It’s been a few weeks now since we left Denali, but I’m only just getting a chance to share some of my final thoughts on this park along with some of our experiences that I didn’t wind up blogging about earlier (I rarely blog about day hikes, and otherwise I only have one fairly embarrassing story about quitting 5 minutes into a backpacking trip).
But first, let me tell you that Denali was not our favorite National Park (our favorite so far has been Grand Teton!). I realize that the reasons are mostly situational, but still, it’s not going high on the list of places to re-visit.
We were in Denali for 5 weeks from the 7th of August until the 11th of September. For the entire month of August, I remember seeing the sun a total of maybe 4 times. Otherwise, it rained, drizzled, misted and occasionally poured. Even when it occasionally didn’t rain, it was overcast, dreary, and often threatening to rain at a moment’s notice. As it turns out, my tolerance for 40 degrees and rain is lower than required in order to enjoy the month of August in Denali, which is the month when summer ends and winter hits. In fact, we were told that this was one of the rainiest seasons they’ve had in a long time, and even the locals were starting to complain bitterly by the end of August. Although we did get to live (sleep) indoors during our time in Denali, our work consisted of sitting outside 6-7 hours a day (regardless of weather) along with a much longer commute than in previous parks. Still, you can’t complain about a job that sends you to three National Parks!
We did, however, get about 4 fantastic days during the month of August, and on those, we maximized our time hiking on the 30 miles of maintained trail within the park. We easily covered all the available trails in Denali National Park, and then found another beautiful trail in Denali State Park where we did a day-hike on the 30-something mile trail that runs along it. I would have liked to do the whole thing, but I certainly wouldn’t want to do it in poor weather as most of the trail was quite exposed.
In fact, a lot of the best hiking in Denali National Park was on exposed ridges and these hikes are fantastic when the weather is good and miserable when it is bad. We were lucky that when September hit, we got more days of good weather than the entire previous month, however, the temperature would plummet each evening into the 20’s or 30’s. Our favorite hikes were Mt Healy and the Savage Alpine Trail, which were nice, short, and somewhat strenuous day hikes.
The locals along with park employees would encourage us to spend time off-trail, because this is where you can actually explore the park on your own terms. In fact, this is what you must do in order to backpack in the park, and if you’ve been following this blog, you may remember reading about our first attempt at a backpacking trip in Denali (spoiler: it didn’t go very well).
Well, we decided to be brave and make one more attempt at a backpacking trip on a day where the weather looked slightly less miserable. We packed, took the free bus to where we wanted to start, and got out. Upon exiting the bus, we stood in the freezing cold with strong gusts of wind tearing through our clothing for several minutes as we poured over our map and attempted to agree on a route. We walked for about 5 minutes towards the mountain we wanted to start climbing which was rapidly disappearing under a thick grey cloud, and then we almost immediately had to get our feet wet. We looked at each other and decided right then and there that we simply weren’t going to do it. We were too tired of being cold, too tired of being rained on, and not in the mood to try again to navigate by map and compass from the middle of dense clouds. So we quit. See? We’re really not very bad-ass.
Much to our surprise, however, was that our absolute favorite thing to do in Denali was to volunteer at the dog kennels. When we first arrived, we visited the kennels where they keep roughly 30 sled dogs who actually have ranger status at the park. These sled dogs work primarily in the winter months (of which there are many) when they haul large amounts of materials around the park from debris to research equipment. This is because much of the park is designated a Wilderness (with a capital W), and the use of motorized equipment is strictly prohibited. We enquired about volunteering to be dog walkers and soon we were taught how to walk or run our sled dogs. We each were given a particular sled dog, and we were only to walk that particular sled dog and we had to commit to at least 1 hour three times a week. Each sled dog, however, could have multiple walkers so they could hope to get enough exercise. John’s was given the most energetic sled dog on the team, a two-year-old male dog by the name of Cupcake, whom 4 previous walkers had given up on, and I was given a one-year-old female dog who was still learning the ropes named Story.
We quickly decided we would run our dogs rather than walk them. Our biggest joy was to show up at the kennels to find 28 dogs sleeping on their kennels while Cupcake and Story jumped up and down eagerly in our direction until we put a leash on them. Their excitement was contagious and being recognized and so much appreciated by another animal made our whole trip to Denali a delight. We also got special privileges to cuddle with the newest sled dogs on the team, a litter of 7 puppies before we left.
We also became much stronger runners and by the end of our time in Denali, John had signed himself up for an ultra-marathon (this was somewhat of an accident as he thought he wouldn’t get chosen in the lottery for the Mt Mitchell Challenge, so he somewhat haphazardly entered). When John found out he was going to run this 40-miler, I signed up for the marathon length (the “fun run”).
Now that we’ve left winter in Denali for the locals to deal with, we have reentered fall in Europe where we are traveling around visiting friends and family while attempting to train for the Mt Mitchell Challenge, which will be in late February. Training for a race is hard enough when you have a routine, but finding places to run in big cities like Paris is proving to be an additional challenge.
Next week we are off to hike the GR20, a 115-mile trail in Corsica (an island off the coast of France and Italy). The GR20 is supposed to be one of the hardest trails in Europe, so we’ll give it our best shot, but given that we’re starting in October, we’re somewhat outside of the normal hiking season, so most of the facilities will be closed. We will have to carry more food than most GR20 hikers, but we’re up for the challenge. We’re hoping that the weather will cooperate nonetheless and we will be able to complete this hike, but who knows! As usual, I will blog so you all can follow along!