Backpacking Denali National Park Unit 10
30-mile adventure in Denali National Park Backcountry Unit 10, West Branch Upper Toklat River
August 21-23, 2020
In my experience, many outdoorsy Alaskans have spent more time in Yosemite than in Denali National Park. Even though it’s right in our backyard, Denali’s maddening bureaucracy makes wilderness trips there unappealing. Backcountry permits are extremely limited and only available via a quasi-in-person system that is easily and openly abused. The Doyon-run bus concession is disorganized and seems to have a strangely adversarial relationship with the NPS. Planning multi-day backcountry backpacking trips to Denali National Park is so likely to involve–or end in–frustration or disappointment that many Alaska backpackers ignore the park entirely.
But this year was different. The Covid-19 pandemic kept almost all out-of-state travelers away and the backcountry office changed their system to allow reservations two weeks in advance via e-mail. After a few back-and-forth messages I was able to secure all six available spots for Denali National Park Backcountry Unit 10, the West Branch Upper Toklat River. This is one of the most sought-after units in the park, and one that I’d wanted to visit for years.
It was bizarre that I could only get into Unit 10 due to a deadly global pandemic, but I can’t lie: I was thrilled. It was time to assemble a crew.
Day 0: The Crew heads to Denali
After some last-minute shuffling, the crew clicked together. We had a wide range of experience levels, but everyone was excited for a long weekend in the park.
On the afternoon of Thursday, August 20, 2020, we carpooled up to Denali, paid for a campsite at the nearly-empty Riley Creek Campground, and “masked up” before unmasking for a socially-distanced meal at 49th State in nearby Healy.
Day 1: West Branch Upper Toklat River
I thought that we’d dodged the Denali bureaucracy this year, but I was wrong. Doyon apparently wasn’t running enough camper busses to accommodate the number of backcountry permits issued by the NPS, and the bus operators told us that two of our group would have to stay behind. But after an hour of stressful suspense and confusing quasi-negotiations, things somehow worked out and we all found ourselves bouncing into the park together on the same green schoolbus. It wasn’t till we passed the park entrance that our frustration turned into something like relief.
People travel from all over the world just to experience the drive through Denali National Park. The sprawling panoramic views and colorful geology are captivating, and the wildlife seems about as eager to use the roads as the vehicles. We spotted several moose and a brown bear grazing in the tundra, and a caribou with a magnificent rack trotted down the road ahead of the bus.
Just after crossing the Toklat River bridge, at the convergence of the East and West Branch Toklat Rivers, the bus pulled into the Toklat River Rest Stop. We unloaded our gear, wrestled packs onto our shoulders, and ducked under the highway bridge before heading up-valley.
The most popular units in Denali National Park tend to be those those above treeline to the south of the park road, where flat-bottomed river valleys form broad corridors into the lower peaks of the Alaska Range. Even after plenty of research and experiences in other parts of DNP, I was still unprepared for how good the walking would be here. Aside from a few pinches where the river swung up against headlands on the side of the valley, moving through the landscape felt almost effortless.
Denali National Park is notorious for cool, wet weather, and despite the optimistic forecast none of us were surprised to see a wall of rain moving toward us from up the valley.
Before long the rain continued downvalley, leaving a picture-perfect rainbow in its wake.
As we moved up the valley the landscape became more and more sublime. The walking was open and easy. Stray raindrops drifted in the air around us. The mountains and glaciers ahead were lit with warm evening light, and behind us the rainbow flitted in and out of view, sometimes gaining a second arc and then becoming so vivid it looked like it had been spray painted onto the landscape.
About 6.5 miles of hiking from the road, the West Branch Upper Toklat drainage split into two branches. We decided to camp between the branches on the edge of a low bench, which required that we cross the western fork of the West Branch Toklat. I’d read that this creek is sometimes barely more than a trickle, but today it was charging with silty gray water.
Once across the river we started walking the few hundred meters to the edge of the tundra bench. A caribou ambled down the Toklat river floodplain, seemingly indifferent to the presence of people and cameras.
Once we reached the bench dropped our packs, peeled off wet socks, and set up our tents just as the light slipped off of the peaks.
For dinner we had dry-rubbed prime New York steaks, asparagus, mashed potatoes, and a bottle of Biale Vineyards wine. Someone dug out a speaker, and as I cooked the steaks the caribou we’d seen earlier ambled in circles around our cooking site. Maybe you could buy a better steak, but no amount of money could buy a more ridiculously bucolic Alaska experience.
After the bottle was kicked we switched to bag wine, before eventually making our way back to our campsite. At some point Ryan poked his head out of his tent to find the aurora rippling overhead, but I think he knew better than to try to wake us up for it.
Day 2: Glaciers, Waterfalls, and Summits
We crawled out of our tents into a calm, bright, promising morning.
As soon as we reached our cooking site we found that we hadn’t been the last ones there last night. A brown bear had apparently rummaged through our kitchen, scattering plastic wine glasses over the tundra and covering our cooking gear in slobber and stray bear hair.
