Denali Backcountry: The ultimate wilderness escape

denali backcountry

A guest post by Terry Hammond from Drive and Hike.


I stare out of the window as a grizzly bear rears up to scratch itself on a tree. This is my first wild brown bear sighting and two things cross my mind; wow, that thing’s huge and that song from the Jungle Book.

As the bus driver pulls over and shouts Stoney Creek, a combination of excitement, disbelief and apprehension floods over me. This is our stop.

As the shuttle bus heads out of sight, the first thing which hits us is the silence. We (my wife and I) are now firmly in Denali backcountry. Our home for the next 4 days.

denali backcountry

No battle plan survives first contact

With no marked trails, routes or designated campsites you really are free to make your own adventure. We had decided to head north from the road along the gravel bank of Stoney Creek into unit 39, where we would be spending the night.

This plan lasted less than a minute.

As we waded into the alpine tundra, with all the grace of small children, we scared 2 caribou who bolted east, only to go back to grazing a mere 50 meters away from us. We decided to follow.

Following the caribou took us into the heart of the park and away from the road. After 20 minutes they got away from us and instead of backtracking we decided to check our maps and create a new route.

Denali backcountry is freedom like no other; our entire plan had fallen apart in mere seconds just because we saw something cute. We looked at each other and grinned, realizing that this was the adventure we’d been looking for.

denali backcountry

Radial hiking

Given the weight of our packs, (you need to be entirely self sufficient for your duration in Denali backcountry), we decided to hike into one unit and camp there for the duration of our time. Due to dense bush river crossings and animal sightings you should anticipate to cover 1 mile an hour with packs on.

By radial hiking you greatly increase the distance you can cover. We chose this option so we would be able to explore unencumbered and really soak up the wilderness all around us.

However, as always in Denali backcountry, this is your experience. If you want to see different sections of the park you can thru-hike or use the camper bus to explore different sections.

denali backcountry


This gigantic national park (bigger than New Hampshire) is split into 87 units, with 41 of them having a camping quota. Each unit varies in size, shape and terrain; they are built from boundaries such as rivers, ridge lines or the road.

Our little slice of paradise was one of those where only 4 people were allowed to spend the night. If the other 2 spaces were taken, we never saw them. We were kept company instead by the mountains, stars and the Northern Lights.


Denali backcountry is untouched but accessible wilderness. Nowhere else in the world do hikers have the same level of flexibility to shape their own adventure. Denali really is a must do for anyone who loves the outdoors.




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