Teklanika River: Your Backstage Pass to Denali National Park and Preserve
By Karl Sander
Unlike many of the National Parks “Outside” (the Lower 48), Denali National Park and Preserve only has one road in and out once you get past the entrance area. It took fifteen years of short construction seasons, from 1923 to 1938, to build the road across 92 miles of rough terrain to reach Kantishna. The park’s remoteness kept traffic light for several decades until the George Parks Highway opened in 1971. The new highway offered a more direct route between Anchorage and Fairbanks, and a much easier way for private vehicles to reach the park.
In order to balance the demand for visitor access to the park and its wonders with the need to protect its sensitive ecosystems and wildlife habitats, in 1972 park officials restricted private vehicle use of the road and established a mass transit system. To this day, private vehicles are only allowed as far as the Savage River, where the pavement stops 15 miles inside the park boundary. Campers, bicyclists, and backpackers who want to go farther in rely on a fleet of shuttle buses to carry them deeper into the park, where they can set off for adventures in the backcountry. Many other tourists are content to enjoy the sights and wildlife viewing from the road.
That is unless you reserve a campsite at Teklanika River.
Camping at the Teklanika River campground (or ‘Tek’ for short) offers you the chance to be an exception to the rule. As long as you stay at least three nights, and leave your vehicle at the campsite, you can drive your car, truck and trailer, or recreational vehicle all the way to Milepost 29. This can offer you a way to get away from the crowds – and a headstart on exploring more of the park – without needing to be a backcountry expert.
The Teklanika River is a “limited development” campground. The 53 sites don’t have electric or water hookups. There’s potable water available from spigots, so car campers can fill up their bottles and hydration packs. The vault-style toilets are wheelchair accessible, and the trails around the campground are compacted gravel without much slope. If you’re in a tent or soft-sided camper, there are food lockers available – it’s bear country, after all! The campground has a seasonal host as well as an amphitheater with evening programs hosted by one of the park’s rangers (unless it’s raining; then they might host it in the bus stop shelter).
My wife and I visited Teklanika River over the 4th of July weekend in 2017. Since it was a holiday, we booked in January to make sure we could get a spot (though in fact, you can book as early as the December before your trip). Then it was just a matter of waiting for summer to arrive and making sure we were fully stocked up because once you’re at the campground, your car has to stay put until you leave the park.
Once you get to the park, you’ll check in at the Visitor’s Center – or, if it’s late enough, at Riley Creek Mercantile. That’s where you’ll pick up the pass that will get you past the checkpoint at Savage River, and – if you haven’t already reserved it ahead of time – where you can get your “Tek Pass” for the bus system. The Tek Pass is your key to using Teklanika River to explore more of the Park. Since you’re 30 miles down the road, you’re getting almost an hour’s head start on everyone starting their treks from the entrance. That means you can have more time to hike and sightsee wherever you decide to get off. You’ll pick which bus you want to reserve seats for, usually on your first or second day at the campground. We chose the second. After that first ride, you can get on any non-narrated shuttle bus on the highway on a “space-available” basis.
After you have your pass, it’s time to hit the road. The park road is famous for its wildlife viewing, and in our case, we didn’t have long to wait as a moose and two calves lazily meandered across the asphalt not far from the entrance sign. The road is paved and smooth as far as Savage River, but if you pull off to check out some wildlife be careful of the soft shoulders – it’s not hard to get stuck.
There’s a large parking lot, rest area, and a trailhead for one of the park’s few developed trails at the Savage River crossing at mile 15. This is where everyone else has to turn back, but not you. You’ll pull up to the small hut on the far side of the river, show your pass to the friendly ranger, and then continue on. You’ll feel like you’ve just shown your backstage pass to security and been granted VIP access.
It’s another 15 miles to the campground. The pavement has ended, but the gravel is in good shape and, at least until your destination, two lanes wide. The inclines are gentle enough – and the turns broad enough – that vehicles and trailers as long as 40 feet can make the trip. On our visit, we shared the campground with Class C motorhomes, Class A coaches, and fifth wheels – many of them rentals.
We spent our first full day exploring near the campground. The wide bed of the Teklanika River offered an easy route to hike. We started heading downriver until a channel of the river came up against a cliff and there was no way to go farther without fording – which we didn’t want to do. Later, we’d hear there was a route that diverged from the riverbed to get you around the cliff, but we decided to leave that for another time.
Heading upriver, we walked along the marshy bank, spotting some bear tracks that – fortunately – looked to have been there for a few days. At the bridge where the park road crosses the river, we stopped for a quick break. The river above the bridge was closed, as periodically happens through the park during sensitive breeding and nesting times. Although the park doesn’t have many trails, these well-marked closures are the only restrictions on where you can wander.
We followed the road back to the campground and had a quick lunch before striking out again, this time on the far side of the highway. Taking full advantage of the ability to hike almost anywhere we wanted, we picked our way uphill through the spruce and underbrush till we came to a plateau. I had my eye on the ridge on the opposite side, convinced there would be an amazing view, but it turns out that picking our way through the tussocks and low scrub went slower than I expected. We stopped well short of the ridge and turned to parallel the now well-out-of-sight highway for a while, before turning again to head back toward the campground. We passed a picturesque small pond as we reentered the trees and made our way down to the highway, dinner, and rest.
The next day was for our adventure deeper into the park. There are several great places to get off the bus system to explore, such as Polychrome Pass, any of the river crossings, and Wonder Lake – and if we’d stayed more days, I’m sure we would have wandered around at a few of those spots. For our first trip, though, we booked ourselves as far as the Eielson Visitor’s Center, where we knew there were a couple of hiking options. We also figured that if it was clear, we’d see the mountain.
After short stops for sightseeing and wildlife viewing, we arrived to the Visitor’s Center and stepped off the bus. Our first item of business was the alpine trail, a mile long developed path that switchbacks its way up Thorofare Ridge. We encountered a pair of marmots along the way, who seemed to enjoy the attention. Once on the ridge, the trail continues west with toward a point that offers sweeping views – including, when the weather cooperates, Denali itself.
As sometimes happens, the weather didn’t cooperate. The mountain rested behind an overcast sky, not quite ready for its close up. As nice as it would have been to see, we weren’t too disappointed. We took in the view and caught our breath before heading back the way we came, the descent much easier than the climb. With some time to kill before the ride back to camp, we meandered along the loop trail on the slope below the Visitor’s Center. I noticed where it would be easy to head off from the prepared trail down into the valley and imagined a multi-day trip, perhaps re-emerging somewhere else far down the highway to catch the ride back into civilization.
Plenty of people do just that: take the bus into the park, hop off somewhere, and set out for days at a time before crawling back aboard – often dirty, sometimes exhausted… but usually blissful. But if you’re not quite up for that kind of backcountry expedition – if you don’t have the experience or gear to wander the untracked wilderness – that doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to a lodge or a busy campground at the entrance. The Teklanika River campground makes a more intimate experience with the park and its wonders accessible to just about anyone.
Just make sure to get your spot before we book our return visit.
Karl Sander is a freelance writer living in Anchorage, Alaska, where he can usually be found skiing, hiking, or on a motorcycle. You can see more of his work at his website here. You can also catch up with Karl on Facebook and Twitter as well!
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