Traveling in the Trail-less Wilderness

Minimum Impact Hiking
To keep the Denali backcountry in pristine condition for others, please take care in how you hike.
  • Hike on durable surfaces whenever possible, such as gravel river bars
  • Avoid hiking single file; spread out and disperse to prevent the formation of social trails
  • Do not create rock cairns or arrows to direct other hikers. Leave the wilderness trail-less
For more information on minimum impact hiking and camping, visit the Leave No Trace website or watch this 9-minute featurette.
Terrain Challenges and Descriptions
The backcountry of Denali may be very different from your other wilderness experiences. The trail-less terrain can present unique challenges to hiking and camping.

There are five major terrain categories in the backcountry. Some afford fast, efficient travel; others are difficult and will limit your daily mileage.

Jump to: River crossings | Glacier crossings | Gravel riverbars | Boreal forest | Brushy tundra | Alpine tundra | Glacial moraines
a man wades through a thigh deep river
Some river crossings, particularly on the north side of the Denali Park Road (i.e. away from the large mountains) are calm and clear water. Most river crossings are through fast-flowing, silty water, however.

NPS Photo

River Crossings
There are no bridges across rivers in the backcountry. You must negotiate your own river crossings and pack gear accordingly to keep dry in the event of an accidental swim.

Water temperature is approximately 36º F (2º C), and a cold immersion may result in high risk of hypothermia. Try to cross where the river is braided and dispersed, rather than concentrated into a single deep, narrow channel.

Due to the high silt content of rivers here, it is often difficult to ascertain the true depth of water. River depths can also vary widely during a trip, depending on rainfall and temperatures. Trekking poles or sticks can aid greatly in checking the river depth in glacial rivers, where the bottom is not visible. They can also help you keep your balance when crossing moving water.

Glacial rivers generally run lower in early morning hours, so plan accordingly. Keep hiking boots on while crossing rivers to provide maximum protection for your feet and to give you traction on river bottoms. Accept wet boots. If you choose, you can bring an extra pair of shoes, to switch into while at camp.
a man standing on a large rocky outcropping, overlooking a braided river
A typical braided river like the East Fork of the Toklat will contain many channels. Crossing each channel at a smart location (i.e., broad, shallow, and slower areas) is key. The water flows right out of glaciers in the Alaska Range, so it is not only very cold, but very silty and murky.

NPS Photo

Gravel River Bars

As shown in the photo above, these flat, rocky surfaces characterize most major rivers in the park and provide fast, comparatively easy travel. Brush is usually minimal and therefore visibility is often greater than in other terrain. Most major river bars are located south of the Park Road, with their headwaters fed by glaciers at the base of the Alaska Range.
Crossing Glaciers

Glaciers present numerous hazards and any form of glacier travel should be treated with respect and preparation.

If planning a traverse over the upper ice and snow portions of a glacier, carry appropriate equipment, such as ropes, harnesses, ice axes, probes and crampons. Practice roped travel and know how to perform a crevasse rescue.

If crossing the lower glacial moraine, be alert and use caution. While mountain climbing equipment is not required for this mode of travel, glacial moraines still present many potential hazards, such as debris slides, ice caves, swift rivers that run into crevasses, and uneven terrain.

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Boreal Forest

This terrain appears at lower elevations (less than 3,000' above sea level, generally) and consists of white and black spruce trees, as well as a mixture of birch, aspen and poplar trees. The ground vegetation is usually mossy and uneven. While boreal forests are not great terrain for camping, due to a lack of visibility, hiking in boreal forest is usually easy to moderate in difficulty.
mountains covered in thick spruce forest
The boreal forest, also called taiga, covers valleys and areas of lower elevation. Hiking through boreal forest at some point while backpacking is often a necessity, unless your trip begins from areas where the Denali Park Road is already high enough to be at or above tree-line (~3,000 above sea level).

NPS Photo


Bushy Tundra

Travel through some backcountry units, such as the Kantishna Hills, may require bushwhacking through dense brush. Willow and alder brush may exceed six feet (two meters) in height, and the thickness of brush often limits visibility. Extensive bushwhacking makes for slow and often frustrating travel; hikers must yell or talk loudly when bushwhacking to reduce the chances of a surprise encounter with wildlife. If it has rained recently, the brush can be extremely wet. You do not want to camp in thick brush, as visibility is often extremely poor.
a mountain with scattered trees and bushes on its lower slopes
Low, brushy plants cover the land below and above the main tree-line (along with the occasional tree).

Brushy tundra might only be knee high, or it might be over your head in areas, particularly along drainages. Staying out of those areas will help you see (and avoid) wildlife, and will be more pleasant hiking.

In fall (which is early to mid August), much of Denali's brushy tundra turns brilliant red, orange and yellow.

NPS Photo

Alpine Tundra

Alpine tundra exists at higher elevations (generally above 3,000' / 914 m) and affords good, solid footing for fast, easy travel. Even though nearly every backcountry unit has alpine tundra, some units may require an initial extra effort to climb above the brush and/or forest. While it sometimes takes extra effort to reach alpine tundra, it is the easiest terrain in which to travel. Camping can be difficult in alpine tundra, because of the angles and slopes of hill and mountainsides, but it offers excellent visibility.
three people walking on a green hillside
High alpine tundra is typically either rocky or features very low vegetation.

NPS Photo / Alex VanDerStuyf

Glacier Moraines

Glacial moraines are often denoted on maps by stippled areas. A moraine consists of ice covered with dirt and debris. While no technical gear is needed, this makes for extremely rough and time consuming travel and contains many hazards.

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Last updated: May 10, 2017

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Contact Info

Mailing Address:

PO Box 9
Denali Park, AK 99755


907 683-9532
A ranger is available 9 am to 4 pm daily (except on major holidays). If you reach the voicemail, please leave a message and we'll call you back as soon as we finish with the previous caller.

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