
Lunch – 1 pint of trail mix,  1 cliff bar, 1 hunter stick
Dinner – Mountain House (Dehydrated Dinner, just add boiling water)
Extras – Whiskey, 1 extra Cliff Bar per day, 1 extra Mountain House Dinner


Between our late start and immediate climb we quickly found ourselves looking for a spot relax and eat lunch. A few hundred meters ahead stood a knoll at the edge of our current ridge inviting us all to take our packs off and dig into some grub.  We got comfortable enjoying the mountain landscapes when suddenly out of the corner of my eye I saw movement.  Three furballs were most definitely grazing down in the valley next to a small stream. 

Were they bears?  I zoomed in.  Yes!  A mother brown bear with two yearlings were enjoying their own lunch, completely unaware of us a few hundred yards away.

Any worries that this would be a wildlife free trip were quickly whisked away while we watched this family of grizzlies.  Then out of nowhere, two more blurs of movement appeared on the hill behind the bears.  Two small caribous bounded in and out of view skirting around the bears.  It’s hard to say if the brown buggers even noticed the reindeer and in another moment they disappeared over the nearby ridge.   I was done with my lunch by now so I quickly packed my bag and snuck up to the ridge where I was instantly rewarded with another set of caribou snacking on the snow!

This pair was likely part of the same herd but were larger and this guy had a huge set of antlers.  I stared at him reveling in the majesty of this beast for a few seconds before it noticed me and froze, staring me down and deciding whether to bolt.  I continued taking photos when Ben came over the ridge behind me, his arrival was enough to send these skittish stags running.

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 Do you prefer Denali National Park Hiking in the backcountry or staying in a Denali National Park Cabin or perhaps you’d rather stay near the Denali National Park Entrance?  Comment below and let me know!

Photo by Max Slama of Optic Nerve Photography & Design

The rest of our group eventually caught up and we agreed to follow the ridge until a spine in the distance looked like an easy way down into the Teklanika River.  We could start to make out the Cantwell Glacier at the end of this river valley.  By now everyone was ignoring the arctic ground squirrels and keeping our eyes peeled for larger mammals.

You’ll have to suspend belief for a moment because literally moments later Ben called out another bear in the distance, this one with two smaller cubs and much further away.  While trying to snap a photo of this family Max saw another solo bear stroll through the underbrush straight ahead of us.

It was just past lunchtime and immediately evident that we were now in bear country, we’d spotted 7 bears and 4 caribous when someone spotted a lone buck sprinting across the valley.  Our suspicions about the border between zone 6 & 7 were confirmed, there is a lot of wildlife here thanks to Sable Pass!

Cathedral Mountain has a huge spectrum spread between its many ridges and peaks.

 

Backpacking in Bear Country – Safety Tips

  • Carry Bear Spray!
  • Use Bear Canisters.
  • Make noise, sing, shout “Hey Bear”
  • Travel in groups.
  • Stay 300 yds away (if possible) from any bears you encounter.
  • If a BROWN bear attacks, use your bear spray.
    If it’s on top of you PLAY DEAD!
  • If a BLACK bear attacks, use your bear spray.
    If it’s on top of you FIGHT BACK!

I held my breath at the top of every hill that I crossed from then on hoping for another glance at some beautiful animals but I was merely rewarded with spectacular views.  The mountains inched closer as we came to the end of our ridgeline and had to cross a few snow-filled sections.  These can be tricky since you don’t know how thick the snow is and whether its hiding a river beneath it.  We avoided as many as we could but I saw a shortcut that looked stable and went for it.  Max instantly took the chance to snap a snowy photo as our descent continued.

Photo by Max Slama of Optic Nerve Photography & Design

The soft tundra was now mixed with steadily growing undergrowth.  Aspens and alders brought us to a few bushwacking sections when we stumbled into a rocky riverbed.  Ben and Max thought it would be best to follow this down to the Teklanika River and then follow that flat river below.

Check out this cute little vole we found!  He froze as soon as I saw him posing for a photo or two.

Aaron and I disagreed thinking that the river crossings could prove more difficult plus we had just spotted an easy stretch of tundra ahead and didn’t want to lose all this elevation.  This was the only time our group split up and frankly, the worst decision we made all trip.

