In July 1995, I came to Denali National Park somewhat hesitantly. The neighboring Denali State Park had glowing reviews in some of the trail magazines, and I expected it to have fewer people and more peace that the National Park. The NPS ranger disagreed however: “Hike in Denali National Park if you want to see wildlife. Besides, we limit the number of permits we issue in each zone of the park. Once you leave the main road, you won’t see a soul.”

The NPS ranger was correct as it turned out, and in 1995 we saw more wildlife (including grizzly, moose, caribou, and dall sheep) than I have ever seen on the trail. In July 2000, I returned with a few friends: Sikle, The Camel, and Smoky flew in from Charlotte. The Joker flew in from Chicago, and Candy A and I scored a direct flight from Atlanta. We planned a 17 mile hike to the infamous bus featured on the cover of Into The Wild, and after a late morning arrival at the park we secured a permit required for the hike. It was easier to get than I anticipated and we were set to leave the following morning on a park bus to reach our drop-off point.

At the backcountry office, we discovered that the park campground was full but a local suggested we squat along US 3 at a psuedo camping area tucked among some low lying bushes. We drove toward Healy and quickly found the site a few miles out of town. After some 360’s in the rental car, we pitched our tents and headed back to town for pizzas, beer, and local music. An acoustic guitarist cranked a few tunes at the local pizza joint and the place was packed with vacationers. Unfortunately, we had to cut the night short since none of us were packed and ready for the 10am bus departure. Around midnight, we headed back to the campsite, loaded our packs, and watched Smoky crush a Styrofoam cooler which he used as a seat – go figure. We sat around the campfire and had a few beers as Candy A sacked out. Around 2am, he stumbled out of his tent and was convinced that it was 7am (since the sun still clung to the horizon.)

The next morning, a few of the boyz and I hit the road around 9:15am. We stopped briefly at a small outfitter to get a new stove (since my old MSR quit working). We also loaded up on breakfast and a few last minute supplies at the local Quickie Mart. Our bus pick-up was scheduled for 10:30am at Riley Creek, just inside the Denali National Park boundary. I nearly got a hernia when I passed Smoky’s pack to the driver as we loaded it in the emergency exit of the bus. I estimated it at 80 pounds and wondered for a minute if The Joker had “rocked” Smoky’s pack. Actually, it was the sweatshirt, multiple t-shirts, and jeans that weighted him down (but their lives were short-lived as they met their demise in an impromptu – and illegal – campfire on the bank of the Teklanika River.)

It took an hour to ride the park bus to Zone 28, our drop-off point on the Teklanika. I mapped the most direct route to the infamous bus and intended on an immediate climb over the ridge to our northwest. The approach from Teklanika Campground is better, but we didn’t realize this until later in the day (and we paid dearly for the mistake.)

The first mile was a cruise as we hiked through ankle high bush and followed the river along a wide creek bank. We had a brief moment of excitement as Candy A’s boots fell from his backpack during a ford of the Teklanika; but he ran after them and eventually grabbed the shoelaces a half mile downstream, just before they disappeared into the canyon.

At this point, we had a critical decision to make – follow a drainage over the ridge or continue along the river bank. Initially, the latter made sense (and was strongly supported by Smoky who was already laboring under the back-busting pack.) The canyon looked deceptively easy from a distance (although the topographical lines indicated otherwise). So we agreed to push forward until the canyon walls forced us up the ridge.

Moose, grizzly, and wolf tracks covered the sandy shores of the river. We all expected to see wildlife at any moment but the distraction was short-lived. The canyon walls quickly forced us up the ridge and through thick alder and brush. Some of the bush exceeded six feet in height and we spent the entire afternoon fighting our way through it with mosquitoes blitzing our ears. After three hours, we had hiked only a mile. The bad karma continued until 5pm when we finally returned to the Teklanika River where we spotted a campsite two hours earlier while high on the ridge. After a short break on the sandy bank (and Smoky’s cremation of his wardrobe), we decided that we had picked a poor campsite. The canyon squeezed the Teklanika into a raging Class 4-5 grey soup, and the campsite would be dangerous if a storm hit during the night. We also had another problem. Our water source, a small stream across the river, required a ford. The Joker, a whitewater kayaker, easily convinced us that any attempt to cross the Teklanika here could be fatal.

So we trudged on (much to Smoky’s dissatisfaction) for about 90 minutes until we reached a moderately flat area about 20 feet above the Teklanika River. The area was covered with boulders that had fallen from the canyon walls, but it was 7pm and none of us had the energy to go any further (nor did we see a suitable campsite up ahead).

So we stopped, beaten and exhausted, to camp on a pile of rocks for the night – thank God for the Thermarest. Pumping water was very difficult this evening. The decent to the river was steep and covered with scree and the Teklanika was milky and rock laden from the glacial melt. We cooked up some dinner this evening and actually had an enjoyable evening until about 11pm when we crashed.

