A pair of hikers came by the Backcountry Information Center a bit ago in a state of distress. They were visiting Denali for a week, yet here they were only a couple days into their trip and they had hiked every single trail on the map! Where else were they supposed to go? I proceeded to explain to them that indeed, we have very few formally maintained and named trails in this park, but that certainly does not preclude anyone from exploring the rest of the 6 million acres – off trail. In fact, animals and humans have been traveling across this landscape for thousands of years without the advantage of professional trail crews, uniform tread width, and mechanically compacted surfaces.
The Savage River Loop Trail winds through the Savage River canyon. NPS Photo / Tim Rains
There are few places left in the country that offer the opportunity to hike off trail. Most other public lands have extensive trail systems, usually in response to high visitation or unwelcoming conditions like dense vegetation or steep, slippery slopes. Denali has the perfect combination of low visitation, durable traveling surfaces such as river bars and ridgetops, and a managerial history protecting the trail-less nature of the park that have contributed to the preservation of this unique experience.
A white crowned sparrow glides from a spruce tree. NPS Photo / Nate Kostegian
There is an incredible freedom in walking off the beaten path. I find that I walk more slowly, taking the time to notice the smaller things around me. There are the sweeping and at times overwhelming vistas, but there are also the flowers that smell like grape Kool Aid, wolverine tracks tracing a sinewy line across the river bar, the call and response of white-crowned sparrows. My eye has become trained to spot larger wildlife from afar, differentiating the more concerning Ursus arctos (grizzly bear) from the less concerning Ursus mineralis (grizzly bear-shaped rock.) In thicker areas of vegetation, I stumble across moose trails that lead me from the densest willows back out into open meadows. Following animal trails across this landscape helps me understand why animals also follow our trails – even our formally maintained ones.
A cow moose and her two calves cross at a crosswalk. NPS Photo / Kent Miller
Straying from the road more traveled is certainly not for everyone, and neither is the opera. Yet we as a society have chosen to build opera houses and support the arts because we have decided it is valuable, even if not everyone is a fan of Luciano Pavarotti. So too have we valued the opportunity to hike unhindered through trail-less terrain by protecting vast areas of public land as Wilderness. While we do still encourage you to stay on the formalized trail if you choose to hike on one, I would challenge you to start looking at the landscape differently. Start envisioning where you could go outside the confines of a predetermined path. Start paying attention to your surroundings, training yourself to recognize where you might encounter wildlife and thinking ahead as to how you will react. And start imagining where that all could take you.