Next morning, Monday, August 24, the sky was filled with a layer of low, thick clouds. From our chat with Ranger Andy the previous evening, we knew that the activities of our full day at Wonder Lake Campground would be determined by whether or not the skies were clear. Since they were not, we would spend the morning and early afternoon hiking the McKinley Bar Trail from the campground through tundra and taiga to the McKinley River. Had they been clear, we’d have hiked up one of the ridges above camp to take in the view.
The first bus from Wonder Lake back to the visitor center area departed around 6:30am, and we were surprised to see how many of our fellow campers from the night before had already departed. The new wave would arrive at 12:30pm, as we had the previous day.
During breakfast in the shelter, we continued our conversation with Kristen and Brucek, the couple from Austin we’d met the previous evening. They were also planning to hike McKinley Bar Trail, and they suggested that we hike together for safety in numbers. They were just finishing their breakfast as we were beginning ours, but we said if they didn’t mind waiting, we’d love to be hiking companions.
We hustled a bit to wash our breakfast dishes and pull our gear together for our day packs. The difference between the care we (and everyone) took at Wonder Lake, where bears are present, compared to camping at parks where they aren’t (Isle Royale for instance), leads to a slow dance of procedure in doing almost anything. There was a lot of back and forth between our campsite and the shelter/bear locker as we gathered what we needed for our hike.
While we were getting ready, some fellow hikers, kids in their twenties, asked us if we knew where they could find blueberries. Echoing Ranger Andy, we suggested they try McKinley Bar Trail.
McKinley Bar Trail is 2.5 miles one way. From a trailhead located along the spur of the Park Road that leads into Wonder Lake Campground, the trail runs generally south toward the Alaska Range until it ends where it intersects the McKinley River. Including the quarter mile walk from the campground to the trailhead, the hike is a pleasant 5.5 miles out and back.
McKinley Bar is one of only three developed and maintained trails along the Park Road past Savage River. The other two start at Eielson Visitor Center.
The first section of the trail passes through the same tundra dotted with Black Spruce as the campground. The trail descended very gently from the ridges near the campground and the park road. Only occasionally was there anything like a steep incline, and then it would only last maybe fifteen feet.
The cloud blanket continued to hang low in the sky, almost entirely obscuring the Alaska Range. But way off to our right, to the southwest, the skies were a little brighter. Brucek and I both commented that the cloud cover could perhaps be breaking up a bit in that direction. Sean and I had learned at Big Bend that sometimes clouds obscure the view you want to see, but that can be an opportunity to take more time observing the landscape on a more intimate scale.
As we hiked, we chatted with Kristen and Brucek and got to know them better. She was a nurse and he an engineer. She was originally from Ohio and he from Ann Arbor. They liked to hike and camp and had very much enjoyed visiting Big Bend.
They were near the start of their Alaska adventure, and after Denali would be heading by road to Valdez and then taking the ferry to Whittier and Seward. We encouraged them to take a boat tour of Kenai Fjords. And they informed us that the Alaska State Fair was currently running in Palmer, near Anchorage.
Video: Sean M. Santos
We descended a final incline and the trail leveled out almost entirely. Small streams ran across the landscape, and there were occasional pools of standing water. It was obvious with all the water why the trail guides warned hikers to bring bug spray and mosquito nets in the summer. The area, in fact the entire Wonder Lake section of the park, would be a haven for mosquitoes. Our friend Angela, who had visited Wonder Lake in June 2008 had given us his-and-his mosquito nets onto which she’d sewn little “Just Married” flags. But we never actually had to use them. Denali autumn was well underway, and the mosquitos had already vanished.
As we hiked, our conversation shifted to the history of public lands in Alaska. Kristen and Brucek had also been at Ranger Andy’s talk the previous evening and they had noticed that we had had some familiarity with the topic of land protection and conservation history. I shared what I knew about the creation of Mount McKinley National Park, the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
As Park rules explicitly permit (and Ranger Andy had encouraged), we picked some wild blueberries along the trail. Kristen declared that one she tried tasted like the essence of blueberry.
Soon we entered the taiga or boreal forest that here ran in a strip along the north bank of the McKinley River. The boreal forest has held my imagination ever since I was a little kid. It thrills my imagination and underscores the interconnection of vast reaches of the planet that this is the same forest that sweeps across North America to touch the northern shore of Lake Superior (in fact it jumps that shore and is present on Isle Royale even though it is not found on the peninsulas of mainland Michigan). And not only that, but the taiga circumnavigates the globe, forming the northern forests of Scandinavia, Russia, and Siberia. It’s the same forest.