I woke up the following morning with The Camel whining at my tent door. As it turned out, he had a good reason for it. The Camel fell waist-deep into the river while getting water at about 7:30am. The rest of us were asleep and didn’t hear his pleas for help. Fortunately, he grabbed a small bush along the bank and avoided disaster.

So, we were up early this morning and made a decision to get the hell out of the canyon. The Camel went first to scout out the climb and the terrain on the other side of the canyon wall. He was at the top of the ridge when the rest of us started up the steep incline. It was a tough and brutal hike out. The canyon walls were covered with various boulders and scree. It took us at least an hour to climb the ridge, and Smoky was having a tough time with his heavy pack. Finally, The Camel and I decided to put him out of his misery and shot it out to see who would haul the backpack the remaining 300 feet. (The Camel got the honor.)

Once on top the scenery was amazing. After crawling along in the canyon, we now had 360 degree views which included the surrounding mountains, the Teklanika River, and the entire valley of Zone 28. Forest fires were raging east of the park and there was a lot of smoke in the air, but the views were still spectacular. We took a long break at the ridge and discussed our mission to hike to the bus. The Joker read a few pages of Into The Wild and matched the words with the scenery in front of us. Our goal was to position tonight’s campsite within a day-hike of the bus. As the day passed on, however, it became clear that this was not going to happen. We identified a campsite sitting high above a small canyon, and hiked through the spongy tundra down to it. The campsite sat forty feet above a mini-canyon centered with a small creek flowing east to the Teklanika River.

Once there, we set up camp around 5:30pm, chilled out for an hour, made a water/bath run to the creek, and cooked some dinner in a cloud of mosquitoes. The wind died down this evening, and the mosey’s were quite aggressive. The skeeter jacket came in handy during dinner, but I was content to lay in my tent and watch the insects attack Smoky’s socks as he and the others played Euchre and drank some spirits.

I tried to sleep during the night, but awoke constantly as the wind fought to rip my fly from the tent. Around 5am, it succeeded, and I spent the rest of the morning buried in my sleeping bag for protection from the cold wind. All of us were up early as a result, and by 8:30am decided to hike out today. There was little chance we would make the bus, and at least two members of the group were in favor of heading back to the road.

We did a dry breakfast this morning so we could get on the trail within an hour, then spent most of the day climbing over the ridge to 3800′ and to a pass that dropped us back to the Teqlanika River. We loaded up with water from a drainage stream during our climb up the ridge (which was a fortunate find) and did some sledding on a patch of snow near the crest. This was a nice diversion after a long climb to the ridge. We rode 2 and 4 people at a time down the steep slope, and the Thermarest cooked down the hill with all the extra weight. The trick was to bail out before the large puddle at the base of the snow bank. It collected the melt water from the snowfield and was a soak-fest for anyone that hit it. All said, the sledding was a major moral booster. The climb to get here was tough, but on the open grass it was nothing like the canyon. I mixed up some Kool-Aide, Iodine, and snow as we departed for the road. The mix made for a pretty righteous slushie (after I let it melt for 30 minutes.)

After 45 more minutes of climbing, we finally made it to a pass that gave us a view of the Denali Park Road and the Teklanika River. We were thrilled and estimated that we’d be standing on the road in an hour. So after a few pictures, we hit the trail. Unfortunately, the alder and bush were 6-8 feet tall at the lower elevations and extremely difficult to push through – even during the descent. The Joker and I took turns breaking trail and bruising our shins. Moose tracks were everywhere and so were the mosquitoes. After about an hour of hot, jungle style bushwhacking we eventually made it to the Teklanika River and the spot we had stopped two days earlier to discuss the climb up the drainage. It would have been hell either way.

Except for the river crossing, the final mile to the road was fairly easy. A ranger stopped to check our permit as we waited for the park bus. He asked where we had hiked during the last few days and we told him we had been in the canyon. The ranger said he had only been in there once, in 1987, to search for (and eventually find) the body of a missing woman. She was an experienced backpacker, but had gone solo and somehow fallen, injured herself, and drowned in the river. Apparently, it is very rare for anyone to go in the canyon, including the park staff.

We split our group in two to catch a ride out this evening. The first bus had only two seats which we filled immediately, so the rest of us caught a second and much less crowded shuttle back to our cars. We returned the bear canisters to the visitor’s center and then headed across US 3 to some cabins situated above a vendor area near the park entrance. We ate some pizza, drank many beers, and played Euchre to cap the night. Rain rolled in this evening but we were undercover by this point.

All said, this was a very challenging trip (much like my last visit here), and we ended up seeing more wildlife from the bus than we did on the trail. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed it and I look forward to making another trip here in the future.

~ BirdShooter


Click the Denali National Park Zone 28 destination page for access to photos, maps, and a trip report on this hike. For a detailed day-by-day account of this Denali hiking and backpacking adventure you can also follow this link to

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