Our campsite at Wonder Lake, Denali (Mt. McKinley) in the background 2012
A few weeks ago a reader asked if I would write a post about camping. She explained that she hadn’t done much camping and would be interested to know how we camped, since we have been doing so much of it in Alaska. So here is my post about spending the night outside
The great thing about camping is that there are so many ways to go about it. Everyone has there own “style.” You can adapt and change based on the location, who you are going with, and how much “luxury” you want or require. Lucas and I have certainly grown and changed as campers since we first started pitching a tent together six plus years ago. And continue to enjoy everything from “luxury” car camping to minimalist backpacking.
One thing I have come to strongly believe in is the “leave no trace” ethics of camping. Although I didn’t always know all the guidelines when I first started camping (and I’m still learning and trying to get better), I think it is so important to protect and respect the outdoor places we enjoy. I think learning how to camp in a low-impact way is SO important if we want to keep our wild places wild. Leave No Trace is a nonprofit that helps educate people on good practices for camping. Here is a link on the seven guiding principles of the organization if you want to learn more.
Okay, off my soap box and back to camping. Both Lucas and I camped before we met. I started camping as a kid with my family, and he was actively involved in Boy Scouts. As a kid I did a lot “car camping.” Which means you can pack your car as full as you want, drive into a campground, park, and drag out what you need. To car camp you can be a little less organized and add in items that I would never make room for when backpacking. This is a great way to start camping. It is low pressure and you always have an out (your car) if things get really crazy.
My parents have this fabulous camping story (before my brother and I were born) about a time it was raining. As the story goes, my mom says something like, it’s really raining hard. And my dad says something like, it isn’t that bad. And moments later as my parents are laying inside their tent, the Kleenex box floats by. That is a moment to head to the car.
Our 1st tent
For car camping you need basic equipment, tent, sleeping bag, extra, but it doesn’t have to be top of the line or high tech. I camped for years with family and friends in a huge, old, blue canvas tent that was a puzzle to set up and sagged like a wet doughnut, but it was perfect for that time in our lives (it has since been retired).
When Lucas and I first started camping together in state parks near Pittsburgh, PA we car camped exclusively. We would drive in, set up the tent, go out and hike all day, and come back to cook dinner over an open fire. We had a small two-person tent (that made it all the way to Alaska) that we bought with a sporting good store gift card we won in a raffle. A joint purchase, it was our first “home” together. Our early camping days were low budget and awesome.
Isle Royale National Park 2009
When we moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where outdoor paradise was less than a ten minute drive, we took camping up a notch and started backpacking. Our first big trip (7 days) was to Isle Royale National Park. We backpacked from one end of the island to the other, carrying everything we needed for the week on our backs. This was a whole new way to camp, and for the most part, it is my favorite way to camp. You step into nature and don’t reemerge until the trip is over, and I love that. Being submerged in wild. But it certainly isn’t the kind of camping everyone might want to do.
To backpack, you need to be prepared and organized. Since you don’t have a safety exit (like a car) it is important to be sure you have everything you will need (or could need) before you leave. Gear for backpacking is more expensive, but the good news is, once you have it, you are set for a long time (unless you want to upgrade or go lighter). Lucas and I started out with mid-range gear and have been slowly upgrading and adding as we move into our 4th year as backpackers. Like our new tent- larger and lighter than the original (which we still have).
For us, the big thing we did to transition from car camping to backpacking was research, talking to people who were already going into the backcountry, reading online forums, and then, going out and trying it. We started out with a one night trip to see what worked and what didn’t. (We took more crap than we needed.) And we began to figuring out our preferences. Some of the key differences are food (no coolers, unless you want to carry it!), water (you need to be prepared to carry or purify all water for the trip, depending on the area you will be backpacking), less (better) clothing, full first aid kit, stove (fires are often not allowed in the backcountry), emergency supplies (duck tape, whistle, extra), maps/GPS, and research (know the weather, terrain, camping conditions, and so on).
Denali State Park 2011
But as much as I love backpacking, I also love the comfort and convenience of car camping, which we still do often. And will be doing for approximately 19 days this summer on our road trip from Alaska to Ohio. More on this soon.
