Day 5 Grand Alaskan Adventure: Denali Disco Hike

Our main activity today is the Denali Discovery Hike. Regardless of the weather we’re committed! And, unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to be a day of hiking in the rain. At least we’re prepared with lots of base layers, good wool socks & boots, rain gear and life saving trekking poles.

The Disco hike bus is scheduled to leave from the Wilderness Access Center (WAC) at 8am. All the material I’ve read asks you to show up 15 minutes ahead of time to pay for your bus ticket and take care of any other business.  The hike itself is free. With the WAC only a few minutes walk from our campground we were there about 20 minutes before the scheduled departure time.

What we didn’t count on was the long wait for the one other person in front of us to finish his business.  Add a computer glitch and we were a bit frantic getting our transaction done with only minutes to spare.  Definitely add more time to anything in the WAC!

Soon we were on the Denali bus and ready to fill our Sunday with bushwhacking adventure. Our good spirits were dampened by the bus driver who began telling us about the recent park tragedy.  Friday a hiker had been fatally mauled by a bear. The only fatal mauling in Denali’s history.

While the press release had been sent just the day before, word had not yet spread within the park. Our driver wanted to reassure us and review proper bear encounter safety procedures. I’m not going to go into an extensive discussion of the attack, other than to say that based on the hikers’ photographic evidence this incident could have likely been avoided. Needless the say, this was a frequent topic of discussion throughout the park and my fear of bears reinforced.

After roughly an hour on the bus, our group of eleven intrepid hikers was dropped off roadside near the Sanctuary River. Our hike would take us directly uphill from the road to a ridge where we’d continue our hike before dropping into the river valley then into the woods around Sanctuary River before emerging in the Sanctuary River Campground where we’d pick up a bus heading toward the park entrance. All total about 3 miles and 900 foot elevation gain. Sounds nice.

Moderate. Three little miles spread out over 3 – 4 hours. How difficult could that be? In the rain. But boy, Linda and I were ready and the scenery was gorgeous.

Well, that 900 or so foot climb began immediately and lasted the first couple hundred yards. In the rain, through the bush. Bushwhacking. 

Remember my comment about bushwhacking and the lack of trails? You quickly learn what gives and what doesn’t. Amazingly, thigh high red-hued dwarf birch allows you to walk right through but greedily grasps your trekking poles. The bright yellow holly unmercifully tangles you in its branches.  Both tangle your boot laces. Aim for red in the fall!

Added to the thick brush is the luscious moss rich ground cover which gives from a few inches to a foot or more with every step. The uphill climb was an uphill battle. But battle on we did! This particular step swallowed my foot. 

The ground cover was simply breathtaking in its variety of plant life and color. I couldn’t help but admire more closely.

After reaching the top of the hill we continued along the ridge admiring the scenery and identifying poop along the way. Okay, fine. Scat. And we saw lots of it. Coyote, moose, deer, bear, lynx and more. No animals, just their poop. A veritable hike of poop. Sorry, no photos of poop. . . yet. See, now you have something to look forward to.

Going downhill was my favorite part. Rather like walking in a cartoon. Big boingy steps springing off of the tundra and crashing through the bush. Trekking poles providing support and balance along the way.  Just remember to avoid the willow!

This fun downhill loping quickly came to an end when we reached what I’ll simply refer to as “the edge.” A rather steep embankment that we had to descend. Holy curse words. After attempting to zig-zag the thing and not go tumble willy nilly down “the edge” I changed my technique after watching our guide take what appeared to be a somewhat controlled descent through some of the thicker brush. She was right, it worked pretty well as the brush provided traction.

We soon left the tundra behind to cross the Sanctuary River and enter the protective cover of a pine forest. All too soon we emerged at the campground. Unfortunately, with the hiking at an end, the cold set in as we waited for our bus then the near hour journey back to the WAC.

Soon we were back at our campground warming up in front of a fire and enjoying the company of friends and family. Thank goodness for the little propane fire as the rain prohibited a nice roaring wood fire.

Despite the rain, the Discovery Hike was a blast. What a great way to experience a bit of the wilderness of Denali for those of us who are not intrepid hikers. In fact, we’re looking into doing another Discovery Hike later in our trip.

Tomorrow we’re leaving Riley Creek and moving to the Tek Campground at mile 29 on the Park Road. This is the furthest point you’re allowed to drive, and only if you have a reservation for Tek. How exciting! But for now it’s a well deserved night sleep in the warmth of our wonderful rental RV.


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One Response to Day 5 Grand Alaskan Adventure: Denali Disco Hike

  1. Sue Zabritski says:

    Terrific blog, Melinda!

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