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Alaska's Denali makes for fun, challenging hikes

  • denali2.jpg

    Sept. 11, 2011: Clouds obscure a portion of Mount McKinley, in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska. (AP)

  • denali1.jpg

    Sept. 11, 2011: Two bears walk across the tundra at Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska. (AP)

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 in the Lower 48, Denali is different from other places I've been, namely in that there are virtually no marked trails here. One of the biggest challenges I faced was actually 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 looked or sounded fun to explore from two prior though brief trips here, conversations with park workers and bus drivers and a study of maps: Thorofare Pass, Polychrome Mountain, Stony Dome, Cathedral Mountain and Mount Healy. 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, with the 92-mile road 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.) One of the most popular ways to see the park beyond mile 15 is on a bus, where you can view wildlife through the windows, sometimes at close range, with stops to 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 a later bus down 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 with me 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, water and energy bars, a map, compass, camera and a whistle, in case I needed to make any noise 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 cleared up as the bus moved deeper into the park. We saw five bears — including three right beside the dirt road, as opposed to farther off in the distance — and 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.

My attitude turned around fast, though, when the next "Stop!" was called out for a lynx, sauntering across a sandbar.

I'd crossed off Stony Dome, given the time it would take to get there, and decided to bolt at Polychrome, a routine stop for the buses. It wasn't long before the sound of traffic melted away, and I was all alone. It was incredible: vistas drenched in the colors of fall, yellow, orange, brown, rust (I was there in September, at the tail end of the season); and more ridge line to run. The wind in the area, though, was quite strong, literally clearing my nostrils.

As the day wore on, I found walking the road to be a great pleasure, and had no problem catching a bus when I was finally ready to do so.

I opted against the bus my third day and instead drove from the motel I was staying at about a mile outside the park to Savage River, which is as far inside the park as most cars can go. There is a mountain and ridge line behind the rangers' station that I was interested in trying, so I started up in sometimes spongy, uneven terrain. It looked pretty straightforward, but the higher I got, the higher the brambles and thicket got and soon I was among vegetation taller than I, branches clawing at my skin and clothes. Each time I expected to be at the top, I was greeted by more vegetation. I grew claustrophobic, and frustrated, and decided to cut my losses, descending to a social trail — a path worn away by hikers — along the river. I'd been that way before with my boyfriend and felt comfortable pressing on, even as the trail grew faint. It was beautiful, and I hadn't seen anyone since I set out.

On the way back, I wound up on a trail that led to large boulders jutting out into the river. This wasn't right; I'd apparently taken the wrong fork in the social trail as I picked it back up. I backtracked, moving higher in hopes of picking up the trail. No luck, just a ledge with a decent drop. Higher still, same result.

My heart had started to beat fast as I scrambled higher still, wondering how I could have been so stupid. When I picked the path back up, I was so relieved I practically skipped.

I got up early my last day to get one last hike in before the four-hour drive to Anchorage to catch my flight. I decided on Mount Healy.

The trail to get here is near the park entrance, so there is some traffic noise for a while. But I had the place virtually to myself, and after a bit of a scramble near the ridge line, was rewarded by the sight of a group of Dall sheep.

I accomplished what I'd hoped to accomplish — leaving tired and smiling — and couldn't help but think about all the things I wanted to do on my next trip here.

If You Go...

BUSES: Shuttle buses begin running to the Eielson Visitor Center on June 1. The entire park road will be open to buses, conditions permitting, starting June 8. Shuttle buses are scheduled to run through Sept. 13. Ticket prices and terms vary; see details at http://www.reservedenali.com.

FOOD: There is only one restaurant within the park, the Morino Grill, which is near the entrance. The National Park Service says Riley Creek Mercantile sells sandwiches and pre-packaged food and the Wilderness Access Center, where bus tickets are purchased, sells snacks and coffee and other drinks. Both of those places, too, are near the entrance. There are restaurants, convenience stores, gear shops and other businesses along Highway 3, outside the park.

SUPPLIES: For those going off-trail, the park recommends such things as you carry adequate food and water; bring a way to treat water, like purification tablets; wear appropriate clothing, choosing quick-drying synthetic materials or wool over cotton; plan for bad weather; avoid high ridges and exposed areas in a storm; be prepared for self-rescue and carry a first-aid kit; avoid hiking in wildlife closure areas.