As promised in Part 3, it’s time to talk about Denali’s back country. I fully admit that when I signed up for this trip I had no idea what to expect. I purposefully chose not to Google everything on the itinerary. I trusted my friend who was putting the trip together and I trusted that we’d have a good time.
Turns out this was the BEST decision. I was able to learn so much while there, whereas reading about it online ahead of time would not have done it justice. For example, what the heck does “backcountry” mean?
Traveling and camping in this expansive terrain is special. The lack
of developed trails, bridges, or campsites means that you are free
to determine your own route and discover Denali for yourself. – source
Backcountry means you can only get to this part of the park if A. you have a special permit to drive and camp at Teklanika River and/or B. you purchase a park bus pass to ride the bus past Savage River.
We had the special permit to drive our RVs to the Tek campground. However, we had a slight snafu when two of our RVs missed the turn to the campground and had to figure out how to turn around on the super narrow gravel road!
Hanging out, eating trail mix, waiting for our other RVs to figure out how to turn around
Thankfully, everyone finally arrived at the campsite safely and with enough time to set up and get in a short hike along the river before dinner. I stayed behind and read my book, though. Hey, when you’re traveling with 17 people you’ve got to find some peace and quiet when you can.
After dinner we discussed the plan for the next day. We had guaranteed seat bus passes on the first bus of the day that allowed us to take the bus all the way to Wonder Lake, aka the end of the road. However, this can be a 4+ hour bus ride from Teklanika! Why so long? Well, the buses stop for wildlife and at several other scenic areas. Also, backcountry campers with permits to camp outside of designated campgrounds and hikers that want to hike in the backcountry can ask the bus to stop anywhere along the road and get out. Plus, the road is entirely gravel and is barely two lanes wide!
All of this makes for an interesting trip. I admit, Wonder Lake is the one thing I Googled in advance because I wasn’t sure that I wanted to ride the bus all the way there. However, if the weather was just right it would be the best view of Mt. Denali (f/k/a Mt. McKinley). I didn’t want to get so close and then regret not going. So, I decided to ride all the way to Wonder Lake.
I also figured that riding all the way out to Wonder Lake would give me the best sense of what to expect of backcountry. And, let me tell you, it did NOT disappoint.
We definitely saw wildlife (caribou trotted in front of the bus for awhile), and we saw some amazing vistas.
This stretch is known as Polychrome.
Once we got to Wonder Lake, though, we realized that it was too cloudy to see Mt. Denali and that Wonder Lake is, in words my mom once used to describe a lake in Minnesota, “a mosquito infested weed hole.”
Thank goodness our friend added “mosquito head net” to our packing lists
Okay, maybe it was still pretty, but some of us quickly decided we’d rather ride the bus back to Eielson Visitor’s Center and hike two of the only three groomed trails in backcountry.
And that’s where I’ll pick up the story next time.