Until then, enjoy the long days of summer!
Last weekend we also spent two days backpacking in Denali State Park which is on the southeast border of the National Park. The park includes over 325,000 acres. We hiked part of the Kesugi Ridge, a 33 mile-long alpine trail. The ridge runs parallel to the Alaskan Range and offers spectacular views of Denali (Mt. McKinley), when it isn’t hiding behind clouds. It was a once in a lifetime kind of weekend.
We started our hike at the Little Coal Creek Trailhead. This 3.3 mile trail follows the valley created by the creek and ascends into the alpine where it connects to the Kesugi Ridge trail. The first mile of the trail gradually climbs through spruce and aspen crossing small streams and marsh areas (moose habitat). Less than a mile up you come to the first view point, a clear sweeping scene of the Alaskan Range including Eldridge Glacier and the Chulitna River valley. We had great visibility and could see almost a 100 miles in each direction. From here the trail gets steeper. It continues to climb through tall alders with switch backs until you get above the treeline. This is where the trail gets grueling. The switchbacks disappear and you pretty much walk straight up hill for the last 2.5 miles. But the views. Wow. During breaks to breathe, you looked out at one of the most impressive mountain ranges I have ever seen. The low alpine landscape is beautiful in and of itself as well: spongy lichen, gray rocks, spots of red and brown grass. As we got closer to the ridge, we had to cross over the Little Coal Creek. The trail crosses at a boulder field that has actually covered the creek. So we scampered across rocks with the river buried beneath us. It was pretty, but tricky to cross with a thirty pound pack and slippery rocks. Once across, we made the final push to the ridge. The ridge is relatively flat and easy to hike. Again, it is all about the views! Breathtaking.
As we hiked on the ridge, we could see dark rain/snow clouds moving in behind us so we decided to set up camp. We camped below the ridge with our tent door facing Denali, hoping for a break in the clouds to catch a glimpse of the illusive mountain. After we set up the tent, we just sat looking at the mountain, and it paid off. The clouds parted and we could see the north summit of the mountain (which is slightly lower than the south summit.) It was exciting, our first good view of the mountain since our arrival in Alaska. Then it started to hail so we jumped in the tent. The hail finally let up but then it snowed. Oh, Alaska. Fortunately, we could open the door of the tent and watch the mountains even while it snowed…so pretty. Sunset over the Alaskan Range.
But our best view came the following morning. As soon as we woke up, we opened the door and got a clear, sunlit view of both summits! Picture me, still tucked in my sleeping bag, telling Lucas, “Get your camera, get your camera!” As he fumbled with the sleeping bag zipper and his gloves trying to get the camera battery back in so he could take a world class picture. It lasted about 20 minutes, and now we can check off one more Alaska goal: Denali has been spotted and documented.
One of the magical things about this trip, and most of our Alaskan experiences, is that we had the whole park, every view and moment, to ourselves. It is amazing to be surrounded by so much beauty without the snap of another camera or the noise of cars or people. I am not sure how we will go back to sharing our wild places someday.
If you asked me to sum up our backpacking trip to Denali in three words I would say: beauty, rain, and wildlife. But Denali is a hard place to describe. It makes you feel small. It is a place were the wild is still wild, and we are just momentary visitors. Perhaps this is because it is so big, everything in Alaska is big. The park contains 6 million acres, that is larger than Massachusetts. There is only one unpaved road into the park, and it is only open to private vehicles up to mile 15. The road stretches 92 miles. Beyond mile 15, the only way to go down the road is by the park bus system. School buses take loads of people from the Wilderness Access Center at the gate to various places within the park depending on how long you are willing to sit on a bus.
