Denali – Hiking without trails

Denali - River valley hike

Hiking in Denali is very different from most of the hiking in the southeast in the lower 48. There are very few trails in the park; most are around the visitor center. We hiked a couple of those trails in the boreal forest or tiaga.

You could walk across Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia and still be in the same boreal forest, from the Denali Visitor Center. The boreal forest has black spruce, horsehair ferns, mushrooms and wonderful flowers. 

But it’s in the tundra, the open spaces, grasses, and low vegetation that you really feels like you’re in the wilderness.

Denali - bear flowerUntil 1980, Denali National Park was just two million acres. But just as Pres. Jimmy Carter was leaving office, he created 10 national park units in Alaska via the ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act). For Denali, that act increased the park to its present six millions. The original park became a wilderness area. Another section allows subsistence hunting and fishing for anyone living in a rural community. The Preserve park also allows sports hunting. ANILCA protected these lands but didn’t lock them up.

We hiked mostly in the wilderness area on tundra or river beds – see the top picture. But walking on a ridge, you might think there’s nothing up here. Yet, the tundra is full of life – lichen, alders, flowers including tiny dogwood. Dogwood? In North Carolina, dogwood is a tree but in the tundra, dogwood are small, four-petaled white flowers.

Denali - Bus in wildernessOn one spot, we had parked our bus on the side of the road and climbed up a hill. I looked down and  couldn’t see the road. The scene was straight out of Into the Wild, about the guy who moved into a school bus in the interior Alaska and died from hunger.

Denali - quigley cabinThe area around Camp Denali was in the middle of a mining camp, Kantishna. We went to the end of the Denali Park Road to see Quigley’s cabin, one of the women who cooked for miners.

After she retired, she moved into her “retirement home”, which is now being preserved by the Park Service.

But mostly, Denali is a large, intact ecosystem which attracts and retains those large animals that visitors come to see.


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