“Would you like a banana?” The woman leaned over me, a look of concern on her face. I was sitting beside my backpack at the Polychrome Overlook waiting on a green shuttle bus, drying my hiking boots and socks in the early morning sun and trying to relax after spending the night on top of a nearby ridge. A tan tour bus had just rolled up to the overlook, suddenly shattering my sense of solitude as dozens of gawking tourists emptied from it.
“No, thanks. I’m fine.” Cranky from lack of sleep and feeling somewhat insulted by her worry that I was starving, I struggled to remain polite. The other tourists stared at me astonished like I was the first grizzly bear they saw in the park. Several people asked me what I was doing at the stop, and most of them were surprised to learn the park allowed backcountry camping—or that anyone would camp in the park’s backcountry—when I told them. As the passengers began reloading, another woman said to her husband, “Wait, let me get a picture of the camper!” Smiling giddily, she shoved her phone in my face and took a picture. I’m sure I wasn’t smiling.
Two more tan buses arrived soon after, and I immediately pointed to a cluster of Dall sheep on a nearby hillside when the passengers approached to keep them from bothering me. Finally, a green bus arrived and I climbed aboard, anxious to get to my next destination.
Private vehicles are not allowed beyond mile 15 of Denali National Park’s road in the summer without a special permit. Instead, a bus transit system is used to convey people throughout the park. There are two types of buses: green shuttle buses, which provide passengers the flexibility to stop and enjoy the wilderness at their leisure, and tan tour buses, which provide passengers a narrated tour at considerably higher cost but offer them no opportunity to explore the park on foot. The tan buses are filled with casual tourists, many of them fresh off a cruise ship or the train and simply checking a box off their Alaska sightseeing itinerary. The green buses carry some of the same people, but also some who plan to camp, hike, bike, or just sit and enjoy nature for a while during their time in the park. There are also “camper buses”, green shuttle buses specially modified to accommodate camping gear for people staying at a campground inside the park or in the backcountry. Not only are camper bus tickets the cheapest, but they also allow the holder to ride anywhere in the park on any green bus for seven days.
Camper buses rarely fill to capacity, but the measly three passengers on my initial bus ride into the park seemed pitifully few. The other two passengers were twenty-something brothers from Iowa who were visiting Alaska for the first time and camping in the backcountry as well. Before we reached the Savage River, our driver stopped to pick up two park rangers. The rangers and bus drivers typically know each other well, and one of the rangers seemed surprised that our driver was piloting a camper bus, asking if he would be doing so all summer. “No, I don’t have that kind of seniority,” said the driver. I asked them what made the camper bus special, fairly certain I knew the answer. The driver, careful not to sound disparaging, politely responded, “The clientele is better.”
While the permitting process required to stay overnight in the park’s backcountry is slightly cumbersome, and the bus ride into the park can be painfully slow, it is refreshing to interface with park rangers, bus drivers, and other backpackers who share the same incurable urge to be out there. On the other hand, it's disappointing to see the majority of park visitors taking only a superficial glance at the wilderness from a bus window. I can only imagine what it must be like dealing with some of the more oblivious tourists on a daily basis—like the one I overheard telling a bus driver she was worried because a couple of arctic ground squirrels appeared to be fighting each other. I wonder how she would have felt if she saw a grizzly bear swallow one whole.
One of the park rangers had extensive experience in the park’s backcountry, and he helped answer some of my questions about the terrain I was planning to explore on my current trip and a future trip to Peters Glacier. When I mentioned Peters Glacier, I could see the gleam in his eye.
“That unit is definitely underappreciated,” he said, referring to the management units into which the park’s backcountry is divided. As a photographer and hiker, I’m uninterested in competing with the thousands of perfect photographs of Denali taken from the vicinity of Wonder Lake, especially when there’s an infinite number of unique views available from the backcountry where I can also have fun exploring. Peters Glacier runs directly beneath the imposing Wickersham Wall of Denali, and I’ve become convinced there isn’t a better place to stand if you want to sense the full immensity of the mountain, besides perhaps the summit itself.
The park rangers exited near the Teklanika River rest stop, where the other passengers and I saw a bear ambling along the river. The afternoon sun was beginning to bake the bus interior, so I was happy to escape it when the driver dropped me off at a drainage on the east end of Polychrome Mountain. After a minute or two of hiking, the road was out of sight and I heard only the sound of rushing water in the creek beside me. After an hour, I reached a pass where hills, creeks, and ridges led off in every direction, with no sign of a human in sight. I picked a ridge to climb that would provide a good view of Denali and the sunset, then followed Dall sheep tracks to the top while skirting around the patchy snow still lingering on the ridge.