After the trip, I reported the incident to the NPS and asked whether it had been irresponsible to cook steak and drink wine in the backcountry. The ranger I spoke with told me no: the important thing was that the bulk food had been secured in bear-resistant containers overnight. Still, this experience made me think more carefully about planning fun backcountry meals in the future. As the well-known long-distance backcountry adventurer Andrew Skurka advises on his website, “Bears are ‘resourceful’ omnivores… I do NOT carry strongly scented food or other items. These would include things like fresh T-bone steaks, slabs of bacon, deodorant, or sweet-smelling toothpaste.” While I love going the extra mile to create special experiences in the outdoors, I think Skurka is right. Wherever possible and within reason, we should be doing what we can to be creative and have fun while still mitigating the risk of interfering with wildlife.
After breakfast we stuffed day packs full with food, clothes, and cameras and headed up the western fork of the West Branch Upper Toklat River drainage.
In many Alaska mountains, moving upvalley toward retreating glaciers means moving fast-forwarding through geologic time: trees give way to scrub brush, brush gives way to fast-growing plants, and plants give way to loose rocks and eventually the decomposing face of the ice itself. The western fork of the West Branch Toklat was no exception. The valley floor above our campsite was predominantly made of loose jumbled rocks, signifying relatively recent deglaciation. The rocks here were amazingly varied, ranging from pale green conglomerates to boulders covered in sedimentary swirls and dark gray rocks shot through with brilliant veins of orange and red iron.
About two miles above our campsite we began to approach the face of the glacier, and it was clear that continuing up the valley would mean scrambling over loose moraines and glacial ice. Instead, we decided to wade across the top of the river, hike to a large waterfall on the west side of the valley, and then continue up the ridge toward a ~6400-foot summit that our maps called “Green Dome.”
We left the Toklat behind and made our way up a small new creekbed wrapped around the face of the glacier. Though the shrinking of the ice itself was imperceptable, the pebbles and rocks periodically tumbling down its face provided evidence that it was melting before our eyes.
After scrambling up a rocky v-shaped streambed cut into the glacial moraines we reached the base of the waterfall. It might not have been spectacular by, say, Yosemite standards, but as Alaska waterfalls go this one fit the bill. A thin ribbon of water cascaded from a narrow lip over crags of orange, black, and yellow rock before splashing down in a shallow pool. A few of us took photos, constantly wiping the mist from our lenses, while Karaline and Bryce hopped in for quick, cold backcountry showers.
After Bryce and Karaline dried off we scrambled up a steep slope of loose scree and rock on the south side of the ravine above the waterfall. In terms of Alaska backcountry experience, our group ran the gamut from “I do this stuff every week” to “this is my first time backpacking up here,” and we had very different reactions to this stretch of terrain. Some of us were completely comfortable–and others much less so. As hard as I tried, it was difficult for me to “see” this slope as anything but normal Alaska scrambling. Of course it was completely reasonable for others to feel uncomfortable scratching up crags interspersed with loose fans of rock that shifted underfoot with every step. We got up just fine, and I believe it was a positive experience for everyone–though for different reasons. For me, it was a good reminder to me that we all “see” and experience landscapes differently, and that a little empathy goes a long way in the backcountry.
At the top of the scree slope the view opened up again. We stopped to change clothes, eat, and debrief from the scramble.
We made our way up a rocky shoulder and into the scree-filled valley between Green Dome and Peak 6370 the south. The walking here was quick and the grade was much more relaxed.
During the orientation at the Denali backcountry office, the ranger had asked us not to post photos or reports from our trip. He had explained that they don’t want certain routes to become standardized, and want to preserve the experience of stepping into the unknown. I appreciate the sentiment but I disagree with the conclusion–and if you’ve read this far, to some extent you probably do too. I’ve learned an enormous amount and been endlessly inspired by reading the experiences of others. It would be hard to argue that the American Southwest would be better off without Edward Abby, or that the Sierras were harmed by the writing of John Muir. Sharing information helps people make better decisions about logistics, safety, etc. Moreover, public spaces like Denali National Park shouldn’t implicitly belong to small networks of people who know about them by word of mouth–they belong to everyone. In my opinion, sharing accurate information about the outdoors–while not without downsides–is a net positive.
That said, it would be misguided to try to replicate our trip. Weather, group needs, and conditions on the ground are constantly in flux. Unit 10 is huge, and dozens of routes would have been just as good–if not better–than ours. If you plan a trip here, make your own footsteps. The constant process of assessment and adjustment in the backcountry is half the fun.
As we approached the pass the walls of the valley pulled in tightly, and we kicked steps up a gully of old weathered snow. Then we hit the pass, and the views blew wide open. All around us were mountains beyond mountains, rivers, glaciers, rainbows, swirling clouds, and rocks of every color. Far away, the immense white crest of 12,096-foot Mt. Mather drifted in and out of view. If you stood in one place and slowly turned in a 360, every degree held landscapes worthy of a painting.