We agreed to take separate paths down to the riverbed and set off from there.  Aaron and I made excellent time crossing the tundra a few hundred feet above the river while skirting sections of difficult bushwacking and avoiding others entirely.  It wasn’t until I realized that we hadn’t really made any plan for meeting up again or where to make camp that I changed my opinion on splitting up.  Although Aaron and I had plenty of food we couldn’t boil water and neither of us had a tent.  We agreed to head back down and look for Ben and Max navigating towards the bushes we’d hoped to avoid.


Know before you go – Denali Backcountry

All Denali Backcountry trips have to be planned through the backcountry desk at the visitors center.
Permits are given in person on a first come first served basis.
Tents must be out of sight and at least 1/2 mile from the road.
There are over 70 zones but many of them are limited to 6-10 people per night
Bear Canisters are MANDATORY for your safety AND the bears’ safety
The park provides free Bear Canisters but you’ll want to buy your own Bear Canister Case.
There are no trails in the backcountry.  Expect bushwacking and river crossings!
You must watch an informative video before they issue your permit.
Expect 1-2 hours of time to get everything sorted at the backcountry office.
Bring a Denali National Park Map with you!
Follow the golden triangle when camping!
<Campsite must be 100 yards away from cook site and both 100 yards away from your bear cans!>


The lower we got the thicker the bushes and trees grew.  We were now embedding ourselves in prime bear habitat smack in the middle of bear country where we’d just seen 7 bears.  Loud conversations were interspersed with shouts of “Hey Bear!” (like we learned in the training video) and thankfully we didn’t come across Ursus or any of his cousins.

A black blur rose upwards with my next shout.  Once. Twice. Three times, it flapped massive black wings with a white streak along its tail.  “Bald eagle!” I pointed out and tried to capture a photo of this majestic bird.  It was only after talking to a naturalist we met on our way out of the park (and consulting Google) that I realized this bird was probably a juvenile golden eagle but either way Aaron and I were ecstatic to have seen the creature from so close.

Moments later we heard bustling in the distance and froze.  Could this be another bear?  “Hey Bear!” we shouted together hearing a familiar echo in response.  It had been less than an hour that our party was separated but everyone was happy to be back together.  No, they hadn’t seen the eagle.  Yes, their rocky riverbed did turn into an awful patch of bushwacking which we had so conveniently met them for.

We don’t‘ have any bushwacking photos because cameras were stowed for safety so here’s a great shot from before we descended.  Credit goes to Max Slama, Optic Nerve Photography & Design!

It felt like we were bushwacking for ages before we reached the riverbed but that may have been because we were on constant lookout for grizzlies.  When we finally broke through the trees the river flowed swiftly beneath us.  Glacial silt made this stream gray but that was just a distraction from how chilling it was when you stepped into it!

Two river crossings brought us to a flat stretch in the center of the Teklanika River where it felt like we had our own private highway to Cantwell Glacier.  We could clearly see it hanging from the not too distant mountains.  Our rocky new path was easy to navigate and we quickly covered mile after mile.  Before anyone realized, it was time to start looking for our second campsite, the skies were still blue even though it was well past dinnertime.  We saw a decent campsite just after one more river crossing which brought us to shore so we set up camp and tucked in for the night.

Day 3 – Hiking through Bear Country
Cantwell Glacier

We left bright and early with just two daypacks between the four of us and didn’t even break camp.  That would come later in the day. heading out early with light packs meant we might get all the way to Cantwell Glacier by lunchtime!  Well, that was our goal anyway.

The day’s trek started with a few river crossings which slowed our progress considerably.  We didn’t see any wildlife but we were pretty sure something was watching us, perfectly camouflaged between the trees and bushes along the bank.  The glacier looked like it wasn’t that far away yet somehow it took us a few hours before we came to what looked like it might be our last river crossing.

Then again we could easily have another one further on and just don’t see it yet.  The water was moving swiftly.  Ben checked the time and reminded everyone that we wanted to be heading back to camp in another hour or so.  It became evident that nobody wanted to try and cross this one so we opted to spend another hour working our way into the western canyon instead of to Cantwell Glacier.

Clouds oozed over a distant snow-covered ridge creating what looked like it had to be an optical illusion straight ahead.  Mother nature was truly at its finest here in Denali National Park.  Special thanks to /u/Smoke-Away and /r/ImageStabilization for making this gif look so good!

We paused for a moment in awe of this magnificent sight when I noticed a funny looking brown speck in the distance.  I zoomed in and could faintly make out a brown bear.   It looked like there was another furball to the right of her and wait a minute, were those two tiny heads popping up right behind her?