When I topped out on the main ridgeline of Polychrome Mountain, the park road came into view again far below. A tiny bus passed by, heading east toward the park entrance and civilization. A Dall sheep ewe sitting a hundred yards away down the ridgeline calmly watched me while I retrieved my camera gear from my pack. In the other direction, about a half-dozen sheep casually defied gravity as they grazed on cliffs just a stone's throw away. Denali was shining brilliantly in the warm light of early sunset—surely it had been a summit day for some fortunate mountain climbers. I photographed until the light faded and the temperature dropped below freezing.
I thought about climbing down the ridge after sunset and camping low where I would be warmer and more comfortable, but I wanted to see the alpenglow on Denali at sunrise, which was only a few hours away. Instead, I crawled into my sleeping bag and curled up against my backpack, dozing above a small snow ledge that provided safety against rolling down the steep scree slope below while I listened to music on my headphones. It felt about as comfortable as a coach middle seat on a three-hour plane ride, except my toes were also cold. After little more than an hour, the evening twilight morphed into morning twilight, skipping over the dark of night. Before I knew it, Denali was beginning to glow again with the pink light of dawn. Tired, cold, and hungry, I worked the camera for a short time, then hiked down to the pass below where I left my tent and food cache.
On the way down, new ice covered the small streams trickling down the ridge, and the muddy ground I encountered on the way up had frozen solid. When I reached the pass, I stopped to eat breakfast, then followed my footprints back to the road where I ate a second breakfast, brushed my teeth, and watched a few caribou grazing on the tundra for a while. The first bus wouldn't arrive for another two or three hours, so I decided to kill time by walking to the Polychrome Overlook, where I waited in peace until the aforementioned tour buses arrived.
After I boarded a green bus, the driver stopped a few miles down the road to pick up a group of four backpackers. Two of them sat next to me and we swapped hiking stories. Like me, they were Alaskans taking advantage of the unusually clear weather in the park. We laughed at our ostentatious bus driver, who dramatically retold the park's history and shared elaborate accounts of his past wildlife sightings of wolverines and marmots while the tourists oohed and ahhed. Maybe he used to drive a tan bus.
I had hoped to climb Gravel Mountain next and perhaps cross a pass from there into the Toklat River valley, but that was out of the question due to the snow still blanketing the higher elevations from a late May storm. (Or, rather, due to me being unequipped for snow travel.) Instead, I disembarked at a drainage just east of Stony Creek and went looking for a good place to camp since I was pushing 36 hours without sleep. The drainage narrowed into a small valley, where I found a sheep horn laying next to the creek. Looking up I saw sheep trails crisscrossing the mountainsides, and looking around I saw caribou trails crisscrossing the tundra. I hiked to a short pass leading to a neighboring drainage and found a perfect spot to place my tent. I buried my food cache in the snow to keep the sun from melting the Snickers bars inside and immediately went to sleep.
The next morning, I awoke to an odd sound. Mmph. Mmph. Still not fully alert, it took a few moments until I realized there was an animal outside my tent. I instantly sprang up, worried it might be a bear. However, after listening for a few seconds, I recognized it as the vocalization female caribou make to stay in touch with their calves. Sticking my head outside the tent, I saw a couple dozen caribou grazing just a few yards away. As soon as they noticed me, they scattered into the valley below. “That’s certainly not an experience you’ll get riding the bus,” I thought to myself.
Before heading back to the park road, I hiked up Stony Dome to get a view of Denali. From the top, I saw Stony Pass below, where a tan bus was stopped so passengers could take photos of the mountain. In the other direction I saw Highway Pass, with a couple buses spewing dust along the road’s length in between. I looked up at the summit of Denali, wondering if it was possible to the see the park road from there. I suspect it is, but at least you wouldn't be able to hear the incessant buzzing of the buses.
I hiked back down and stopped to retrieve the gear I left at the bottom. When I finished repacking, I looked up to see a group of nearly 100 caribou cows and calves descending the hillside directly across Stony Creek. They crossed the creek and proceeded up the hillside less than a few dozen yards to my left. I photographed them as they plodded by, careful to avoid making my presence known. After they disappeared from view, I thought, “That’s another experience you won’t get riding the bus.”
