Denali Canyoneering

Aug 6, 2015 | 0 comments

There are few things in this world more exciting than picking a place on the map, and going there. And that’s exactly what my friend and I did last weekend for two full days out on the west side of the park.

The day started out a little iffy with the weather; it rained a few times over the course of our 4-hour bus ride into the park, but by the time we got to our hiking destination, it had begun to let up. As the bus slowed to let us out on the side of the road, I could feel all the other passengers staring at us: two girls heading into the backcountry alone with impending variable weather conditions. I couldn’t help but feel a little hardcore, even though this would be just an easy hike.

Into the canyon!

Our goal was to work our way south along a river drainage, cross over a saddle in the ridge line, and make it to a waterfall known to be on the other side. But, just as things never quite go according to plan, this trip was no exception. We ended up having an absolute blast following the river drainage up and up and up, and each time it split off, we’d pick whatever looked like the funnest route.

Who knew Denali had so many little waterfalls?

Eventually I became determined just to find the source of the water. I knew these types of rivers usually just started from a trickle of groundwater somewhere up in the mountains, but this one seemed tantalizingly close — and sure enough, a few miles in and a few hundred feet higher in elevation, we found it:

The source of the river!
The source of all that water was, indeed, a very tiny trickle coming out of the rocks. It still blows my mind that it turns into that much volume of water further down. 
Sheep tracks on the skree slope
Naturally, once we found the source of the river, we just had to keep climbing up. The mountains were calling. And so, up we climbed. 
At one point we passed through what must have been a bedding area for the Dall sheep, because as we passed through a steep meadow on the mountainside, a strong aroma of barn animals lingered in the air. Seriously, it smelled like the state fair, though there were no sheep to be seen. We did find lots of sheep scat though.
When we finally made it to the crest of the ridge line, the view was nothing short of breathtaking. The Teklanika river wove itself around the mountains, and the natural haze of moisture in the air made the whole scene look like a vivid painting.
Teklanika River
It was too steep to hike down the other side of the ridge, so we continued to go up, following along the ridge instead of bisecting it. 
Let’s climb up this thing.

As we came to the highest point, the ridge became extremely narrow and rocky — and not the good kind of solid rocky, but the kind that involves lots of loose, sketchy rocks that fall out when you put any weight on them. Suffice to say, we were getting to the point where we couldn’t safely go any further.

Jessica heading toward the knife-edge ridge
The view was okay I guess.
Once we’d absorbed all the heartbreaking beauty we could handle from the top of the ridge, we decided it was time to go down if we were to make it to the road in time to catch a bus back to Toklat. And the best way to get down was to skree ski.
One of the more gentle skree slopes
Skree is the loose rock that dominates many of the slopes out on the west side of the park, and if you’re not afraid of a little adrenaline rush, a bit of speed, possible injury, and some controlled falling, it is a total blast. Jessica is a lot more fearless than I am (and more experienced at skree skiing) so she tore down the slope in record time with smooth expertise. I was a little slower and more cautious, but still got some good speed on the way down, in the half-sliding, half-running down near-vertical slopes. 

We spent the night at Toklat, which is the residential camp for employees who work on the west end of the park. That evening, we went for a sunset hike (around 9pm) with another one of our friends who works out there, before getting a good night’s sleep and heading out the next morning for some more canyoneering.

Waterfalls and lots of rain…
We picked another river drainage to follow south the next day, and found it had larger and larger waterfalls the further we went. Also further back, the canyon walls took on a black color, looking especially ominous under the dark clouds that were rolling in, bringing with them a pretty heavy drizzle of rain that came and went all throughout the day. 
Once again, we climbed as far as we could until the waterfalls became too steep and slippery to safely traverse, so we headed back downstream. 
By then we were both pretty tired, but determined to get in more hiking so we climbed up part of Gravel Mountain for lunch. Jessica still had energy after we ate, so she continued up the mountain ridge and I elected to stay on the lower shelf and loaf on the tundra. It was an excellent choice.
When she came back down, we worked our way back to the road and made it out just in time to flag down the eastbound bus. 

We saw tons of wildlife on the way back — mostly caribou, but also a family of grizzlies right on the road. The two cubs were likely born just this spring, and they played around with each other and their mom as they foraged along the roadside.

Another more entertaining sight was this caribou that showed us what it thought of all the road traffic. It seriously peed for like 3 minutes straight, maintaining steady eye contact with the biker up ahead.

The wildlife truly do rule this land.

At any rate, this was definitely one of the coolest weekends I’ve had out here in Denali. It was so incredible to see a side of the park that you would NEVER see from the road, or even from most hikes or programs we give here. I never knew the park had so many canyons and waterfalls and that the views could be any more awe-inspiring, but it just keeps getting better.


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