Everyone had agreed to make the pass and then decide whether to push on to the summit of Green Dome. Once we had reached this point and had a break, it was clear that no discussion would be needed.
The 3/4-mile hike from the pass to the summit of Green Dome was spectacular. The grade was low, and the fine, colorful gravel underfoot felt like it belonged in an immaculately-curated Japanese garden. I tend to think of the big riverbeds as the premier hiking destinations in Denali National Park, but nothing could possibly beat this tiger-striped 6,000-foot catwalk.
As far as we could tell there was nothing green about Green Dome, but the view from the top of its red-yellow-gray-striped summit crown was what really mattered.
The word that comes to mind most to me when I think of Denali National Park is “expansive.” Despite the imaginary bureaucratic lines drawn all over the Park–and the winding road in the distance–the rumpled and cloud-dappled landscape here had a feeling of endlessness to it. It would take many adventurous summers to explore every summit, creek or canyon even in the lower reaches of the Park.
Rainclouds drifted around us, and far off we saw the flash of lightning. It was late and the wind was picking up. We scrambled down the east ridge of Green Dome, straight toward the Toklat two thousand feet below us.
The ridge was mellow, and the steepest part was the cut onto the riverbed. We scouted for a good place to cross the river, but eventually decided to walk back up to the same spot we’d forded earlier in the day.
Back at camp we changed socks, pulled on down coats, and boiled water for food. It had been a long, full day. Before long we packed up our cook site and headed for the tents.
Day 3: Benches and Busses
My alarm went off just before the sun crested the mountains. After a few minutes of bleary-eyed toothbrushing, our whole group set off for a morning recon hike up the eastern fork of the West Branch Upper Toklat River.
We stayed high on a series of tundra benches interrupted periodically by v-cut creek ravines. The benches were so flat and the walking in the morning sun and cool air was so peaceful that I almost felt like I was still in my sleeping bag
One by one, members of the group peeled off to lie down or nap in the tundra. Ryan and I continued on to the edge of the last bench, scrambled across a small rocky ravine, and popped back up on a ridge that allowed us to see back into the next drainage. The remains of the unnamed glacier that carved this valley sat between nameless rocky peaks.
For the second time during this trip, I was hit by the bittersweet realization that I would never have enough lifetimes to explore all of the extraordinary country back here. This is a feeling that I’ve grown used to in Alaska, and it’s something that I feel to varying degrees almost every time I step outdoors–whether in the Chugach, Brooks Range, Alaska Range, Talkeetnas, or even the social trails on the Anchorage Hillside. But in some places the feeling hits hard. Denali National Park will always be one of those places.
As much as I wanted to push on, we didn’t have the time. Ryan and I scrambled down the ravine and headed back across the tundra benches toward camp.
Back at the campsite we squeezed the air out of our sleeping pads and started breaking down our tents. It was still early in the day, but there were miles to cover and we were anxious to make it back to the road in time to intercept the camper bus.
The West Branch Upper Toklat River was familiar country now, and retracing our steps back down the valley was easy and quick. We barely stopped to study the colorful side streams or photograph the caribou, but we were still aware that we were traveling through beautiful country.
The weather became untrustworthy as we neared the road, and as we crossed the broad river valley near the confluence of the West Branch and East Branch Toklat Rivers we saw lightning over the next set of peaks. Shortly before reaching the road, another group of hikers passed us heading upriver. We wondered what the weather had in store for them. We’d been told by NPS staff that this had been an especially wet and cool summer, and we’d nailed one of the only sunny windows in months.
Eventually we reached the park road, crossed under the bridge, and dropped our packs at the rest stop where we’d started. After three eventful days we were still in good spirits but itching for showers and home.
Unfortunately, we still weren’t done with Denali’s bureaucratic dysfunction. Many transit busses came and went, but when the camper bus finally arrived we were informed that Doyon had booked it full of sightseers. We’d have to wait several hours for the second and last camper bus–which was heading in the other direction to the end of the park road, before returning to the entrance. Denali National Park isn’t the worst place to be marooned, but after rushing to make it back to the Toklat River Rest Stop in time this was frustrating.
Finally, the second camper bus rolled into the dusty lot. We were happy to get off of our feet and curl up to nap in the vinyl seats.
As the bus trundled pointlessly to the end of the park and back it slowed down so that we could watch a bear graze on the hillside. It was relaxing to watch the bear from the inside of the bus, not having to think about where we’d stashed our bear spray or whether we’d properly stored our food.
We got back to the cars in the early evening, said our goodbyes, and headed for home.
A few days later, I was on the phone with one of the less experienced members of the trip to coordinate a gear exchange. The Denali Unit 10 trip had been this person’s first experience with multi-day Alaska backpacking.
“That was a really, really, really good trip,” I said. Everything beyond the park road had been nearly perfect: the group, the weather, the terrain, the level of challenge, the wildlife… everything. It had been almost misleadingly good. “That’s not normal,” I cautioned. “Just so you know, most trips don’t go that well. That’s really rare. I mean, if every trip were that good, backpacking is all anyone would ever do.”