I walked to the Stony Creek bridge and waited until a camper bus arrived. Its only passengers were two mountain climbers fresh from an attempt on Denali’s West Buttress. They both spoke with heavy European accents and had old frostbite scars on their faces. One of them was a mountain guide and said his team never made it beyond 13,500 feet due to bad weather. They had camped in the park the previous night and were looking for another place to explore, and I pointed out some areas I thought they might enjoy as we rode to the Eielson Visitor Center together. The rangers there were discussing reopening the Eielson Alpine Trail, which had been closed earlier in the day after some hikers encountered a grizzly bear sow with cubs. I received a weather update, ate lunch, refilled my water bladder, and scoped out the terrain on the far side of the river for a potential future trip, while the mountain climbers studied the ridges of Denali, which was mostly visible despite heavy cloud cover.
We reboarded the bus along with some additional passengers who were heading back to the park entrance after hiking around the visitor center. The mountain climbers disembarked near the same place I camped the previous day, while I disembarked near the west branch of the Toklat River. I felt self-conscious as I unloaded my gear through the back of the bus, knowing the other passengers were all waiting on me. As I closed the back door, a woman sitting near the back smiled and said, "Have fun."
"I will." The bus pulled away slowly. Like flipping a switch, I was back in the wild again.
I donned my backpack and bushwhacked to the edge of the Toklat River. After a short walk upstream I was stopped by a large creek flowing into the river from the west. I found a braided spot and crossed the creek without getting my feet wet, then started following a social trail beside the river, which was also clearly used as a game trail by wildlife. A few caribou watched me hesitantly from the gravel bar as I passed them. Light rain was falling across the river, where a rainbow appeared every so often as the sun peeked through the clouds. Glancing behind me, I saw a bus chugging along beneath a band of sheep grazing on a patch of green hillside. It took several miles of walking before the road finally fell out of sight. After that, I found a soft, mostly dry bed of silt along the gravel bar and decided to make camp so I could reduce the weight of my pack for my push to the glacier at the head of the valley the next day.
As I began to set up my tent, I saw movement in the brush along the bank of the river just a couple hundred feet upstream. My initial reaction was "bear", but it turned out to be an off-duty park ranger on the way back from a day hike to the same glacier I planned to visit.
“I’m trying to hit 300 miles in the backcountry this summer," he said. "Today was an 18-miler.” He related how he inadvertently wound up in the middle of a grizzly bear sow chasing off its cub at one point, and how he saw another sow with two cubs that he recognized from earlier in the spring.
“I love this park. Where else can you hang out with the bears?” he said as he started walking away against the backdrop of Polychrome Mountain.
I didn’t expect to see anyone else that night. However, just before I crawled into my tent I saw a lone woman with a big backpack hiking upstream from the direction I had come. She was a college student from the lower 48 working in Seward for the summer who had come to the park on her first three-day weekend to go backpacking. She had caught the last available green bus to the Toklat River and started hiking after 8 p.m., which wasn't too late considering it wouldn't be dark in the park again until August. I told her I was planning to head to the glacier the next day and she said she would probably be heading that way but wasn't sure. She continued up the river to find a campsite, and I went to sleep.
The sun was rapidly burning off the clouds leftover from the night before as I started hiking upstream the next morning. The Toklat River valley is known for high winds, but there wasn't a breeze and I soon found myself shedding layers. Recent bear tracks on the gravel bar and the social trail paralleling it led in the same direction I was traveling, and I expected to encounter their owners eventually. Unlike other areas of the park still trapped in the shoulder season, the west side of the river valley had already turned a verdant green and most of the snow had disappeared. I passed several clear streams cascading down from the rocky ridges above which seemed etched on the stark blue sky. I also passed the college student's tent pitched on a grassy bench, but I couldn't tell if she was at her campsite or not.
At one point, a bluff pinching against the river blocked my way forward. It could have easily been circumvented by sidling around the edge but I didn't realize that until too late. Instead, I found myself staring down over steep rock at the river below, wondering how I had scrambled to a spot where I couldn't safely backtrack and wishing I had a helmet before I maneuvered my way down a chimney to safety on the far side. Another pinch point further upstream didn't present as much difficulty.
Occasionally, sheep and wolf tracks showed up on the trail next to the continuous bear tracks. I spied a couple groups of sheep on the hills above, but no bears or wolves. The heat emanating from the rocks on the gravel bar distorted the light as I scanned the valley floor ahead of me, just like looking down a desert highway on a hot, sunny day. Finally, a few golden objects appeared about a half-mile ahead. I couldn't clearly resolve the animals but they were unquestionably a grizzly bear sow and two cubs—surely the same ones the park ranger had told me about. I slowly walked forward until I could clearly see the animals. The sow seemed to look in my direction for a short moment and promptly went back to digging for roots. The river pinched against the east side of the valley in that spot, while a wide alluvial fan met the edge of the gravel bar on its west side. The bears were right in the middle, so I waited until they drifted close to the alluvial fan, then cautiously walked along the edge of the river past them. They didn’t bother to turn their heads.
