DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska -- This is an enchanting but unforgiving landscape, where adventurers far more experienced than I have gotten lost or hurt. The dangers — weather and bears among them — can even be deadly.
So it’s not surprising that my plans to hike solo here last summer were met with raised eyebrows — and admonitions to please be careful.
While I’m no novice, having taken backcountry trips on my own for most of my adult life, Denali is different from other places because it has few marked trails. One of the biggest challenges I faced was choosing where to start. I had no interest in doing anything dangerous; I just wanted to go on some challenging hikes and enjoy my surroundings.
I planned to stick to day hikes, as my camping skills aren’t great, and I had come up with a list of places that sounded fun to explore: Thorofare Pass, Polychrome Mountain, Stony Dome, Cathedral Mountain and Mount Healy. I chose them based on two earlier (though brief) trips here, conversations with park workers and bus drivers, and a study of maps. I generally went with places that had trails, and wandered on my own after they left off.
Throughout the summer tourist season, shuttle buses provide the primary means of access to the park. The 92-mile road is closed to most personal vehicles past mile 15. (Some vehicles are allowed as far as mile 29, where the Teklanika campground is located, with reservations. You can also walk or bike in.)
On a bus, you can view wildlife through the windows, sometimes at close range. The bus makes stops where you can experience the park through short walks, but you can also hop on and off the green buses and go off on your own to explore. To get to another destination or back to the park entrance, you can flag down a later bus, provided you have a pass and there’s room on board.
Reservations are advised, as buses can fill up fast.
I carried a bus schedule so I knew when the last buses of the day would run and when I’d have to be on the road to catch one back. In my backpack, I also had rain pants, energy bars and water, a map, compass, camera and a whistle, in case I needed to announce my presence to any wildlife in low-visibility areas.
For my first day I planned to go to Thorofare Pass, which meant a four-hour bus ride into Denali. The weather started out gloomy with drizzling rain, but thankfully it cleared up as the bus moved deeper into the park. We saw five bears — including three right beside the dirt road — and had a fantastic view of Mount McKinley, North America’s tallest peak.
Thorofare Pass isn’t a technically challenging hike; none of those that I did were. But it was a fun hike up and a welcome workout for my antsy legs after the ride in. The best part was running the ridge line and drinking in views of the mountain before it was partially obscured by clouds. The worst was encountering a group of loud hikers on my way down. I like hiking for the solitude and fellowship with nature. This was a buzzkill.
I knew I didn’t want nearly as long a bus ride the next day; I was eager to run off on my own and spend as much time outside as possible. The bus trip started off agonizingly slow with people yelling “Stop!” to glimpse birds that seemed microscopic without high-powered binoculars, and me rolling my eyes in frustration.