September 10, 2016

From Aug. 27th to Aug. 31st 2016, I spent five days backpacking in Denali National Park, Alaska.


A backpacking trip in Denali is hard to prepare. They have one of the most strict quota systems I have had to go through. The park is divided into a few dozen units. Instead of controlling for the number of hikers starting every day, they restrict the number of people that can spend the night in the unit every day. Quota number is different between different units, most commonly 4 or 8. Permits can only be applied in person, and can be applied at most one day in advance. It is further complicated if the planned route involves river crossing, depending on weather condition, the river may not be crossable.

Initially, my plan was to hike to Mcgonagall Pass then follow Clearwater Creek and cross Muldrow Glacier back to Eielson visitor center. When I arrived at the backcountry office and talked to the rangers, I was told that it had been raining a lot, and nobody had successfully crossed McKinley River without a boat in this season. I had to scrap my plan, look at the units map and their availability, and figure out an alternative.

I still wanted to go to the general area south of the park road between Eielson and Wonder Lake. I was really fortunate that there happened to be a campsite available for Wonder Lake for that night. It was usually full. Booking it in advance is strongly recommended. So based on the availability of backcountry units, I decided to stay at Wonder Lake for the night. Then explore Sunset and Sunrise Glacier at unit 12 on day 1. Get into Glacier Creek valley via Contact Creek, cross Muldrow Glacier to unit 19, camp there for 3 nights and hike into the valleys there. I also added 2 nights at unit 13 for some basecamp day hikes. This is what I actually did (it's not GPS tracking data. I just drew it for illustration):

Getting In

Denali is 5 hours drive away from Anchorage. I took the morning Alaska/Yukon Trails shuttle and arrived at Wilderness Access Center (WAC) at noon. I spent a hour working out the route, and then sat through the mandatory video orientation. Expect to spend at least 2 hours in the backcountry office. Rangers usually have spare bear spray available for loan, as most people who brought in bear spray wouldn't use it. Gas canister however, was only available in town. It was already 2:50pm and the last camper bus would leave at 4:05pm. While there's a 2 mile trail going to town, I unwisely decided to ride the Princess shuttle, which turned out to be much slower than walking. I was really frustrated when I got back to WAC at 4:15pm. Miraculously the bus was late and didn't arrive till 4:30. I changed clothes, put my stuffs in a locker and boarded the bus.

There were only 2 passengers on the last camper bus. When the French dude got off at Salvage River, it was just me and the driver. We were fortunate to see quite a few animals, including a grizzly near Eielson. Not in a hurry, we sat there watching it for half an hour. I arrived at Wonder Lake at 9:30pm, hastily pitched tent, had some dinner and went to sleep.

Day 1

Waking up at 5:30am, I ate breakfast in a haste and boarded the 6:30am bus. An hour later I arrived at Eielson visitor center. I took my time using the washroom and filling water inside the cozy building, knowing beyond here it would be true wilderness. At 8am, I left the building and dropped down to the Thorofare river bar. There should be a well maintained trail dropping all the way down to the river bar, but I somehow missed it and had to do some bushwhacking.

Less than one hour into the hike, when I just turned into the valley, I spotted my first bear in the bushes on the left about 100 yards away. We had a brief eye contact and the bear seemed cool. I managed to speak in a (relatively) calm voice and retreated back about half a mile. I then looked for the bear but it was nowhere to be seen. So I moved back in and now stuck as far right as it was possible.

Soon the river met the cliff and instead of climbing up the hill to reroute, I decided to cross directly. Water was muddy from the dirty glacier, so it wasn't easy to gauge the depth, but first crossing was quite easy. As a result I grew much more confident. When I encountered the second crossing, thinking it must be easier as it was further upstream, I decided lightly to cross again. This time water was deeper and faster, I felt it mid-crossing, but unwisely pressed on. I then lost my footing and fell face down. Fortunately I was able to gain back the foot a second later and made it to the other side. However I lost my glasses after the fall (I carried a spare), and I kicked myself for being so reckless.

Another hour or so, I reached the intersection of Sunrise Creek. I ventured into the valley for a few hundred yards, but it was quite narrow and deep, and I didn't think I would be able to continue much further. So I retracted to the intersection and kept hiking towards Sunset Glacier. Before reaching Fault Creek, there came the third river crossing, and this time it couldn't be avoided. More cautious, I walked up and down for half an hour and finally found a crossable spot. My foot were numb from the freezing glacier water and it was not pleasant.

