Seeking out Alaska’s Denali National Park in a summer of overcrowded outdoor spaces
By Chris Moody,
This summer, desperate to take a break from the relentless dramas of the world, I began searching for a national park where I could seek refuge.
I wished to spend a few days taking long hikes in solitude. I longed for a quiet place to process the events of the past year, out of reach from a cellphone tower. I wanted to spend nights listening to a ranger in a flat hat tell me obscure facts about the polygamous mating habits of subarctic wolverines.
The problem, of course, is that everyone else did, too. After a year of sheltering from the long arm of the coronavirus, Americans collectively longed to be outdoors in massive numbers, and we looked to the nation’s protected natural spaces to scratch the itch.
This summer, national parks have been more crowded than ever. Although official numbers won’t be reported until early next year, many parks are on track to obliterate their visitation records. The flood of humanity pouring onto the nation’s public lands is so robust that popular parks such as California’s Yosemite retained systems for ticketed entry that were launched in 2020 to facilitate social distancing. In Colorado, Rocky Mountain initiated a timed-entry program. At Arches in Utah, would-be explorers have been turned away at the entrance. At Zion, where trailheads can come with four-hour wait times, the overworked staff has warned those seeking solitude to “adjust your expectations.” The park webpage even asks potential guests to consider not coming to Zion at all.
The cries of woe rang loud enough to be heard in D.C., where, in July, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on park overcrowding. Kristen Brengel, a senior vice president for the National Parks Conservation Association, warned that heightened visitation is bringing newcomers to the park who struggle to know how to behave.
“Alongside crowding, increased visitation has resulted in alarming upticks in graffiti, litter, social trailing and improperly disposed-of human waste in parks,” Brengel reported.
While visiting national parks, I try to remain as far away from these kinds of people as possible. When it comes to time spent in nature, I can’t help but lean on Jean-Paul Sartre’s axiom that, indeed, hell is other people.
To find peace in a national park during this strange but not-quite-post-pandemic summer, I would need to find one that was far away and fairly difficult to reach. So I searched for one of the most distant campgrounds in the National Park system, a place with a high probability that it wouldn’t be ruined by the clang of a Bluetooth speaker or someone who insists on taking a call over speakerphone.
A backpacker steps off the bus in Denali National Park before venturing into the Alaska backcountry.
I found my Shangri-La in faraway Alaska, at Wonder Lake, a jewel of a campground, 88.5 miles deep inside Denali National Park and Preserve. It is a campground so distant and restricted that it would surely weed out much of the Great Unwashed, leaving its 28 campsites to those of us — also unwashed, actually — willing to make the journey. Nestled near a glacial lake with direct views of the Alaska Range, it is reachable only after enduring a jolting eight-hour ride over a dirt road on an old school bus. Most private vehicles are restricted to within the first 15 miles of the park, leaving the rest of Denali’s 6 million acres accessible only to those willing to strike out on foot, bicycle or bus. (Unfortunately, an Aug. 24 landslide shut down the campground and parts of the road for the remainder of 2021.)
Wonder Lake is also the closest developed campground to Mount Denali, the tallest mountain in North America at 20,310 feet. Long before White people came to Alaska, locals called the towering mountain Denali, which means “the Great One” or “the High One,” until an American gold prospector decided to name it after William McKinley, the Republican presidential nominee in 1896. The name remained in place until President Barack Obama changed it back to Denali in 2015.
The ironic twist about Denali National Park is that only a small number of visitors actually ever get to see the mountain for which the park is named. Mount Denali creates its own weather and is often obscured by clouds. As many as 70 percent of visitors exit the gates of the park after their trip without laying eyes on even a sliver of its veiled face.
This summer turned out to be an ideal time to make the trip to Wonder Lake. Because of pandemic restrictions, only visitors with reservations for one of the 28 spots or a backcountry permit were allowed to visit. Those without them would be stopped at a visitor center about 20 miles away. Because Alaska’s cruise industry was restricted this summer, thousands of people wouldn’t be there, either.
Surely, this would be the place I was looking for. But first, I would have to get there.
After a long flight to Fairbanks and a three-hour bus ride to the park, my wife and I lugged our backpacks loaded with camping gear and two weeks of food onto a green school bus that would carry us inside the park. A family with a young child plopped down in front of us. Before the driver started the engine, the boy’s father queued up a Disney movie on his smartphone and thrust the glowing screen in front of the child’s face, leaving the sound on full blast. (The American people, we know, lost their collective minds during the pandemic; many of them also seem to have misplaced their ear buds.) As we drove west into the park, along one of the most majestic roads in the entire world, past ancient glaciers, tundra with grazing caribou, rocky peaks dotted with white Dall sheep and deep valleys flowing with glistening, braided rivers, the boy kept his head down and watched Mickey while the rest of us sat listening to the mouse squeak out his lines. Sartre was only half right: Hell is other people’s children.
The ground of the Alaskan tundra bursts with summer life, including a feast of edible berries.
A lone caribou stands atop a ridge, spotted through the lens of binoculars.
The bus system allows riders to hop on and off almost anywhere along the route, so we took several buses before reaching Wonder Lake. Denali is unlike most national parks, in that there are few marked trails, and rangers encourage guests to wander. Because of this, almost any sojourn into Denali feels like a true adventure. We exited the bus 40 miles into the park, near friendly-looking ridgelines, and, as encouraged, we walked off into the wilderness.