To reach the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66, it takes four hours one-way. The bus ride is bumpy, a little scary when you cross over Polychrome Mountain with hairpin turns and steep drop offs, and totally amazing. As backpackers we had camper bus passes that allowed us to get on and off the buses at any place in the park. We took full advantage of that opportunity and rode out to Eielson three times. From the bus we saw the most wildlife: bears (black and grizzly), moose, caribou, lynx, doll sheep, and all kinds of birds. One bus driver said that on the bus he wanted to see wildlife right under his window but in the backcountry he wanted them to be far away, we agreed! From the bus it was so neat to see bear feeding on blueberries up on a hill, and caribou walking on thin ridges in a straight single file line like school children. One of my favorite, and most comforting, bear sightings came when we saw a grizzly bear out in an open field eating. Then we noticed hikers in the near distance. The bear noticed them at the same moment and took off in the opposite direction (they can run up to 40mph). He was running away from the hikers looking over his shoulder to make sure they didn’t follow him. Lucas and I were glad to see that! Bear safety is very important in Denali and something that we took very seriously. Fortunately for us, because the park emphasizes this so much, bears are not habituated to humans, meaning they do not associate people with food. This makes things safer for us and the bears.
When we arrived at the park we went to the Backcountry Information Center where we received a safety talk, watched a 30 minute video on avoiding and reacting to animal encounters, picked up a second bear proof food container, and made our plans for the 6 nights we would spend in the park. It was raining, a consent companion during our trip, and we made arrangements to spend our first night at a rustic campground an hour inside the park, the next two nights in unit 8, the following two nights in unit 31, and our last night in another unit near the park entrance, but we ended up camping at the visitor center Riley Creek Campground (luxury camping after four nights in the backcountry; they have flush toilets and running water!). For backcountry camping, the park is divided into 87 units. Meaning they give you a section of land within the park to camp. Denali has very few trails and none in the backcountry. There are no established campgrounds in the backcountry either. So you are free to hike and camp any place within your unit each day. You use topographical maps and GPS to travel. It is a totally different kind of hiking and camping experience, and all new for us. The best part was the freedom and the solitude. In the backcountry we never saw another person. It was just the two of us. Each day we would pick a route and try to follow it towards the next place we wanted to be. It was the closest I think I will ever come to understanding how hard it must have been to be a pioneer.
We picked, with the help of a ranger, two great units. Unit 8 and 31 are right across from each other. Unit 8 encompasses the Polychrome Glaciers, and unit 31 has the Polychrome Mountains. To hike into both, we started on two different river drainages. In the park these are as close to a trail as you will get. Because of the huge influx of water from glaciers and mountain streams, rivers have wide gravel bars making them both flat and open, two good things when hiking in the backcountry. Visibility is important to avoid surprising animals, and it helps you see where you want to go. My favorite parts of unit 8 were seeing two moose while hiking and following a stream up a mountain to its source. It was the first time I had seen moose so close in the wild. It was just the moose and us. They were very uninterested, but we gave them plenty of space anyways. We camped at the base of two mountains near a large river. A smaller, clear, stream fed into the river just southwest of us, so we decided to follow it to the source. It took us through a rocky valley and up a mountain. From the top we could see the area we had hiked through that day, the park road, and into unit 31, where we would be going the next day. It was like looking at a poster, too pretty to be real. My favorite parts of unit 31 were our camp (on a skinny ridge), hiking up into the mountains with beautiful views of the Alaskan range, hearing wolves hunting at night, and getting dive bombed by a golden eagle during a water break. The valley of this unit was very wet, so we camped up, with views back into 8 and out over the Alaskan range. I wish we could have a summer home on that ridge! Hiking the ridges here was like a game of up and down the mountain. We would climb up to the top of one ridge, with beautiful views, only to find there was another one out in front of us, and we just had to see what views it might offer. That day we had sun, and our clearest views out over the park. At night we could hear the wolves up the valley hunting. The long cries echoing around us. The golden eagle was like batman. We were sitting on a ridge and it popped up behind us, tucked its wings in and swooped in, only to spread them and glide out. A park ranger we talked with said very few people get to see golden eagles, a lucky spot.
But I can’t talk about Denali without talking about rain. I have never been so wet for so long. We became experts at setting up and taking down as quickly as possible and cooking in between or during rain. It made you appreciate every moment of sun, and I think it made us realize we could handle just about anything on the trail. Being in the backcountry in Denali reminds you how big our world is. It is humbling, exhilarating, and, although I was certainly ready for a shower by the time we got back to Anchorage, something I would do again without a second thought.
*Lucas, my husband, took most (if not all) of the pictures!