Afterwards as I hiked further upstream, the river actually grew faster and deeper, and I didn't feel comfortable crossing again. As a result, there were places where I was forced to climb up steep hills to get around the river. At around 2pm, I reached Sunset Glacier. After walking for an hour or so, not expecting to see anything more, I turned around and headed back. I was hoping to camp next to Contact Creek, but there were a lot of recent diggings that might be the doing of bears, so I pitched my tent south of the creek on tundra.

Day 2

The next day I followed Contact Creek to the top of the pass overlooking Glacier Creek. The climb was moderate and the view at the top was gorgeous. I literally shed a few tears.

I then followed Wolverine Creek down to Glacier Creek. Shortly after Green Point, I headed west to cross Muldrow Glacier. Don't be deceived by the distance on the map, there were a lot of ups and downs underneath and would take at least 2 to 3 hours to get to the other side. Glacier is covered with dirt for the most part, so as long as common caution is exercised, it is not really dangerous. I found that sticking to higher ridges as far as possible instead of dropping down was more efficient.

I arrived at the other side of the glacier at 5pm, and decided to take advantage of the good weather and hike a couple more hours. From there the route roughly followed Private Creek, but it was not necessary to drop down and bushwhack. Higher up on the hills, terrain was mostly dry tundra and fairly easy to walk on. In fact, in most part of valleys bushwhacking could be avoided by climbing up to the higher tundra platform. So I was able to make good progress and reached first fork of Clearwater Creek at 8pm. For some reason, I decided to drop down to the creek. Though yelling as loud as I could, I encountered my second bear after a turn. We were barely 10 yards away and both were shocked. The bear turned and ran away. I turned and backed out of the valley. After 5 minutes or so, I determined that the bear had left the area and vowed not to drop down to the creek unless necessary. Walking for another hour into the valley, I found a relatively flat area on the tundra platform and called it a day. I took water from down the creek and pitched my tent up there.

Day 3

I continued hiking into the valley. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was in great spirit not having to whack bushes. I reached the end of the valley shortly after 1pm. All the ridges looked quite steep. But there's plenty of time left so I decided to try to climb from one side. It was covered with rocks and boulders of different sizes, and they were not unstable. It took me 2 hours to get close to the top. The last climb looked really dangerous and I called it quits. Going down was harder, I lost balance a couple times and got some scratches as result, but was able to get down safely.

I then retracted my way out of the valley. There's a saddle on the west side of the ridge, so I just climbed over the pass and arrived at the second valley. I pitched my tent on the higher platform and called it a day.

Day 4

The ridge at the end of second valley was much easier to climb. There was tundra on the hill and rocks were firm. There was a moderate flat area to rest on the top. Views from the top of the two valleys were similar, both facing Muldrow Glacier, Mt. Brooks and nearby snowy peaks. I lingered for some time marveling at the view and taking selfies, then started my way back to Eielson.

Taking the short cut through the saddle, I made it to Private Creek around 9pm. It made a lovely campsite.

I received a Delorme Inreach message from Rani, reminding me the northern light in the evening. Never seen one before, I set up the alarm and reluctantly got out of the tent at 2:30am. And it was cold! I did see the northern light, but I lasted no more than 5 minutes before hurrying back into tent.

Day 5

The next morning I found that my shoes, put inside the fly, was frozen rock solid. It took more than one hour exposed to the sun for them to unfroze. It just showed how cold it was last night. By that time I started missing the modern amenities, so I decided to forgo the last two nights at unit 13, and hike out the same day. By my calculation, crossing Muldrow would take roughly three hours and I should have more than enough time to reach Eielson before the last bus leaves.

Second time crossing Muldrow turned out to be easier, and I made it out to Glacier Creek at noon. It seemed I had some time to spare, so I decided to hike further into the valley and take a look at the Glacier from another angle. I severely underestimated the distance however. It took me close to two hours to reach there. Thinking the last bus leaves at 7pm, I hurried out. Fortunately terrain wasn't too rough, and I basically waded through the creek without hesitation for like ten times. I got back to Thorofare River bar at 5pm and to the visitor center at 6:25pm. Apparently the last bus would actually leave at 6:30pm, I hurriedly hopped on the bus, and headed back to WAC.

The bus got to WAC at 10pm and it was already dark. I managed to get a ride to town from a Polish couple from the same bus. Princess Lodge still had a room left so I gladly took it. I haven't been eating or drinking for 4 hours and was on the verge of collapse. I walked to the Subway, got a $16 sub packed with meat, then headed to the liquor store and got a six pack. Lying on hotel bed, eating sub, drinking beer, and watching Pawn Stars, it was a beautiful night.