Backpacking in Denali

My summer season job with MICA Guides wrapped up September 10 which gave me just enough time to do an overnight backpacking trip in Denali National Park before the park service stopped running their buses on September 13.  My plan was to rent a car from Anchorage, drive up to Denali on September 11, pick up a permit and camp at Riley Creek Campground near the park entrance. Then I would take a Camper Bus into the park on September 12, camp out in the backcountry, and hike out and catch a bus back to the park entrance on September 13… the last day buses were running, so no being over ambitious and missing the bus!

A few unique things about backpacking in Denali National Park:

  • Private vehicles can only drive the first 15 miles of the 92 mile long Denali Park Road, the only road in the park.
  • Park busses only run from late-May to early-September. (Basically, when snow is not expected.)
  • Backcountry permits are only issued in person at the Visitors Center from 8 AM the day before the start of your trip, so you can’t really make a detailed hiking plan before you get there and you will want to get to the park as early as possible the day before your trip to maximize your permit choices.
  • There are no established trails, your permit is for a Unit or Units that you have a certain amount of time to move through. Based on the quick search I did, there isn’t much information about suggested backpacking routes in Denali NP on the Internet besides climbing Mt. Eielson. But I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be — a true wilderness experience!
  • From the whiteboard behind the permit desk at the Visitors Center, it looked like for some Units the maximum number of people who can camp per night is 4 people, so don’t plan to backpack in a large group.  
  • No trails means assuming you will be hiking at a speed of no more than 1 mile an hour. You don’t know what the vegetation will be like, if the drainages will be swampy, what stream crossings will look like, if a scree slope will be traversable.

In summary, it’s an intimidating mix of needing to plan in advance and then not being able to really plan much in advance. Luckily, I had learned quite a bit about hiking in Alaska — following moose trails, alder bashing, finding campsites, bear awareness — over the course of the summer and felt like I was prepared with realistic expectations. Here’s a good read if you are looking for more information about backpacking in Denali.

The drive to Denali National Park

It had started to get cold and rainy in at the end of August, such that I had started to long for being indoors and having insulation (I lived in a tent all summer), but from Labor Day weekend Alaska was enjoying an Indian summer which brought us back to the warm sunny weather of early July and camping was once again quite pleasant. Parks Highway offered impressive views of Denali (The Mountain) on my drive up from Anchorage, but I didn’t stop to take any photos because I was trying to get to the park in time to pick up a permit. (The Internet said that permit pick up was until 3:30 pm, luckily for me the desk was actually open until 5 pm.) The scale of the scenery on Parks Highway was much bigger than Glenn Highway where I’d spent the summer. The mountains were striped rust red tundra and spruce green with the gold of aspen and alder lower down, their black rocky peaks dramatic against a bright blue sky. It was a bit confusing when I got to Denali National Park. I got a camper bus ticket at the Wilderness Access Center, then had to go to the Visitor’s Center to get my backcountry permit and then Riley Creek Mercantile to get a walk-in tent site. I was glad I had a rental car to run all these administrative errands; I had considered taking the train.

Picking up my permit

The process of getting a backcountry permit worked like this. There is a whiteboard listing Unit availability above the permit desk. You get a form to fill out from the permit desk and the ranger sends you to flip through binders that describe the different Units. I had done a bit of poking around on the park website Unit map so I had a few Units written down as candidates for an easy overnight backpack. Unit 12 Sunrise and Sunset Glaciers on my list was available, so I snapped the last spot up. Of course, after hiking on a glacier almost every day for 3 and a half months, the thing I wanted to do most in Alaska was see more glaciers! Then I watched the required leave-no-trace, stream crossing, bear awareness videos, purchased a USGS quad map of my Unit to study and borrowed a bear canister.

Backpacking in Denali

The next morning at about 7 am, I got on the earliest camper bus for the 4 hour ride to Eielson Visitor Center to begin my hike. We saw a couple of moose and a mama bear and two cubs from the bus. The bus driver would stop to allow everyone to capture the wildlife with their gigantic telephoto lenses. It was cloudy, overcast and windy. When I arrived at Eielson Visitor Center, Denali was hidden behind a shroud of clouds and I nixed the possibility of climbing Mt. Eielson as it was covered with a dusting of snow at the top.

