Mountains, rivers, wild animals, beautiful flowers, blue skies, and more abound on our 15 mile hike and 14 mile float in Denali National Park. Sure to become a classic, if not already- this two day excursion is a perfect hike/packraft for the beginner while providing enough scenery and variables for the seasoned adventurer. While searching for trips to fill our 11 days in the park, I came across multiple hikes surrounding the same float down the Sanctuary River. Whether coming from the north, south, east or west- the Sanctuary River provides countless approaches for the same great float. I'm sure my route wasn't new, but I did not find any other posts discussing it.
Despite having lived in Alaska for over six years, I have little experience in the Denali backcountry. This is largely due to being intimidated by strict procedures, hordes of tourists, and distance from my old home in Anchorage. Since relocating to Fairbanks, the park is now less than two hours away.
Here's the "procedure":
First, check in at the Backcountry Information Center (BIC). Sit through a thirty minute DVD from the 1980's. Listen to a fifteen minute lecture from the Rangers on how to use a bear barrel. Spend a few more minutes going over your route and itinerary with another Ranger in order to get your free backcountry pass. The park is broken up into 60 some land units. Each unit has a quota for backpackers per night allowed to camp within that area. It's important to be flexible, and come with a backup plan if your first choice units are full.
Next, go to the Wilderness Information Center (WIC) near the BIC. Pay $34 for a camper bus pass, allowing unlimited access to the national park via the park road. Personal vehicles are not allowed within the park, so traveling on the contracted bus lines is the only way to get around. There were only four camper busses a day entering the park (the online schedule is incorrect showing many more). Despite being done and ready to go by 10:30am, we had to wait until 2pm to catch our camper bus. Tourists buses leave every 20-30 minutes, but only the camper buses are available to hikers and campers entering the park. Once inside the park, nearly any green bus with room will pick up a hiker or camper and transport them- but your initial entrance must be via a camper bus.
So we got our pass, bought our ticket, killed some time, and finally just after 2pm were on our way into the park. After sweet talking the bus driver, she allowed for a quick stop to cache some extra food at Sanctuary River campground, before continuing on to our drop off point at Sable Pass (eleven days of food weighed roughly 40lbs, plus a few more pounds for each empty bear barrel). Most of the camper bus drivers are very experienced toting around backpackers. I told the driver we wanted to get off at Sable Pass and she knew right were to stop. On the return trip from Wonder Lake, a week later, I heard the bus driver giving loads of advice to several backpackers about drop off points, camping spots, and a variety of other beta. Its worth telling them what you want, then asking their advice, it can only enhance your experience in the park.
Once disembarking from the bus, a trail is clearly visible on the south side of the park road, just before the Sable Pass closure takes effect. It was about two miles through low scrub and shrub to the Teklanika river bed. The closure area is to the west, but well away from the social trail to the river. Denali National Park has few established (or published) trails. At the BIC, you will hear time and time again "there are no trails in the backcountry." This is only partially true. Yes, there are no official trails with blazed markers or published on maps- but there are social trails, animal trails, game trails, climber trails, and hiker trails leading every which way. These trails can make for quicker traveling when they head in the direction you want to go- the key fact being you want to go that route. Despite the presence of a trail, it is still essential to carry a map, compass, and know how to use them. Terrain association is vital for making good navigational decisions using available trails and topography.
Caribou that thinks it's a Dall Sheep
Gretchen heading up the right side grassy ramp to our campsite.
Shadows climbing the scree field, gorge center, leading to the pass.
Looking up towards the pass from midway up the center grassy slope.
Follow the goat trails to the top.
Gretchen nearly to the top of the pass. Grassy slopes turned to small compact scree.
This video is a brief glimpse of our adventure. It's mostly footage from the trail, we got so excited to finally be in our boats, we only took a few photographs and video shots.