by Danielle Benson
Our first experience at Denali National Park and Preserve was two summers ago, when we were still fairly new Alaskans. We reserved a camping spot at accessible Riley Creek Campground, pitched the family tent, ate ice cream at the Mercantile Exchange in the evenings, and attended the daily campground Ranger Talks. We took the park shuttle to the dog kennels, drove our own car out to Savage River and hiked up and down the popular trails. It was a beautiful trip that left us all wanting to see more. Much more. “Next time we want to go as far out as possible,” the young nuggets told me.
I admit to feeling equal parts fear and giddy excitement at their grit. “As far out as possible” in Denali is really an impossible, incomprehensible goal, but my children remained undeterred. So I researched it all. Backcountry camping in Denali is very unique, as there are no specific trails, so I wasn’t confident enough to try it with kids, yet. Wonder Lake Campground at mile 85 of the Park Road is the farthest campground out from the Visitor Center, but visions of a sick or injured kid, along with unknown of a long bus ride, pushed this campground to another year as well.
As an over-achieving researcher, I picked out Teklanika River Campground, or “Tek”, as this year’s Denali destination, and it was the perfect baby-step to venturing farther into the park.
Tek is a special campground with several rules that ultimately result in many benefits. Planted at mile 29 of the Park Road, campers are allowed to drive their personal vehicle or RV past the Savage River checkpoint to Tek, as long as a reservation is made for at least three nights. I took comfort in being able to keep our car at the campground in case of an emergency, and the location also shaved an hour off of shuttle bus rides farther into the park (When our bus left the Visitor Center at 6:45 a.m., it didn’t reach Tek to pick us up until 7:55 a.m.).
The campground has potable water, food storage lockers, and well-maintained pit toilets. The nuggets noted that while Tek’s mighty wind gusts created an alarming roar of a breeze up the rear end while using the pit toilets, the smell was never bad (a glowing endorsement).
Our first full day, we chose to use our Tek pass given to all campers, and the shuttle bus ticket gave us access farther into the park. This bus pass was a great deal, as it provided us with five guaranteed seats on our first day, and since kids under 15 were free, so it only cost us the price of two adult fares. I reserved us seats on the Wonder Lake bus, but I fully expected to disembark at Eielson Visitor Center about three hours after leaving the campground, to participate in a free ranger-led hike.
I booked Wonder Lake as a gamble, just in case the nuggets could handle it, and my bet paid off. “Days like this only occur about three times a summer,” we overheard an Eielson park ranger telling another guest. The day was idyllic. We had seen three brown bears on the way out. It was deliciously warm, breezy, and brilliant with a crystal-clear view of Denali in all her glory.
We decided to squeeze as much as we could out of the experience, and it was a perfect day to head out to Wonder Lake. After taking a quick vote, we loaded back onto our original bus and savored the last hour ride out. We road the shuttle all the way down to the Wonder Lake campground, battled the mosquitos, and then road the bus about a mile back up to the “Y” in the road. Our driver told us that the sought-after picture of Wonder Lake with Denali in the backdrop was even farther down the main Park Road towards Kantishna, and we were welcome to walk out to it, if we were willing to give up our five guaranteed seats.
Other bus riders seemed alarmed that we were giving up the security of our seats, and the bus driver cautioned us to pay attention to the return bus schedule so we wouldn’t get stuck out overnight. As I watched the back of our bus head back toward civilization, I admit to thinking, “Yikes, I hope we don’t become those people you read about in the news.” (This story was recounted by several park rangers.) We spent over an hour hiking around the reflection pond and exploring the tundra around Wonder Lake beneath the magnificent mountain. It was an afternoon none of us will soon forget.
We felt rewarded for our adventurous spirit when a completely empty shuttle bus rambled down the road towards us a mere five minutes after making our way back to the “Y” intersection. The driver, Bob, confirmed we could hop on and ride all the way back to our campground. The kids called it “The Angel Bus Sent for Stragglers.”
Hiking up and down the wild and along braided Teklanika River right next to camp took up the rest of our time in Denali. We spent hours heading upriver, and then climbed through the woods to explore the downslope. Feeling wildly and happily alone, we didn’t see other people until venturing back towards the campground. Hats and sunglasses proved to be great protection from the gusting wind that whipped up sand and dust from time to time. Bear, moose and caribou tracks were a constant reminder to alert and vocal. When a rare lull in conversation occurred, my three kids filled the quiet by singing the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, of all things. They also made fearless plans for our next Denali adventure.
They’ve asked me to figure out how to tent camp at Wonder Lake, and then spend a couple of nights backcountry camping from there. I feel like I am trying to protect and hold back a huge wall of water, and at some point I’m going to have to turn around and surf the wave out of my comfort zone.
But first, loads of research.
- I’ll remember to bring books or other small activities for the bus ride. I totally forgot to tell the nuggets to grab something to do. They were troopers, but were envious of the teenagers reading novels and listening to music along the road.
- I’ll bring more food. We carried breakfast, a light lunch, water and a few snacks onto the bus. If we had even more food, we would have munched away happily.