In the forest, we saw a flock of Dark-Eyed Juncos, the white strips on their dark gray tails flashing as they flittered through the trees on either side of the trail. They, too, were examples of that great interconnection since they are winter residents on our building’s back patio in Chicago.
The trail dead-ended at the McKinley River, a braided river carving channels in its broad gravel bed as it flows generally westward from its source at the Muldrow Glacier on Denali’s northern flank. At times, it is possible to walk out onto the gravel bar, but that day a channel of the river came right up to the end of the trail, blocking our passage any farther.
Video: Sean M. Santos
We paused, planning our next steps. And also having a look at Kristen’s camera, which was acting up and not focusing properly. I felt a little poorly because I’d given her some settings tips (her model was the previous generation of mine). Ultimately, Brucek tried simply removing and reattaching her lens, and that worked. I was definitely relieved. Although simply changing the settings shouldn’t have caused a problem, I’d been afraid that our new friends would (even subconsciously) blame me.
Across the river and beyond sloping ridges of tundra, the Alaska Range foothills were closer than ever. From here, we were about twenty-three miles from the summit of Denali.
A pair of teenagers who had passed us on the trail had taken an unofficial side path to the east through the forest at the river’s edge. There also appeared to be a path west. We noticed, though, that the teenagers had made it out onto the river bar, so we decided to follow their lead.
We emerged from the side path to a nice spot where we could walk easily out onto the gravel bar. We kept our distance from the teenagers who were occasionally making out.
By this time, the cloud break-up that Brucek and I had noticed earlier was continuing in earnest. A westerly breeze was steadily dismantling the cloud blanket. We decided to take a proper break before our return hike. Perhaps some of The Mountain would become visible. We settled in with snacks (Sean was envious of the sandwiches Kristen and Brucek had brought since we’d only brought Cliff Bars) and waited.
Within ten minutes, we began to get glimpses of the upper slopes of a mountain that was considerably higher than any of the others that were slowly emerging.
It slowly became obvious that this was going to be it, Denali was going to show himself.
As the peaks of the Alaska Range became visible, I began to ID them with the topo map.
As the vanishing clouds revealed the summit for the first time, we got confirmation of just how much higher it was than anything else in view: 20,310 feet above sea level, truly the roof of the continent.
And then the whole mountain came into view.
The north face of Denali is called the Wickersham Wall, and it rises 18,000 feet from base to summit. While Mount Everest, at 29,019 feet is higher than Denali, Everest rises from a very high plateau. Denali’s staggering rise from the 2,000-foot elevation surrounding it makes it the highest base-to-summit vertical rise of any mountain on land (versus those, like Mauna Loa, which rise from the seafloor) on the planet.
Denali just absolutely dwarfs the peaks that surround it. These peaks are not insubstantial. Rising 11,000, 12,000, 13,000 feet, they’d command the landscape in the Rockies, the Cascades, or the Sierra Nevada. Only Mount Foraker to the southwest, also called Sultana or Denali’s Wife, approaches the Great One, at 17,400 feet.
We spent about half an hour at the McKinley River, waiting for Denali to show itself and then capturing photos and videos once he did, before beginning the return hike. It was a glorious moment in our journey in the National Parks, made particularly exciting since it was so unexpected.
The only downer was a loud sightseeing plane that flew over us and crossed toward The Mountain, leaving a trail of “airplane cloud” that interrupted the sublime picture in front of us. Wilderness protections in Denali National Park do not extend to the Park’s airspace.
The return hike had a wholly different feel since the skies had cleared almost completely, bathing the landscape in sunshine.
While we had thoroughly enjoyed the hike out, our moods on the return were buoyant, practically effervescent. The sunshine and The Mountain filling the view when we turned around were intoxicating.
We chatted about more friendly, personal topics as we hiked along. Kristen and Brucek were engaged. And we came clean about this being our honeymoon trip. That got us onto the topic of a honeymoon registry, and we talked about the different websites and options that were out there.
We passed the twenty-somethings whom we’d talked to about blueberries in camp that morning. They were headed the opposite direction, toward the river. I asked if they’d had any blueberries, and the fellow who’d inquired about blueberries that morning happily said that he’d been picking them and eating them all along the trail.
Back in the tundra ridges, we were startled by a great big bull Caribou trotting along. He vanished before any of us could grab a photo, but his presence just added to the exhilarating magic of the sunny afternoon.
Our McKinley Bar Trail hike took about four and a half hours roundtrip. As we arrived back in Wonder Lake Campground, Denali loomed above the ridge and trees. Kristen and Brucek decided to take advantage of its visibility to head out and try to capture the classic photo of its reflection in Wonder Lake, while Sean and I decided to relax in camp before hiking up the ridge above camp later on in the afternoon.