Venturing into the deep natural pockets of Denali National Park doesn’t have to mean completely leaving civilization behind. In fact, basing your stay in a high-altitude lodge gives you the ability to push as deep into the park as you wish to go, with a basecamp at which to recoup, refuel, and refresh over a glass of wine while planning the next day’s adventure. This itinerary is for the true backcountry enthusiast, with the proper gear and knowledge for three days in the wilderness, but also for people who’d rather sleep on a real bed instead of the ground. It starts bright and early with a bus ride, so you’ll want to have your gear packed up and ready to go the night before. This includes snacks and a raincoat. Each night, you’ll rest comfortably inside the Denali Backcountry Lodge.
Be ready to load onto the bus at Denali Cabins at 6:00 AM sharp. Don’t worry about grogginess — the crisp air will wake you up if the coffee doesn’t. The next six hours follow our one-day bus tour itinerary, with stops at Polychrome Pass, Toklat River, and the Eielson Visitor Center.
By 12:30 PM or so, you’ll reach your destination, the Denali Backcountry Lodge. A huge spread of food greets fresh arrivals along the back wall of the main dining room, from fresh hummus and platters of colorful vegan options to five kinds of sandwiches and Alaskan berry shortcake. Enjoy it thoroughly, as you’re going to burn plenty of calories over the next few days.
A sign-up sheet on the wall across from the check-in desk is where you need to head to register to burn those calories. There are loads of guided activities for each of the three days — the best course of action is to sign up for hikes and a two-day bike rental. Sign up right away for the Eagle Point to Wickersham Dome hike on day two, allowing a full day for it. On the afternoon of day one, squeeze in a two-hour easy hike to Blueberry Hill around 3:00 PM, allowing enough time to check-in, unpack, and take the first night pretty easy.
An introductory hike
Your guide will meet you and fellow hikers outside the lodge later that afternoon to head out for the hike. They shuttle you to the edge of Wonder Lake, and the short and sweet 0.6 miles keeps both the water and Denali in the distance at all times. You’ll learn about each of the edible berries and plants used medicinally by Alaska’s various indigenous tribes, and try a few wild blueberries and cloudberries for yourself — they’re tangier than you’d expect. Despite these being your first real steps on the alpine tundra, the weather is likely to be pleasant and mild.
Dinner, drinks, and stories
The tour arrives back to the lodge around 5:00 PM and gives you a chance to mill about until dinner time. Grab a fresh cup of coffee and a bench along Moose Creek and let the sound of the water calm any nerves that aren’t already relaxed. A small bridge crosses it about a hundred yards away, with easy access to explore the nearby trails should you need a bit more physical exertion.
After a dinner of fresh-caught fish, catch the staff’s presentation on the adorable and increasingly endangered pika — the inspiration for Pikachu, you learn — and then head up to the upstairs lounge where the fireplace crackles, the wine flows, and the board game shelf is massive.
You signed up for a doozy today: hiking Eagle Point to Wickersham Dome. This 7.5-hour guided hike meets outside the lodge at 8:00 AM. Be sure to bring lunch from the lodge packed in your bag.
The hike starts by crossing Friday Creek, through an alder thicket, and almost immediately up, up, and up. The vegetation is knee-high and the trail is occasionally muddy, but with a guide you’ll have no issues. The guide will stop frequently along the shoulders of the trail to discuss the native flora, fauna, and geological history of the park. You’ll be able to see Peters Dome, a mere sliver of a mountain compared to Denali — though still 10,000 feet tall. This “tiny” peak is equivalent to the highest point in all of Glacier National Park, to put into perspective the grandeur of the very terrain you’re walking on.
Rest at the top of the ridge and look down onto the Kantishna Valley. The lodge is a nice little orange speck from here. The tundra walk continues over the shoulder between Friday Ridge and Wickersham Dome, where there’s a nice spot for lunch. From here, it’s all descent. There’s an old mining road that’s steep and long but delivers you right back to the lodge.
You’ll arrive in time to shower quickly and head to dinner. Spend the rest of the day on the back porch or in front of the fireplace, barely moving a muscle.
Sleep in a bit today — long hikes tend to demand that effect — and catch the breakfast smorgasbord in its last 20 or so minutes. Grab all the fresh fruit you can fit onto your plate between slices of French toast, and take your time. Before your first activity leaves in another hour or so, wander the botany trail on the edge of the lodge and try, probably with low success, to identify the plants the guide pointed out yesterday.
Paying tribute to a legend
Make your first activity today a quick trip to the Fannie Quigley cabin, named in honor of a woman who arrived during the 1905-06 gold rush and never left. She traveled from Nebraska to the West Coast to Dawson City, one of the few women in that time looking for an expedition wild enough to suit her. Miners were notorious for being unable to feed themselves, so she made quick cash as a cook in various miners’ pop-up villages. But eventually, she wanted the thrill of the rush herself, and settled in Kantishna.
She was a legend in her own time. She shot bears for lard for her pie crust, walked 800 miles down the Yukon, and crafted potato beer. She also played host to Jack London and other adventurers looking to get closer to Denali. She was “the little witch of Denali,” and everyone loved her. Today, her cabin still stands with many of her own personal items intact. The low counters are reminders of her small stature. She died in her small living room one night, the very room you’re standing in, as a local hero.
An adventurous bike ride
A quick walk back to both the lodge and to present-day, and it’s nearly time for lunch and your bike rental. Scope out the helmets and bikes named after various mountain critters, like moose or marmot, and pick out the right size. Sign the waiver and hop in the shuttle for a quick five-minute ride up the hill, and you’re off.
From here, it’s not far to the edge of Wonder Lake, your first stopping point. Plop your bike at the edge of the short trail to the dock and spend a granola bar’s worth of time gazing out over the water. Except for a few ducks and the ripple of the wind over the water’s surface, not much else is likely to be moving. If the clouds part, you’ll be able to see Denali in the distance.
Hop back on the bike and use the last of your energy to conquer the hill and the next couple of miles to Reflection Pond. It’s a tiny glacial crumb compared to Wonder Lake, but when it’s still, its name is well-deserved. Any photo you see of Denali over water is likely taken from right here.
Sunset is ridiculously late, so you won’t catch that phenomenon in all its glory, but the light is low enough to be a bit golden, and the water is calm. Hike a bit around the pond’s edges, and head back off.
Wine and reflection
You’ll see Blueberry Hill on your way back — stop here for another quick snack. By this time, the trail should be still beautiful, with the additional bonus of it being warmer and more golden than when you hiked it in the dead of afternoon. The trek back to the lodge is hilly and no shuttle picks you up near the lake this time — you’ll have to pedal the entire way back (don’t worry, it’s so beautiful you won’t feel your quads burn).
Slog onward through the spruce and aspen and over the drainage creek to the lodge. A quick turn left and you’re back on the loose gravel. From here, you’ll hear Moose Creek’s surprisingly loud current. Drop your bike off in the rack and your helmet along the wall, and catch a late dinner.
The next morning will see you on an early bus out of the park, so tonight’s an early one. One more glass of wine on the porch, and it’s in for the night.