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Perfect conditions for hiking!

I hiked down to the end of the developed trail from the Eielson Visitor Center, and gingerly picked a crossing across Gorge Creek. First real stream crossing ever completed, my feet were soaked but my merino wool socks squished out quickly and stayed warm. I walked along the gravel bar of Thoroughfare River as recommended by the ranger who issued my permit, but got bored and decided to punch up into some tundra to see what I could see. After a short bash through some small trees and wading through shin deep shrubbery, I started to recognize the plant life I wanted to walk on. The red stuff, mostly blueberries, was short, firm and easy to walk on, so I let the vegetation direct my path. Greener vegetation indicated drainages and I learned to follow the moose paths across those parts to avoid ending up in boggy marsh.

Tarn

Beautiful tarn

I didn’t have much of a plan except to camp in the valley along Sunrise Creek, since that was the closest area I was allowed to camp. The problem with Unit 12 is that most of it is visible from the Denali Park Road and you have to camp out of sight of the road. That also makes it a not so wilderness-y experience, but easy access to the road and Eielson Visitor Center made it a fool-proof, if a bit boring choice, for my solo end-of-season backpack.

I came to a small creek before Sunrise Creek where I found I had to backtrack and lose some elevation. Being stubborn I tried to climb higher across a scree slope but I kept falling so I ended up scree skiing down into the gorge and rock hopping across to Sunrise Creek.

Then I tried to walk as far as I could up Sunrise Creek. I was hiking up the north bank when the gravel bar virtually disappeared. Making the silly decision to avoid getting my feet wet, I was attempting to boulder across a short section of the gorge wall when a cinder block sized rock I was hanging on to detached from the wall and fell into my lap. I was lucky to only suffer a bruised thigh. So after a cold crossing, I gave up on following the river and climbed up on the south bank of Sunrise Creek.

It was only 4:30 PM, but suddenly, I was completely exhausted. I had only hiked about 6 miles but I think the fatigue from an entire summer of physical work and little time off caught up with me. My plan to hike up to the bottom of Sunrise Glacier was abandoned for the more urgent need to find a place to lie down. I set up my little tent on the bench below Bald Peak, and sheltered from the katabatic winds, took a nap for 1.5 hours. Somewhat recovered, I made dinner of Idahoan mashed potatoes and a foil packet of lemon pepper tuna and lay back down again reading Into the Wild (Chris McCandless’ ill-fated Alaska adventure having happened not far away) in my tent until the valley came ablaze at sunset around 8:20 PM. I was a less exciting expedition than I had hoped, but I guess the luxury of solo hiking is having the freedom to do things like pull in early to take a nap.

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My campsite view of Sunrise Glacier

In the morning, I left my tent up to dry and set off to climb the saddle under Bald Peak and up a little knoll in front of it. The cloud cover from yesterday burned off over the course of the morning, revealing dramatic white peaks framing Sunset Glacier. As I got to the precipice, the peak of Denali poked up over the ridge behind Mt. Eielson. A pleasant surprise! I’d been hopeful but not at all certain I’d get a Denali view from there.

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Sunset Glacier

Me and Denali

Obligatory Denali selfie

I descended back to my camp, packed up and had an easy walk down the bench and back down to the gravel bar. I planned to simply follow the gravel bar along Thoroughfare River back to Eielson Visitor Center, but the stream crossings got intimidating and I ended up tussock hopping around a tarn and retracing part of my route across the blueberry fields from the previous day. There were still a lot of blueberries good to eat, but thankfully I didn’t see any bears! I arrived back at Eielson Visitor Center by 2:30 PM and first things first, took off my wet boots and socks and put on my Crocs. Yay, camp shoes! I put my name on the bus list and watched a video about climbing Denali before getting put on a bus for the 4 hour ride back to the park entrance.