Sure enough, it was a mother bear with three tiny cubs!  They played in the grass for a while as mom scavenged for roots or maybe even one of those pesky ground squirrels!  Occasionally she would call them over and it looked like they all feasted together for a bit but she never noticed us.  After trying to get a little closer Ben realized we were heading into a very narrow part of the valley with a grizzly bear and wouldn’t have a lot of options if something went south.  We were still well beyond the 300 yd limit set by the park and the brown bear hadn’t noticed us yet so I convinced everyone to get a little closer.

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Hiking a little further I finally zoomed in again to snap a photo and immediately saw three little cubs running around too!  We decided not to risk going any closer now that we knew it was a mother protecting cubs and debated eating our lunch right there while watching them play.

I was thinking about my cliff bar when Max pointed to the left side of a valley as two sets of antlers popped up opposite the family of bears.  Was this a strange coincidence that the caribous were so close to yet another bear family?  Perhaps they knew they could outrun a momma bear and just didn’t care?  Either way we were happy to add a few more of these splendid reindeer to our wildlife tally, even if I couldn’t take a great photo of them.

It was an easy decision not to stay here for lunch in case the wind shifted and sent some delicious aroma towards the 4 grizzlies so we made our way back down the Teklanika River towards camp.  This time we did our best to avoid any river crossings by climbing a few hundred feet up the western bank to the soft, shallow tundra.


The terrain made for easy going and everyone was happy we didn’t have to dip our feet in the glacial waters again.  We were making good time when Ben called out an eagle or some kind of large bird on the next ridge.  I stared off in the direction he was pointing but only saw a large yellow rock.

“Where?” I shouted over the wind and before Ben could even respond that large yellow rock sat straight up revealing another sow and her yearling!  They stared at us.  We stared at them and everybody froze!

We didn’t want to get any closer but at about 200 yards I knew we weren’t in any danger; she wanted nothing to do with us just as much as we wanted nothing to do with her.  In fact, all that either group really wanted to do was sit down and have some lunch!

After that first awkward staring contest she led her cub down the valley and away from us.  We did the same then quickly realized if we all headed to the river basin it could prove hard to avoid each other so we stopped.  The bears stopped too.  It felt like we were in an old-timey movie and this was just some big joke scene where every time we started moving they started moving and every time we stopped the bears stopped too.


Denali National Park Facts

At over 6 million acres, Denali National Park & Preserve is roughly the size of New Hampshire and would be the 160th largest country!
Denali is home to a diverse array of wildlife with black & brown bears, wolves, caribou, moose, golden eagles and countless smaller mammals but only one type of amphibian, a frog!
There are ZERO reptiles in Denali National Park (that means no snakes!)
There are no venomous creepy crawlies to watch out for in Denali National Park.
Some summer days see upwards of 22 hours of sunlight while a few winter days might only see 2-3 hours of daylight


Luckily she was leading her cub diagonally away from us so we would easily get to the river first and sure that as long as we made some noise while trekking she would keep her offspring as far away from us as possible.  We made it down to the river without incident and agreed to deal with these river crossings rather than risk running into that momma bear again.

With bears abound we ate quickly and kept a lookout in all directions before Max and I took our boots off and went straight for a river crossing rather than try and navigate without getting too wet.  Our hobbit-like feet were tough enough for frigid waters and the rocky bed below.  Then we discovered some patches of muddy sand that seemed to give us extra toughness.  We must have walked a half-mile barefoot heading straight for each mud patch between the rivers.

We sat down to let our feet dry and enjoy the view after our final river-crossing.  Ben and Aaron were slowly following behind, a bit delayed from putting their shoes back on after each dip.  Our campsite came into view shortly after donning our footwear where we quickly packed up the tents and continued downriver.

Just a few bear prints on our path

We made great time for a few miles but when the river took a sharp turn straight for the western bank we had to decide between a deep, fast-flowing ford or climbing onto the riverbank and bushwacking through verdant bear habitat.  We’d seen 6 bears in the last few hours and the last thing any of us wanted was to stumble upon momma protecting her cubs.

Max and I started out agreeing on the river crossing but Ben and Aaron preferred to keep their feet dry.  One of Aaron’s boots had gotten dunked at the last fording and they both pointed out that “getting your feet wet is the number 1 thing to avoid when in the wilderness.”  I thought about it a bit more and changed my mind mentioning that I saw a good place to climb out a quarter mile or so back.

