The six-million-acre DENALI NATIONAL PARK, 240 miles north of Anchorage, is home to Mount McKinley, which is often shrouded in cloud. The mountain is far from the park’s only attraction, however. Shuttle buses offer a glimpse of a vast world of tundra and taiga, glaciers, huge mountains and abundant wildlife – the Park Service reports that 95 percent of visitors see bears, caribou and Dall sheep, 82 percent moose, and more than one-fifth wolves, along with porcupine, snowshoe hare, red foxes and more than 160 bird species. Visiting Alaska without trying to see Denali is unthinkable for most travellers, and therein lies a problem. In high summer, the visitor centre and service areas out on the Parks Highway are a stream of RVs, tour buses and the like. Things pick up in the park itself, and backcountry hiking, undertaken by only a tiny fraction of visitors, remains a wonderfully solitary experience.
In winter, Denali is transformed into a ghostly, snow-covered world. Motorized vehicles are banned and travel, even for park personnel, is by snowshoe, skis or dogsled as temperatures dive and northern lights glitter over the snows.
Backcountry camping is the best way to appreciate Denali’s scenery and its inhabitants. Don’t expect it to be easy though, as there are no formal trails and with thick spongy tundra and frequent river crossings even hardy hikers find themselves limited to five miles a day. The park is divided into 87 units with only a limited number of campers allowed in 41 of them. Free permits are available one day in advance from the Backcountry Information Center, facing the Wilderness Access Center, though high demand means you should be prepared to hike in the less popular areas. The BIC will also teach you about avoiding run-ins with bears and issue you with bear-resistant food containers.