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The RIGHT Way to Do Denali National Park (Get OFF The Darn Bus!)

In 1917, when Denali National Park in Alaska was created, just 7 hardy souls managed to make the grueling, long, roadless trek to see the wonders of the new park.

Today, thanks to a highway and popular railroad, Denali is deluged with some 400,000 visitors each year, the majority in the months of June, July and August.

But I would be surprised if more than 3 visitors, or even 3 park rangers, had ever walked the patches of tundra I trekked last summer. 

No, I didn’t scale mighty Mount McKinley, or find my way into a dangerous bog. I simply signed up, the day before our trek, for a free, ranger-led “Discovery Hike,” into Denali’s backcountry.

The park has a ton of that: most of Denali’s 6-million acres--a swatch of land larger than the state of Massachusetts—is road-free. In fact, just one 92-mile, two-lane affair provides access to the heart of the park. Visitors are forbidden to drive their own cars on it after the 15th mile marker. Instead, they take park service-run busses, which means they can get deep into this pristine wilderness for as little as $26.75 (the cheapest bus ticket and a price that’s hundreds of dollars less than what visitors pay bush plane services to get them to equally wild areas in other parts of the state).  

The downside? Most tourists never get off the bus, content to spot bears, wolves, lynx, moose and the elusive Mount McKinley (the USA’s tallest mountain is shrouded by clouds 80% for the time) through a window. Unfortunately, the cruise-led tours encourage this behavior, as most only give one-full day to Denali, meaning that the passengers don't have the time to explore on their own two feet (and to take one of these hikes, you have to sign up the day before, impossible with must cruise-tour schedules).

That sort of distancing wasn’t for me. So I joined ranger Kimber Burrows for what should have been called a “mystery hike”: Burrows was leading but she’d never actually been to the area we’d be trekking through before.

And that was the point. In order to keep the area truly wild, human presence in Denali is restricted. Ranger Burrows couldn’t “pre-screen” our hike because, by park regulations, our trekking route could only be followed twice this summer--during our hike and once more.

“Spread out,” Burrows called to our small group as we got off the bus at Mile 32 and entered the boreal forest. “If the 12 of us form a straight line, we’ll accidentally create a trail and we can’t do that!”. And so we dispersed, our feet sinking into the tundra, which crackled and pushed down a good two inches with each step we took. It felt as if we were trekking over loaves of French bread. Pushing aside branches, stepping over tufted hillocks and avoiding mud patches, we each forged our own way, gathering together every fifteen minutes or so to share our discoveries.

Such as an island of M&M-sized, baby-blanket yellow flowers that looked like eensy  umbrellas with blood-red stems. Consulting the nature guide, we learned they were spores that grew in moose dung, and sure enough, below them were the pelleted droppings. A sunset orange-and-yellow spider was next, followed by the tail of a moose caught in some branches (both oily and soft), a handsome pink and white wildflower that Alaska resident Ranger Burrows had never seen before and a wood grouse protecting its nest.  The neckbone of a moose also created great excitement.

Beyond our random discoveries, we were given the task of helping researchers studying animal migration patterns in Denali. Our small band of “citizen scientists” (Ranger Burrow’s term), studied a chart showing both wolf and coyote scat and then tried to find some as we trekked. It took a good two hours, but finally my nine-year-old daughter spotted the precious poo. Bagging, labeling and finding the GPS coordinates for our “treasure” (on Ranger Burrows equipment) was one of the highlights of her Alaskan vacation.

There were few other notable events on the 4-hour walk. But being in a place totally untouched by man, walking among soaring pine trees and even more majestic mountains, hearing only the sounds of the wind and the birds….not to get too “woo woo” but it felt spiritually chiropractic. Everything that mattered was (briefly) aligned. As conservationist Rachel Carson once wrote: “Those who dwell, as scientist or layman, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth, are never alone or weary of life.”

At the end of our adventure, we reboarded the bus and set off for civilization. But nature had one more miracle up her sleeve for us. As we entered a valley, the bus driver came to an abrupt halt. Up ahead, the white peaks of Mt McKinley loomed, lustrous, gleaming and floating above the landscape, a modern-day Mount Olympus.

If you decide to go: Discovery Hikes must be signed up for, in person, one-day before the tour, at the Denali Visitor Center. Two hikes go out daily, and are restricted to 11 visitors each. The hike is free, but visitors are required to pay a $10 entrance fee (per week) to the park, plus purchase a bus ticket (the cost will vary by the length of the ride). The hikes are offered daily through the first week in September, and then again starting in late May.