It was settled, we scouted a few spots before finally arriving at a lower section with what looked like a safe entry back onto the woodlands.  Most of the riverbank was a 10 foot climb up steep slippery mud or made up of jagged rocks that might break away in an instant.

Ben tried going up one sketchier section but we agreed that it wasn’t a good option and sought out an easier climb.  I opted to go up first when we finally came to the shallower climb with a few trees at the top to brace myself.  It wasn’t too difficult to balance my 40lb pack while hugging the muddy wall, I’d been wearing the same clothes for 3 days anyway and didn’t care if I got dirty.  With a few quick steps, I reached the edge and froze.

This spider has a blue egg sac!  No, he wasn’t at the top of the ridge but I thought he looked really cool!

“Guys, this looks like PRIME bear habitat.” I called down below, “I’m staring at a well-trodden path that looks like it was cleared by a large animal.”  I looked around and didn’t see any fresh footprints but the brambles were all broken from my waist down in a way that I could only assume meant a bear went through here.  As I thought about it I decided it was more likely that MANY bears had been through here and we were about to walk along an ursan highway!


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I started to change my mind and mentioned going back to the river crossings but after we took a few moments to discuss it agreed that we were a large group and would make lots of noise.  The ranger video told us that bear attacks were unheard of on groups larger than 2 people so we sang “hey bear” loud and clear.  Occasionally I changed it up to “Are you over there bear?” or “Go away bear!” as I broke through branches from our waist up and forged a path through the Denali Backcountry.

 

Before long we broke out of the dense undergrowth and found ourselves on easier ground where we quickly made up lost time but sadly didn’t have any more wildlife sightings.  Within another hour our trail brought us back to the chilling glacial melt and as the riverbed widened, a clear stretch of flat land with minimal flora emerged.

The rest of today’s trek continued in similar fashion for another few hours, without any wildlife sightings but we did stumble upon some wolf tracks in the sandy shores of the Teklanika River!

The rocky riverbed was full of beautiful patterns and mineral-filled rocks.  Ben smashed one and discovered specks of precious metals hidden within.  We took a few breaks before deciding to finally give our legs some true respite and make camp for the night.  My Fitbit said we covered almost 21 miles today which really just means we were excited to curl into our sleeping bags and get some rest!

Day 4 – Bushwacking out of Denali National Park

Last night was the only time it rained on us all trip.  We’ve been lucky to have such clear weather so far and I was grateful that the rain came overnight rather than during breakfast or while we were hiking.  Everything was damp except our packs and boots but there was a good chance that wouldn’t last.

We broke camp around 8:30 in the morning and just as Max and I were walking back to the tents with the bear canisters I spotted a large male grizzly across the river!  What a great time to discuss whether we ford the river here and “live the river life” as Max called it or do our best to stay out of the river and forge our path through more bushwacking, except that now all the bushes would be soaked which means we’d get wet that way too.

The vote was a dead tie with Max and I preferring the river and the others thinking it wasn’t worth getting our feet wet.  Seeing the bear earlier made me very much NOT want to bushwack like we had yesterday so this time I held my ground on the vote and the only reasonable thing to do was flip a coin.  So we did.  I lost.  “I’m not leading this time,” I declared and put my pack on.

Walking to the edge of this evergreen forest eased my mind a bit about the decision.  Tall spruce trees took up a lot of the real estate here which meant we didn’t have to break our way through nearly as many thick brambles.  In fact, there was some semblance of a trail that helped us weave in and out of the forest.

We saw countless bear, moose, caribou and rodent footprints deep in the mud and regularly came across bear scat.  We think these were from black bears but none of us are bear experts and with our regular chorus of “Hey Bear” we didn’t see any wildlife at all.

The rain held off as we trudged onwards but I kept my camera inside my pack for protection on today’s bushwacking adventure anyway.  That was probably for the best because by the time we got to Igloo Creek next to the Parks Highway the only thing that was dry were the back half of my socks.  So, naturally, I jumped into the ankle deep water for one final crossing to say farewell to this magical park.  Until next time…

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Mike Still
Mike is a travel enthusiast, photographer and teacher. He loves adventure travel, meeting the locals and exploring new culture. As an outdoor enthusiast you can often find him hiking mountains or exploring forests trying to capture the beauty of mother nature. In 2013 he founded www.LiveTravelTeach.com as he left his home in America and has been teaching or traveling around the world ever since!

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