We entered the tundra, which, contrary to popular imagination — the word “barren” is often incorrectly used to describe it — is lush with life. Because of permafrost below the surface of the ground, only plants with shallow root systems can survive on the tundra. In summertime, a cushion of moss, lichen, dwarf shrubs and bushes bursting with fresh berries blanket the ground. For hikers, this combination of plant life produces a spongy trampoline effect that makes it feel as if you’re bouncing on the moon. On a sunny day, this bed of greenery, fragrant with crushed blueberries that smells like a scented candle, makes an enticing place for a midday nap. Alaska’s long summer days, when there’s barely a hint of night to be found, relieve the worry of returning to civilization before dark. Spread atop the soft tundra moss, my belly full of handpicked berries, I happily let my sense of time drift away.
Back on the bus, we settled in for the long haul to Wonder Lake. We passed grizzly bear mothers lumbering alongside cubs, flocks of ptarmigans and scurrying porcupines.
Our bus, caked in dirt, groaned its way to a halt at the distant campground in the late afternoon. Like seats in an amphitheater awaiting a performance before the curtain rises, the campsites were spaced out along a gently sloping hill that faced Mount Denali, which was covered by clouds.
Jeff Brown, the campground’s full-time volunteer host who lives in a Winnebago Minnie Winnie on-site during the summer with his wife, Wendy, welcomed newcomers. A trim retiree with a naturally calming presence, Jeff spent most of his career working for nonprofits that support the Park Service.
A grizzly bear roams the tundra in Denali National Park and Preserve.
Jeff explained that, because of the threat of grizzly bears — of which there are as many as 350 within the park — we were required to cook and eat our meals beneath a communal pavilion next to a locked room for food storage.
“I have a particular interest in bears,” Jeff told me. “I was pretty severely mauled by a grizzly bear.”
This was in 1986, before bear spray was widely available on the market, when he and a friend were hiking in Montana’s Glacier National Park. They heard a growl and turned around to see a bear charging. His friend tried to scramble up a tree, but the grizzly sank his teeth into her body. Jeff punched the bear in the head, and it dragged him into a meadow, mauling his arms, torso and legs with its jaws and claws. Before leaving, it took a final bite out of his hip. His friend, who was still alive but bleeding dangerously fast, went off to find help, and they were airlifted out of the park. Jeff spent weeks in a hospital bound like a mummy with bandages. The bear, a doctor told him, had missed slicing his femoral artery by a millimeter.
I couldn’t help but look at his arms, which were covered in scars, ongoing reminders of the attack
“So anyway,” he said after telling me this story. “I have a thing with bears, and wanting people to be safe and understand them.”
Living so far from civilization, the Browns have to be creative thinkers to do their job well. When a family arrived with large rolling suitcases and a pass to camp deep in the backcountry, Jeff set them up in a formal campsite instead with flush toilets. A woman once asked Wendy whether, when applying bear spray to her body, she should apply it to her skin and clothes; Wendy deftly explained that it is a form of potent pepper spray designed to stop 400-pound grizzly bears. When a family asked how they should cook their food, the Browns offered them an extra stove. And when our own tent flooded with several inches of standing water after the worst rainstorm of the entire season, the Browns gave us a new one to borrow, right out of the box. Despite being so far from home in a land that felt so foreign and remote, we felt in safe hands.
The author takes an afternoon nap on the soft, bedlike tundra near Wonder Lake.
I awoke early on our second morning in camp to find that the mountain was, finally, out from behind the clouds and on display in all of its unfiltered glory. Its snow-covered peaks towered over the other giants of the Alaska Range, standing like a god among mortals. “The Great One” indeed. When the young day’s sun rose above the ridgeline, a burst of red and orange light exploded from the top of Denali and made its way down the face as though an invisible hand were pouring syrup over a scoop of shaved ice. Throughout the morning, the mountain was ever-changing, as though it were a living being: Shadows began to appear, revealing its texture and definition. Puffs of clouds hovered as if pausing to gaze upon it before drifting off to other sky lands.
I sat and watched for hours that morning, and it dawned on me that I was completely alone before this masterpiece, without even the whisper of another human voice or distraction.
Just as I had hoped, I had indeed found my refuge in a national park.
Moody is a writer based in Chattanooga, Tenn. Find him on Twitter: @moody.
Please NotePotential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.
More from Travel:
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments at www.washingtonpost.com/coronavirus
If you go
What to do Denali National Park and Preserve Mile 237, Highway 3, Denali Park
907-683-9532 nps.gov/dena Open year-round, Denali National Park and Preserve is home to Mount Denali, the highest peak in North America at 20,310 feet. Seven-day passes $15 per person, but children 15 and younger are free; annual park passes for up to four adults, $45. A single 92-mile road winds through the park. Most personal vehicles are prohibited past Savage River Bridge, about 15 miles into the park. With limited exceptions, those who wish to venture farther during summertime must reserve a seat on a bus operated by a park concessionaire (
). In shoulder seasons, the road is open to private vehicles as far as Teklanika River, depending on conditions. The park has six campgrounds (about $16 to $34 per night) or guests can apply for a backcountry camping permit. Private hotels near the entrance will provide transportation to the park. Fly Denali Healy River Airport: 2.2 Healy Spur Rd., Healy
907-683-2359 flydenali.com For a thrilling aerial view of the park, Fly Denali provides “flightseeing” charters, with packages that includes a glacier landing. Glacier Landing Tours $599 for adults; $479 for children for children 10 or younger. Information travelalaska.com C.M.