A girlfriend of Sarah‘s suggested that we go to Denali National Park for our annual “SnL” (Sarah and Luc) vacation. The Alaska Range has not been on our radar for a few reasons: The terrain is harder and less forgiving than the Brooks Range and the Denali Park Road is closed due to a landslide. But this is just the point, argued Sarah’s friend … a rare opportunity to visit the Park without a lot of other visitors. So we did. (And you should too! This is a rare opportunity before the road is fixed … 2026?).
We messed up our timing. It was a classic thinking error, but because we’ve been going to the Brooks Range from mid-June to early July, we planned on that same window at Denali. The mistake is that the Alaska Range is 300 miles south of the Brooks Range, which means it gets warmer and buds out (vegetation grows) sooner, which means … mosquitos. Lots of them.
I can’t overemphasize how bad the bugs were. I grew up in McGrath—I’ve got a high standard for bad mosquitos—but this was much worse. My previous record for mosquitos killed with one slap was 50, set in the Lime Hills south of McGrath. Sarah killed 100 on this trip. The description in my trip diary progressed as follows: “bad bugs,” “uh-oh,” “very bad bugs,” “frazzled,” “insane bugs.”
A few notes on how we dealt with the mosquitos:
- Headnets: I prefer black mesh because it is easier to see through.
- Bugproof gloves: Sarah ended up wearing her ‘wind mitts’ (simple nylon shells) because her hands got too warm in her liner gloves.
- Bugproof jacket: We’ve always gotten away with wearing Houdini jackets (simple nylon shell) but the bugs were biting through this time! Crazy. A looser fit would have been better … we were soaked wearing the jackets and they could bite us where the fabric stuck to skin. I don’t like bug net jackets because they also trap a lot of heat.
- Deet: We spray deet on our hats, wrists, and outer clothing. But it is nasty stuff.
- Shelter: We got in the habit of putting our tent up for any prolonged break. It made a huge difference allowing us to relax.
After checking in with the Rangers and getting our permit, we caught the bus to the road closure at East Fork of the Toklat River. Carol, Sarah’s mom, joined for this part of the journey. A staircase leads visitors down to the riverbed for easy walking to bypass the road closure (4 miles?). We were there before active construction … my understanding is that the bypass is longer and more difficult during construction (you can check the road status here).
We debated clever ways to walk parallel to the road instead of on it. But it turns out that the road without traffic is great walking! We appreciated easy miles as we got in hiking shape. An unexpected bonus was that, because the road is often above the valley floor, we got to see a ton of wildlife: bears, caribou, moose, sheep. Wonderful distractions while walking 45 miles to Wonder Lake and Kantishna.
We’ve noticed this on other trips as well, but when the walking is easy (like on the Denali road), our thoughts and discussion are about human things instead of our surroundings. In this case, we kept pointing out slumps in the road, interesting road design features, etc. It was a reminder of how different the off-trail experience is—in ways that we both appreciate.
A resupply was waiting for us at Camp Denali, who were incredible hosts. We had our best views of ‘the mountain’ during our time at Camp Denali, and also our best meals! We ate dinner with the staff and laughed at the announcement that it would be ramen. Ramen is our go-to breakfast food … an easy 400 calories to start the day. But the Camp Denali ramen was … an upgrade ;). And don’t even get me started on the cinnamon rolls.
Now the hard part. After walking the trail from Wonder Lake to McKinley Bar, we started the off trail/road part of our journey, flanking the north side of the Alaska Range and wrapping our way toward Rohn. We had collected route information from a handful of friends (Taylor and John, Jen and Sam, Todd and Dusty), and had waypoints with labels like “Start of glory walking.”
Overall, the walking was excellent, punctuated by a few zones of challenging brush or vegetated moraine boulder fields. We stayed as high as possible to walk tundra instead of brush, and crossed each big river near its glacial snout.
The river crossings were intimidating. We had packrafts but preferred to wade because it was faster than messing with the boats. But the crossings were at our limit (and I consider myself an expert wader due to my time in swiftwater rescue courses). I’d lead, creating an eddy for Sarah, who held on to my pack. I couldn’t have done it without trekking poles, and even then, my hands were often underwater. A spill would have been a big deal, and in retrospect, we should have just taken the time to inflate our boats.
Here are a few tips about river crossings. And of course, these are just suggestions, not always applicable.
- Rock sounding: I’ve used this technique before but am now adopting the term from former Denali Ranger Daryl Miller. It is hard to judge depths in the opaque glacial water so we got in the habit of throwing large rocks and listening for when they hit the river bottom. We could usually identify the crux of the crossing based on water texture, and rock sounding provided data about depth. This is an incredibly effective tool.
- We might regret not crossing but we won’t regret having crossed. We spent a lot of time deciding where to cross each river based on the channel geometry and topo map. But in general, crossing early was good.
- Don’t cross a river where you first see it. We wasted some time trying to force crossings and then found easier options after walking a bit up or downstream.
- And of course, the standard strategies of looking for the widest section of the river, crossing between gravel bars, and using eddies behind rocks to take breaks.
This photo is not representative of the harder crossings, but it is all that I’ve got:
The highlight of the trip was a detour from the flank to go up the Herron and down the Chedolothna. We were optimistic that being closer to Mt. Foraker would bring in wind that would keep the mosquitos away and this turned out to be true. The hike is along a ‘moat’ … tundra walking and game trails on a terrace overlooking the Herron Glacier. A very cool setting.
We got to watch a cool weather effect where clouds pushed up from the south, climbed Foraker, and then dissipated on the north side.
Once we returned to the flank, we were reunited with the mosquitos. The bugs created a background stress that just overwhelmed the entire experience.
The zipper sliders on both entrances to the tent began to fail (zipper would split) and this was a scary situation—without a bug-proof shelter we would be absolutely miserable. We found same-size zipper sliders on a pocket in our backpacks, so Sarah fanned the bugs away allowing me to sew in the replacements. This was a huge relief, and about the thousandth time that a sewing kit and basic skills have paid off in the middle of a trip.
After a final push of hard travel we arrived at Perkypile, an airstrip, hunting lodge, and our resupply point. We had a duffle waiting for us with enough food to hike to Rohn and then packraft to Nikolai, where my parents could meet us in their riverboat. But it didn’t take much discussion for us to decide to pull the plug. For each justification we could find to continue, the counter was an overwhelming, “But this isn’t fun.” So we caught a charter to McGrath.
McGrath was also extremely buggy, so we didn’t stay with my folks for long. Also, the ice cream was prohibitively expensive.
It was a bit of a shock back home in Anchorage—walking around with bare arms and faces. Even when we did encounter mosquitos thorughout the summer, we were like, oh, this is nothing. I guess that is one upside of this trip … it set a new standard for what ‘bad bugs’ looks like.
Big thanks to:
Sarah and Caleb
Simon, Caitlin, and the crew at Camp Denali
Michael Litzen at Litzen Guide Service
John Brueck, Taylor Bracher, Sam Hooper, Jen Johnston, Todd Tumolo, and Dusty Eroh
JoAnne and Francis in McGrath!