Backcountry camping – Denali NP

Last week we went on a backcountry camping trip within Denali National Park. I have done a bit of camping at various spots but this was the first time I had to go through an orientation at the backcountry information center. We decided to visit the center a day prior to our departure date which allowed us time to get our permit and select our itinerary.

The Denali NP has been divided into 87 sections and each unit is given a quota for overnight campers to prevent overcrowding. So our prior research into the different areas of the park was beneficial in helping us select a unit that interested us, which turned out to be Unit 8: the Polychrome basin area. We had flown over this area during our Denali sightseeing flight and I remembered seeing the four symmetrical ridges and valleys in parallel formation. Looking at the map Steve and I decided we wanted to explore one or two of those tight valleys. After filling out our permit worksheet and watching a 20 minute backpacking guide and wildlife safety video, we discussed our itinerary with the ranger and were given a bear resistant food container (BRFC), as we didn’t have our own. Part of the conditions of camping in Denali NP is carrying all food items – even toothpaste and lotions – in a BRFC at all times and observe the golden triangle (more on that later).

The next morning we boarded the camper bus under incredibly windy conditions.

It took us about 2 hours at 25-30 mph to reach our drop off point where we disembarked. I quickly adorned my wet weather gear to help shield me from the wind and then we headed down the steep embankment to get onto the river bed.

We were now on our own and because there are no trails made for backcountry hiking we had to make our own way through the landscape. We wound our way up a wide graveled riverbed. At one point we took our shoes off to cross a small stream and as we climbed the little embankment to put our shoes on again we sighted a brown grizzly bear only 100 yards away digging for roots. The park recommends keeping at least 300 yards away from bears so we quickly changed our route and decided a bit of an overland bush-bashing was needed to keep our distance. And I might add that travelling the bush tundra is not that nice – the shrubs are thick and at times the ground is potted with water holes and wet spongy moss. Thankfully we managed our way back to the riverbed after watching the bear meander downstream from our vantage point.

It took us around 4.5 hours at a slow pace to reach the wide valley entrance where we planned to set up camp.

One of the other conditions of camping was that our tent needed to be out of sight from the road. As the basin is low compared to the road which climbs and overlooks the polychrome area, we needed to turn into a nook or hollow in the valley to hide from the distant road. We also needed to find shelter from the relentless wind which was funnelling down the valley. Another issue arose when we spotted a bear (sow) and her cub just up the valley. Not wanting to confront them, we headed right into the next little valley and we found that the ridge that separated the two valleys created a formidable wind shield, which is where we pitched our tent close to a stream. With rain starting to spit we decided we weren’t into cooking so after stashing our BRFC 100 yards away we crawled into our sleeping bags and munched on a Cliff Bar as and listened to the wind shaking and whipping the tent fabric.

The next morning we were greeted with stillness, sun and the weird guttural growling noises. We were glad that the source of this bizarre sounds were the Rock Ptarmigan who were grazing on the slope directly behind our tent and not some adolescent bear.

For brekky and all our meals we followed the golden triangle. This practice dictates that the tent, cook site and bear can storage be 100 yards away from each other in a triangular shape although our shape turned out to be more linear. It is important to have the cook site downwind of the tent so that bears do not associate food with a tent should an encounter ever take place, and I was quite happy it did not.

For the rest of the day, we explored the ridge until it became too steep to safely go higher.

Then we descended into our narrow valley and explored the source of our little stream which we couldn’t quite get too because of the big moraine blocking our path.

From there we headed back to our campsite, enjoyed the sun before it headed behind the next ridge and then went to our meal site to prepare and eat dinner.

The next morning again in fine weather we packed up camp and headed back to the road. From observing with binoculars, we were aware that the sow and cub traversing the river bed below us but we made sure to make plenty of noise and we only saw two caribou on our way out.

And when we finally boarded our outgoing bus we had more bear sightings…

Leave a Reply