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Thoroughfare River

Denali

Denali with lenticular cloud

Post-hike

It was late evening by the time I got back to my car and I was feeling strangely not stoked about more camping and hiking adventures. I think I was realizing my body just wanted to recover from the summer. I sat in the parking lot feeling a bit defeated and found an AirBnb in Palmer and booked it for the next night. Too tired to make any other plans, I camped at Riley Creek Campground again. I had slept like a log on the tundra, but seemed to have trouble getting comfortable that night. When I got up in the morning to use the bathroom, I noticed that the tenugui I had hung on the corner of the picnic table at my campsite had frozen into a stiff origami shape. The plastic collapsible water bottle I had left on the picnic table was crunchy with ice crystallized across the inside. Ah, that’s why I had trouble sleeping. It was too cold to wait for hot water to boil and percolate my own coffee, so I quickly packed up my things and went to Morino Grill next to the Visitors Center to restore the feeling to my fingers with a cup of corporate-y Starbucks latte. My backpacking night had actually been very comfortable, and it had definitely not been close to freezing cold, even though it was at higher elevation. I had been super lucky with the timing of my trip! As my fingers regained feeling, I felt pretty good about my decision to spend my last two nights in Alaska indoors.

Epilogue: My AirBnb host turned out to be a super cool fiber and ceramics artist, I had the most comfortable stay, and the house was walking distance from two craft beer breweries (Arkose and Bleeding Heart)!

 

Hiking in Taiwan: Know Before You Go

I grew up in Taiwan, but just completed my first two high mountain hikes (and bagged my first six Baiyue!) over the month of July. I am fluent in Chinese and have family here so it was probably easier for me to figure out how to do it than for most people. Really, it was my brother that figured out all the permit stuff. Anyway, it was amazing so I wanted to share the information I gathered that might be useful to any English-speaking folk that want to hike in Taiwan.

Hiking culture in Taiwan is heavily influenced by Japanese hiking culture, as it was the Japanese that first developed modern, western-style hiking culture in Taiwan during the colonial period. Of course the mountains were sacred places and important hunting grounds for certain aboriginal tribes in Taiwan before the Japanese arrived and many of the current trails used to be hunting trails or trading routes used by the native peoples. My impression is that hiking infrastructure is very similar to the Japan, but the mountains are wilder.

Like Japan’s Hyakumeizan (日本百名山), Taiwan has its 100 famous peaks, known as Baiyue (台灣百岳) (see list here). But Japan only has 21 peaks above 3000 meters, while all of Taiwan’s Baiyue are above 3000 meters. The eastern two-thirds of the island is basically a series of mountain ranges running parallel to each other. The mountains are extremely rugged and remote for such a small island. The Central Mountain Range is the length of the JMT, but there is no practical way to resupply by hiking out to a town so you cannot do an American-style long distance hike of it. People have hiked the full length of the Central Mountain Range, but more in the manner of a full-fledged hardcore mountaineering expedition.

Speaking of hard-core mountaineering expeditions, see documentary of hard-core Taiwan canyoning expedition led by Mike Harris from Canyons in Gunma here.

Permits

Permits are required to hike the major trails in Yushan National Park, Shei-pa National Park and Taroko National Park. There is a lottery to climb Yushan Main Peak, so you must apply for a permit at least a month in advance. For the majority of other trails, you must apply for a Park Entry Permit at least 7 days in advance. This can be done at the National Park Permit Application website: https://npm.cpami.gov.tw/. (The website also comes in English and Japanese.) Everything is automated. You select the trail you want to hike and the online application form will automatically populate your options for itinerary and lodging. Check availability of beds/tentsites on your desired route before choosing dates. Generally, all Saturdays will be booked out for popular trails as soon as registration becomes available (usually a month ahead). You will need an emergency contact with a Taiwan ID number and phone number.

After completing the National Park Permit Application, you should be directed to a link to apply online for a corresponding Mountain Entry Permit from the police bureau. You can apply online up to 5 days in advance of your hike, or you can actually do it last-minute in person at the police station closest to your trailhead. (Taiwan police are notoriously friendly and nice.) The permits are free, as are most mountain huts and campgrounds.

Park Entry Permit approval depends mostly on availability of space in the huts/campsites for your dates and the difficulty of the trail. You’ll see a difficulty rating on the permit application for your course. For anything more than an A rank trail, you will be required to provide evidence of adequate previous hiking experience (e.g. photo with summit marker). Solo hikers are required to sign a waiver co-signed by a family member, so your family can’t sue the park service if anything happens to you. Mountain Entry Permit is apparently just some anachronistic formality and is automatically granted if you have a Park Entry Permit.

