Denali National Park

Come Backpacking in Denali National Park


Because it’s Denali. Home of Denali.

The Great One

It’s all about “the mountain”, as the locals refer to Mt Denali.

Few folks in Alaska call this magnificent mountain anything other than Denali (it’s native Athabascan name, meaning “the Great One”) or more simply, “the mountain”.

Over 20 000′ high and the tallest peak in Alaska, indeed in all of North America, Denali oversees our entire trip, whether shrouded in the clouds formed by it’s own sheer bulk, or clear and visible hundreds of miles away on a beautiful Alaskan summer day.

Such a powerful presence is Denali that we feel on edge for an entire backpacking trip, always alert for a glimpse of this natural wonder.

if the weather gods align and the timing is right, it’s a magical thing to witness.

The Landscape

It’s rugged, raw country. Backpacking in this area is a challenge, but a rewarding effort as well.

The mountain terrain is steep, the glaciers big, and the footing is always changing. It’s about as far from hiking on a trail as you might possibly imagine.

Glaciers and their rock garden moraines, steep eroded scree slopes and talus covered mountain sides, challenging passes, and thickets of brush have you constantly assessing and re-assessing your route. The diverse and ever-changing landscape keeps the walking interesting. River crossings govern routes and directions. Impassable peaks stand sentinel-like above you as you traverse a primordial landscape like few others.

Denali, in every way, really is the Great One.

Our Backpacking trip

One of our newer trips!

Details for this backpacking trip are here. I can tell you space is very limited. The trip is scheduled for what we can only call solid backpackers. You must be capable and experienced in off-trail travel. And up for what will be an awesome adventure.

Stars of the Show

The Alaska Range

The Alaska Range, a 600 mile long spine of mountain peaks, runs through the heart of the park. The crown glory here is obviously Denali, but there are other notable peaks as well, including Mt Foraker (known in at least one native tongue as “Sultana”, translating as “The Great One’s Wife”).

The Alaska Range run all the way from the Alaska-Canada border to the southern reaches of the Alaska Peninsula. The Range is one of various mountain ranges that run almost continuously North, Central and South America. Such a chain of mountains is called a cordillera; this particular spine of ridges and peaks is known as “the American Cordillera”, the backbone of the Americas.

The Range is part of the infamous Ring of Fire, and is the highest mountain range in the world behind the Himalaya and the Andes.

An impressive range, the Alaska Range run through Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks, and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park as well.

The first known full length traverse of the Alaska Range was completed by the Roman Dial, Carl Tobin and Paul Adkins and took 42 days. Not a bad run for 775 miles of travel by foot, mountain bike and packraft.

The Wildlife

The Big Five: the five largest mammals that capture visitors’ imaginations: moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and grizzly bears. There are numerous other critters here as well, from the tiniest pika and Arctic Ground Squirrel to marmots, wolverine, marten, weasel, foxes, coyotes, lynx, and more.

There are also over 180 species of birds that call the area, either permanently or temporarily. Raptors such as bald and golden eagle, the Great Horned Owl, both Gyr and Peregrine falcon, as well as numerous other hawks and owls. Waterfowl pass through every year, tiny frantic shorebirds and waders to tundra and trumpeter swans, Sandhill Cranes. Residents include magpies, ptarmigan, grouse, grosbeaks and waxwings, and countless others.

My favorite is the Raven.

Though not home to massive salmon runs we see in places southeast and southcentral Alaska, such as Katmai National Park, there are over 10 species of fish found in the park.

We even have a single amphibious creature here, the wood frog, that somehow manages to last thru winter temperatures that regularly go below -40˚.


Truly a breathtaking sight, nothing will mesmerize a lover of the outdoors more than hiking beneath Denali. For the general public, backpacking in the park is a little different from most parks in Alaska.

The interior of the northern part of the park is split into various backcountry units. All backpackers are required to make reservations through the National Park Service for their choice of units. However, these reservations must be made in person and no earlier than the day before your trip starts. That makes it tough to schedule a route.

Dayhiking doesn’t require a permit.

There are no maintained or designated trails in the park (southside or northside), so hiking is more difficult than what most folks expect. It’s a rugged, primal country that requires backpackers to be solid walkers and capable folks in the outdoors.

That said, backpacking trips here in Denali National Park are an opportunity for solitude, great wildlife viewing and photography, majestic vistas, and fantastic backcountry travel. Don’t let the hurdles steer you away. There are superb backpacking opportunities in the Park.

Commercial trips, such as ours, typically only run on the south side of the park. It’s less accessible, and a much more glaciated and rugged landscape means this area receives far fewer visitors than the north side of the park. Very few people hike in here.

A History

The designated wilderness in Denali National Park comprises essentially what is known as “the old park”, the original couple million acres of the park on the north side of the Range. Under ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Land Conciliation Act) of 1979, a further 4 million acres were added, mostly to the west and south of the then park. The aggregate of the area is known officially as “Denali National Park and Preserve”.

Originally officially called Mt McKinley National Park, and designated at just over 2 million acres, the park is now called Denali National Park and Preserve and sits at over 6 million acres. More than 2 million acres of the park are designated wilderness.

Officially called Mt. McKinley by the US Government until 2015, President Barack Obama changed the name back to its long-favored Athabascan title, “Denali”, a native name that translates loosely as “the Great One” or “mountain big”.

A State of Flux

The landscape here is incredibly dynamic. Some of the world’s coldest and most violent weather, a confluence of platonic shift, and a mix of rock, glaciers, and rivers mean this landscape is in a constant state of flux.

The mountain itself rises approximately half a millimeter every year. That doesn’t sound like much, but that rate equals one kilometer every two million years. Don’t get in the way!

Mt. Denali stands 20 310 feet tall, or 6190m tall. Next year it will stand 6190.005m tall.

Ice and snow cover 75% of the mountain.

Most large mountain ranges have an effect on the local weather, but few impact it quite so directly as Denali, which literally creates its own weather patterns.

The Great One

Creating its own weather

All mountain ranges impact their local weather. But few do so with the sharp edge that Denali and this particular part of the Alaska Range does.

A few very unique factors converge to shape the weather in this area; the sheer size of the mountain, the incredible drop from its peak to its base. Denali’s base sits at approximately 2,000 feet above sea level. the mountain then rises over 3.5 miles to its 20,310-foot summit, or over 18 300′. That’s far greater than any other mountain n earth. Mt. Everest, for example, begins on a 14,000-foot high plain, then summits at 29,028 feet, a 15 000′ rise.


Secondly, this particular part of the range sits perfectly positioned to impact greater weather patterns. Warmer moist air comes north over the state from the Pacific ocean, only to jam up against this massif. This causes the air to rise, rapidly, resulting in huge snow dumps along the southern part of the range. The resulting glaciers such as Ruth Glacier, the Muldrow, and the Kahiltna are all a function of this snowfall.

It also then cause incredible winds, at times. up high on the mountain, wind speeds of over 150 miles per hour have been recorded, and the temperatures have dipped to below -80˚F.

Too chilly for me.


“… among mountains there are mountains hidden in jewels;
there are mountains hidden in marshes,
mountains hidden in the sky;
there are mountains hidden in mountains.

There is a study of mountains hidden in hiddenness.”

~ Dogen Kigen, 800 years ago.

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