Imagine backpacking over your own area of wilderness, without trails, limits, or the chance of seeing other people. There's no need to retrace your route to get back: Anywhere you meet the 91-mile Denali Park Road, you can catch a bus back to the world of people. Any experienced backpacker should consider a backcountry trek at Denali.
Yes, it can be challenging. Hiking on the tundra, broken-rock mountainsides, and braided rivers is tiring, and it's easy to fall or turn an ankle. You must be prepared for river crossings and cold weather, know how to find your way with a map and compass, and know how to avoid attracting bears. But if you've done a backpacking trip in a less challenging area, you surely can manage it here, so long as you prepare and don't underestimate the additional time you'll need in trail-less terrain. Nor do you need to trek far -- you can camp just a few miles off the road and still be in a place that looks like no one has ever been there before.
You must be flexible about where you're going and be prepared for any kind of terrain because you can't choose the backcountry unit you will explore until you arrive at the Backcountry Information Center, adjacent to the Wilderness Access Center, and find out what's available. This information, and a map of the units, is posted on a board at the center. Groups of four or more may have a hard time finding a place to hike, but there's almost always somewhere to go. You can reserve permits only 2 days in advance, and you're unlikely to get one for the day you arrive, but you can reserve permits for continuation of your trip for up to 14 days at the same time. The first night of a trip is the hard one to get -- for one thing, you can reserve only units that are contiguous to the park road for the first night -- but after that, each night gets progressively easier. A couple of rangers are there to help you through the process.
Buy the Denali National Park and Preserve topographical map, published by Trails Illustrated, available from Alaska Geographic. Printed on plastic, the map includes the boundaries of the 43 backcountry units and much other valuable information. Also, you'll want a copy of the Backcountry Companion (Alaska Geographic), which describes conditions and routes in each area. You'll find it at the visitor center, or you can glance at a well-thumbed copy kept at the backcountry desk.
The alpine units from the Toklat River to Eielson Visitor Center are the most popular. That's where you get broad views and can walk across heathery dry tundra in any direction. But to travel far, even there, you may have to climb over rugged, rocky terrain, and the tundra can be deceptively difficult to walk on -- it's soft and hides ankle-turning holes. The wooded units are the least popular, since bushwhacking through overgrown country is anything but fun. The best routes for making time here (and anywhere in the Alaska Bush) are along the braided river valleys and streambeds. Be ready to walk in water. You'll have to take the camper bus ($31 adults) to get to your backcountry unit.
Before venturing into the backcountry, everyone is required to watch an orientation film covering safety and environmental issues, including how not to attract bears. I've spoken to competent backpackers who considered abandoning their trip because of the severity of the warnings they received about bears. That's unfortunate because sensible people taking normal precautions don't need to worry. The Park Service provides bear-resistant food containers in which you are required to carry all your food. For bear self-defense, you can carry a pepper spray, such as Counter Assault.
Before you decide to go backpacking at Denali, however, you may want to broaden your thinking -- if you're up to a cross-country hike without a trail, there are tens of millions of acres in Alaska available for backpacking that don't require a permit. Check with the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in Anchorage or Fairbanks for ideas about road-accessible dry tundra and other suitable areas on the Denali Highway, and on the Dalton Highway and in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.