You’ll need to print 2 copies of each permit after they are approved. You will deposit one copy of each with the ranger at the trailhead when you enter the trail and hold on to the second copy, which you may be required to show on the trail and will have to deposit back at the trailhead when you finish so that the park service knows you’ve come back down to civilization and are not lost somewhere.

Permits may be annoying but I think they are understandable for safety and environmental reasons. When you deposit your permit at the trailhead, depending on the mood of the ranger, you might be required to watch a mountain safety / leave-no-trace video. I jokingly call this “the defensive hiking video.” They have an English version for foreigners.

If you need help with permits, contact me.

Mountain Huts, Porters and Food

When you apply for a Park Entry Permit you also designate your planned lodging / campsites. The mountain huts and campsites in the national parks are free unless otherwise specified. For example, Jiujiu Hut (or 99 Hut) on Daba Trail charges 200NT per person per night. It’s run by the forestry bureau and has a live-in caretaker and hot showers. Management of the hut most people stay at for a Yushan / Jade Mountain climb is outsourced to a private company and supposed to be really nice, so you probably have to pay for that one too.

Mountain huts called XX山莊 (shan-zhuang) have facilities like designated bunks covered with a thin rubber mat (think cheapest yoga mat), a cooking area, toilets, running water, solar-powered lighting. This is where most people stay and will probably be lively and noisy with big groups and aboriginal porters and cooks. I saw these guys servicing hikers at both 369 Hut and 99 Hut: http://www.bununclimbers.com/. They were friendly and professional. At 369 Hut, the rate was 200 NT per kilo to carry your stuff to and from 369 Hut and 800 NT for a sleeping bag and hot dinner and hot breakfast, which was 100% real food, mainly consisting of local fresh veg, and didn’t look too shabby. So, even though the national park website will say there is no food service or bedding at the mountain huts, you can get it from a private provider if you contact one in advance. When I was coming down from Dabajianshan on a Thursday, there were 7-8 young porters carrying 200kg of fresh food in styrofoam coolers strapped to external frame packs up to 99 Hut in anticipation of the weekend. (On a side note, fascinating history of external frame packs here.)

Huts called XX山屋 (shan-wu) are intended to be used as emergency huts and don’t have any facilities. (Park service considerately provided a shovel and hoe for digging catholes at Zhongba Hut.) It appears the emergency huts in Shei-pa National Park have all pretty recently been rebuilt or refurbished and had rainwater collection tanks added and are quite nice.

Don’t expect the designated campsites to have any facilities; they are just places which are relatively flat and have water sources nearby.

Maps

Sun River publishes hiking maps for climbing Taiwan’s Baiyue very similar to Yama to Kogen hiking maps in Japan. They cost 200NT apiece and are should be available at any serious outdoor gear shop. I got the one for the Holy Ridge which covers most of Shei-Pa National Park. The map provided information about the huts, campsites, water sources, model itineraries, course times and elevation profiles for popular routes. If you can’t read Chinese, the map is still useful for matching Chinese characters to signs, water sources, hut locations, course times etc. Beware that trail conditions are constantly changing due to typhoons, earthquakes etc. and maps may not be fully up to date. Check the appropriate national park website for latest conditions before you go.

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Water

According to a Chinese language Taiwan mountaineering book my mom has, there is no water in the mountains of Taiwan that will make you seriously ill, there is only water that may not be very tasty to drink. The mountains are mostly sandstone, shale and half-metamorphosed shale-slate and when the water from the porous sandstone hits impermeable shale, it flows out in delicious mountain springs. Up on a ridge though, the water sources may be brown snow/rainwater ponds, so you’ll probably want a filter for that.

In Taiwan, it’s still not recommended to drink the tap water in the cities; so most people habitually filter or boil their water even if it looks fine. Use your own judgment or ask an aboriginal porter rather than some flatland Taiwanese person.

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Water seeping through cracks in the shale in the Black Forest under Xueshan Main Peak

Weather

As with any high alpine environment, the weather changes really quickly in the mountains. I hiked in July in the typical summer weather pattern of not-a-cloud-in the-sky mornings and short afternoon thunderstorms. Best time to hike, according to the caretaker at 99 Hut, is from September through December when the weather is most stable (after typhoon season and before cold fronts). You can hike most trails year round but snow gear (crampons, ice axe) may be necessary January-March and the difficulty rating on the trail is increased for permitting purposes.

