Two Nights on the Tundra: Backcountry Camping Denali National Park and Preserve
Toss the trails aside and venture into Alaskan backcountry with two newcomers to Denali National Park and Preserve. And yes, they saw bears.
Denali National Park and Preserve is one of the best preserved yet accessible wildernesses you can visit in the United States. Taiga, forest, and tundra sprawl out uninterrupted for miles. Glaciated peaks are locked behind braided river systems. As my girlfriend, a childhood friend and I stepped over and into its vast carpets of moss and lichens, visions of these landforms sunk into us.
Hiking there is not like hiking in Washington, my home state. When you get off the road in Denali, you do not do so on a trail. It is just you, your companions, the landscape, and all of its wild inhabitants.
Our plan was to spend two nights backcountry camping—a side trip we tacked onto our Alaska visit. Back home, Mount Rainier has always amazed me and the opportunity to see the most topographically prominent terrestrial mountain on the planet (Mount Denali) could not be passed up. In our time at Denali National Park and Preserve, the mountain was only visible for about an hour but it was not our only highlight.
As the park service camper bus drove us down the singular road in the park on the first day, we couldn’t help but think about the grizzly bears and how we would have no direction once we were dropped off except for our intuition. We had no idea what to expect, really.
The only way to find out what’s in store for you at Denali is to get off the bus and start walking, perhaps toward the magnificent peaks in the distance.
Thankfully, the park service does a great job of preparing backpackers for traveling in grizzly territory. Their strict rules and guidelines about how to act near wildlife have successfully kept the bears in Denali non-food-conditioned and they want to keep it that way.
We weren’t the only ones thinking about bears. We heard the bus driver exclaim and felt the bus come to a stop. A mother bear and two yearlings casually crossed the road in front of us… and then promptly disappeared into the chest-height brush.
That’s when it clicked that we’d be hiking through that very brush.
We got off the bus and began picking our way through a rocky streambed, nerves on high alert. As we crested small hills in the tundra we took turns calling out, “Hey bear, HEY bear, Hey BEAR!”
As we waded through willow and alder trees, we sang and bellowed and offered greetings to unseen animals. We carried on, adjusting to this radically different idea of hiking and song. The last thing we wanted was a surprise encounter with an Alaskan predator.
Our first day and night backpacking in Denali was something to never forget. The Alaskan tundra in summer is unlike anything I had ever seen, and the off-trail travel in perpetual sun left us feeling like we were part of another dimension.
It never got dark, but twilight overtook the land for several hours each night adding to the wild of it all.
The second day held the most adventure of our trip and offered even grander sweeping views of open tundra and the Alaska Range. After a brief stop at the Eielson Visitor Center, we got back on a bus to drive farther into the heart of the park and scope our next leg.
For newcomers to Denali, having a sense of what is where and how to navigate best in the backcountry is hard won. Our group would see a feature in the landscape that looked appealing and plot a visual course toward it. Often, we’d be foiled rather quickly by unexpectedly boggy ground, thick brush that was much more of a hassle to walk through than it appeared, or one of the many rivers running through gravel bars.
We were headed toward a huge ridge in the distance when it became quickly apparent that the ground between us and it dropped further than we expected, and into a valley with a river. As we headed down a slope toward what looked like the best place to cross, I heard my friend swear and point to a spot up the river.
Rooting around for tubers on the gravel bar was a familiar blonde silhouette with a large hump. And this time, there was no vehicle between us and the grizzly. The ranger’s voices echoed in my mind, and we were certainly closer than their recommended 300-yard buffer zone.
But it hadn’t noticed us yet.
We quickly conferred and began making our way in the opposite direction along the river, crossed once and established we were well beyond sight of the bear.
By the time we came back within sight of the road on our final day, we had climbed beautiful hills, crossed metallic blue waters, wound our way across huge expanses of land, navigated countless obstacles, and witnessed firsthand some of the impressive wildlife that roams Alaska. We even dried our feet in the direct warm sun—at 10:30 p.m. We saw caribou, Dall sheep, eagles, moose, and more grizzly bears on the drive back to town.
We had expected ruggedness and a towering mountain—and those were in ready supply—but even the simple memories will last a lifetime. Like the crunch of the tundra so close with each footfall and resting upon the land between hikes. We were transported wholly away to a world braced by immense skies, rippling winds, and a constant light.
Denali National Park and Preserve demands vigorous attention but its gifts are worth every effort and encounter. Its vision of wilderness is rivaled by none.
Story By Keegan O’Rourke