It’s day two of our Great Alaskan Adventure and I channel my inner Bradford Washburn as we prepare to embark on our first true hike into the heart of Denali National Park and Preserve. In all fairness, our 2-mile out and back to Wonder Lake the night prior was awfully casual. According to the ranger’s evening talk, the McKinley Bar Trail is now home to a pair of wolf packs competing for the very land we’d be hiking. So, we’re hiking into wolf country, which is also bear country, moose country, lynx, caribou, wolverine, big water, big mountains and so much more.
We pare down our backpacking gear to the bare essentials—water, some electrolytes, a waterproof jacket, snacks, cameras, and bear spray—and make way east out of the Wonder Lake Campground down the same dirt road that brought us in by bus some 20 hours ago. I’ve lost all sense of time already as the summer solstice is in full effect and darkness does not exist. Fine by me! Everything is adding to the thrill of this grand place and the stories of adventure I'll share when we return. The hairs on my neck stand on alert at the rustle of every bush. My eyes scan the lush surroundings. We speak louder with every step, alerting our wild neighbors that we’re in the area and we hope for an innocent tour. We spot the trailhead about .75 mile from camp and break south toward the Alaska Range—at least where it ought to be if it weren’t completely swallowed by swarms of mid-morning storms. Thankfully, the trail is relatively maintained and easy to follow, spanning a couple feet in width like a mountain biking singletrack, and crawling down the hills toward a timberline in the distance. We splash our way through black rock and the creeks that flow underneath. I’m thankful my hiking boots are waterproof so my eyes can focus on the path ahead instead of each inch below. Still, for all this wild, there’s simple beauty every step of the way: vibrant wildflowers, choirs of songbirds, fresh dew on every bush and Denali peaking through the weather. About 30 minutes in we cross over a handful of wooden bridges and decide to top off our water before leaving the clearing and entering the dark woods ahead. I pump water from the creek and enjoy the most refreshing drink I’ve ever had, hoping it won’t be my last. The trees are dense and we still have another mile or so before we break to the riverbank and gain visibility. "Two wolf packs have recently taken to the area and are vying for dominance.” The ranger’s speech echoes in my head. As we walk, I think of my big Rhodesian Ridgeback back at home. These wolves can’t be any bigger than...woah, Samwise doesn’t have paw prints that huge... We carry on making noise and clicking our hiking poles together just in case. And he certainly doesn’t shed that much... The path leads us into the shadows, over clumps of gray fur and quite literally, a steaming pile of poop. And he’s never, ever left droppings that massive… We keep our wits about us and push through the thick of it to the rush of a river that finally stops us. The mighty McKinley uproots full trees and throws boulders down its path. The decision is made for us: thus concludes our journey south. The clouds have now burned off and we sit in the shadows of Denali, along gravel banks as far as the eye can see, amazed that early climbers may have walked these very steps before us and conquered more than wolf encounters. The temptation to sit there forever gives way to grumbling stomachs and we begin the hike back to camp. Back through spruce trees and bogs. Back through wolf country with a newfound hunger for life and the spirit of Denali. McKinley Bar Trail Hiking Specifics
- Distance: Roughly 5 miles, 2.5 out, then back
- Elevation Change: Nearly none (there is a very gradual decline from the trailhead to the river banks
- Time of Hike: Plan on two or three hours
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Concerns: Weather, wildlife, water, bearings (stick to the trail and you’ll do great)