The river appeared to pinch against the west edge of the valley several times farther ahead, so I preemptively started looking for a spot to cross where I could avoid wading through the icy water. I found a slab of collapsed ice that bridged most of the main channel, and it appeared to be a popular sheep crossing based on the recent tracks covering it. While I wasn't sure the slab would stay put with my weight on it, I thought, "If it's good enough for the sheep, it's good enough for me," and hopped across without issue.
As I continued the last mile or two to the glacier, summer seemed to reverse into winter. It became decidedly cooler and I was forced to put on my jacket. The green hillsides gave way to bare, rocky slopes with plenty of snow up high. The gravel bar itself became completely covered under snowpack and I felt like I was walking on the moon as I covered the final distance to the unnamed glacier. Scott Peak finally came into view with its completely glaciated northern face towering at the head of the valley. Afternoon clouds had arrived and were ruining the light for photography, but the glacier itself was completely covered in rock and snow and rather unpicturesque, anyway.
I didn't have much time to explore since it was my last day in the park and all the enticing places I wanted to go were at least an hour's detour, so I just ate lunch while I soaked in my bus-free surroundings. On the return, I unwittingly hiked past the location where I crossed the river earlier. The river eventually pinched against a steep hillside and I decided to try jumping across there rather than walking back upstream. I stepped onto the ice protruding over the river, testing it thoroughly with my trekking poles before putting my weight on it as I approached the edge. The river roared a couple feet below me and I couldn't see an inch below its surface. I didn’t want to go for an unplanned swim in the freezing water or break my leg on unseen rocks, so I carefully rehearsed the six-foot jump in my head and made sure my foot wasn't going to slip on the ice. I counted down from ten and leaped, landing gracefully among the rocks on the far side. I let out a triumphant yell, then looked behind me. My eyes widened as I saw just how thin the ice was that I had been standing on moments prior. Had I seen that first, I never would have attempted the jump, but I survived unscathed, nonetheless.
The pinch points I encountered earlier were incredibly easy the second time around. I quickly passed both of them and the rest of the way was a breeze. The college student's tent was still in the same spot, and I wondered where she might have gone hiking since I didn't encounter her along the river. By the time I stopped to pick up the gear I left at my campsite, the sun had finally broken through the clouds again and the afternoon was turning into a scorcher. The creek I easily hopped across the day before had become impossible to jump due to the rapid melting of snow and ice, but by the time I reached it I didn't care much about walking in wet shoes and quickly trudged through it.
I bushwhacked the final length to the road and started walking toward the Toklat River rest stop. A tan bus passed me from behind and dusted me as it went by, only to stop a short distance ahead so the passengers could view sheep on Polychrome Mountain. I walked past the bus and received a second dusting when it started moving again. I was already covered in four days' worth of dust, dirt, silt, mud, sweat, crowberry stains, and perhaps a little blood, but I felt like the bus driver and passengers deserved to do my laundry after that slight.
I flagged down a camper bus leaving the rest stop and climbed aboard. The bus was empty, so I struck up a conversation with the driver on the ride to the park entrance. He had been working in the park for decades and had seemingly hiked and climbed everywhere in it. He spoke in a gruff manner, befitting a wise old sourdough with seniority. I listened as he lamented some of the dying traditions of the park employees, including the waning popularity of the park's low-key half-marathon and the younger park rangers not spending as much time in the backcountry in their free time as they once did. He obviously loved the park—the real Denali National Park that provides endless opportunity to explore and the community behind it—and his disdain for those who failed to appreciate its greatness was fairly evident.
At one point, he became perturbed by another bus driver who had stopped along a cliff edge and seemed oblivious to our bus trying to pass—it was the same bus that had dusted me earlier. That started us talking about the different kinds of buses.
I said, “After the first time I rode the camper bus, I decided it’s the only bus I ever wanted to take into the park again.” He was not timid in offering his opinion.
“It’s the only bus a sane person would take. It’s the only bus a sane person would drive, if they can.”
Unfortunately, it seems insanity is rampant within Denali National Park. The good news is it can be cured by changing your bus ticket.