A Long Weekend in Denali National Park

There are a few ways to experience Denali National Park and Preserve. One is to arrive like a rajah on the second floor of a domed rail car or lofty motor coach, and stay at one of the plush corporate lodges. From there you can book a number of excursions that include flight seeing, river rafting, and guided hikes and tours.

Or you can arrive independent of commercial companies, bus into the park, and backpack through terrain absent of trails but full of grizzlies, caribou, and panoramic views.

Our approach was a compromise between the two options above. A good friend who works for one of the large tour companies got my husband and I free round-trip tickets for the train as a gift for our one-year anniversary. While the tourists arrived from their hotels via motor coach, we parked our car in downtown Anchorage and boarded with large packs. From there it was a spectacular 8-hour ride to the park. The sky was cloudless, and Mt. McKinley (“Denali” or just “The Mountain” to locals) was looming — a rare sight.

After we disembarked we took a shuttle to Riley Creek Campground, just inside the park boundaries. We walked in, but were clearly outsiders; the campground was full of RVs and campers. We couldn’t find any bear-proof storage bins so we left our food outside the tent and hoped for the best. Not the smartest thing to do, but I figured if there had been any bear problems we would’ve heard about them. It turns out that our biggest problem was aggressive and fearless squirrels.

The next morning, our only full day in the park, we caught a 9:30 a.m. “shuttle” (read: school bus) that took us on a several-hour journey to the Toklat River, just over 50 miles in. Along the way our driver stopped for caribou, eagles, and one large but distant grizzly. The park road, 91 miles long, is unpaved and only open to shuttles; the ride is dusty and bumpy, but one of the coolest and easiest ways to access Alaska’s backcountry. You buy a ticket for as far in as you’d like to go and can get off and on wherever you want.

We arrived at the Toklat just after 1 p.m., and since it was such a perfectly warm and sunny day decided to take a hike up an enticing valley across the river.

We crossed the river, filled our water bottles from a bubbling spring, snapped the following photos,

and went on our wary way. We followed a glacial stream up the steep valley until it became more of a canyon. As we climbed, the orange walls became steep and towering and when we looked back, the top of Denali rose heavily above the mountains (see first photo).

It was one of those rare perfect Alaskan days — the sun was warm, there was a slight breeze, and no bugs. We found a patch of meadow and took a short nap before continuing up the canyon. We reached a surreal-looking landscape where the stream we’d been following split and flowed from several sources. This was our stopping point.

Since we had to make the last bus out of the park at 7 p.m. we didn’t have time to scale one of the higher ridges, much to Lael’s disappointment. Reluctantly, we made our way back down the creek, across the river, and on a waiting school bus. Back at camp we devoured our pasta and were in bed far earlier than is normal.

It turned out that our glorious weather was short-lived — it began raining sometime during the night and when we woke up everything was soggy. I peeled my damp pants on over my sweaty, dusty skin and made my way through the rain to the nearby general store, where I indulged in a latte and hot shower ($4 each). Civilization was never too far away. We boarded the train back to Anchorage later that morning, scrubbed and happy.