In mid-July, at 3000 meters it got down to 8 degrees Celsius at night. Daytime temps above 2000 meters were so comfortable for hiking. It was a great escape from the sweltering sauna of Taiwan summer down below.

Dangerous Animals and Plants

If you see a Formosan Black Bear, you should go buy a lottery ticket because that means you’re really lucky. Their remaining habitat is the three national parks you will probably be hiking in but they are extremely endangered and sightings are extremely rare, so few that no meaningful estimate of the population can be done. Taiwan’s poisonous snakes are nicely distinct looking if you have the misfortune to have to tell a doctor which one bit you for anti-venom, but they don’t live at high elevation. Formosan macaques look small and cute but have been known to be aggressive, so don’t look them in the eye and don’t leave your pack unattended if they are around because they will go for your food.

There is a really scary plant to be aware of that is common in mountain forests called yaorenmao (literally “biting cat”). It’s a variety of stinging nettle. It’s covered with really fine little hairs that will prick and burn you with an acid venom if you accidentally touch it. It was all along segments of Dalu Forest Road on the Daba Trail when I hiked in, and the Forest Service had sent a private contractor to cut it down by the time I hiked out, so it’s good to know they are trying to keep it under control.

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Once bitten, you won’t forget what it looks like.

Elevation

Diamox / Acetazolamide is available over the counter at most any pharmacy in Taiwan for prevention of elevation sickness.

Cultural Quirks

For some reason, a lot of people hike in rubber boots, or wellies. I think that would be so hot and uncomfortable and ill-fitting. No one hikes in shorts; I got so many shocked comments. I guess you would think it’s cold in the mountains if you can wear jeans in the 39 degree sauna down at sea level.

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Take me back to the mountains!

Yakushima: Choose-your-own-adventure-land

So, you’ve read about my Yakushima adventure and want to plan your own. This post provides information about my trip that may be relevant to your trip planning.

Yakushima Hike Map

My Yakushima adventure

My Yakushima trip was very spur of the moment. I had already purchased a plane ticket to Fukuoka for a Kyushu ceramics tour and then decided to attach Yakushima to my Kyushu trip. This was literally the first time I just went traveling without knowing where I was going to sleep every night.

I used as reference http://www.yakumonkey.com/ and http://www.yakushimalife.com/. But once I was on the road I didn’t have reliable Internet, so I bought the Yama to Kougen Yakushima hiking map (山と高原 is the series of maps used by most Japanese hikers) when I got to Kagoshima and it became the primary resource I really used to plan my trip. The map comes with a little handy guide with trail descriptions and model routes for day hikes and multi-day traverses. It also has campsite and hut information and phone numbers for emergency, lodging, transportation, etc. It is completely in Japanese.

Why I like to call Yakushima “Choose-your-own-adventure-land” is it is a really easy place to go with no plans. According to the Internets, the campsites are rarely crowded and no reservations are required (or taken) for the mountain huts. (Of course, I would avoid Golden Week or any Japanese public holidays.) There are six mountain huts. Two are located close to a trailhead and four are centrally located high up in the mountains around Mt. Miyanoura. The two located near the trailheads — Shiratani Hut and Yodogo Hut — make it possible to catch a ferry from Kagoshima in the morning, take a bus to a trailhead in the afternoon and stay at a hut the night you arrive. (I didn’t need to bring a tent, I just wanted to test out the one I bought for the JMT.) All trails are connected and lead to Mt. Miyanoura, and the centrally located alpine huts mean there are plenty of places to retreat in case of bad weather.

Itinerary

My plan when I arrived on the island was:

Day 1: Get oriented. Camp in Miyanoura.

Day 2-4: Hike for three days staying 2 nights in mountain huts.

Day 5-6: Chill at South Village youth hostel with friends.

Curio beach rest day

Kurio Beach rest day

Food

I purchased ~3500-4000 yen worth of food for my 3-day hike from a grocery store in Kagoshima, consisting of instant ramen, instant miso soup, tea, instant coffee, nuts and chocolate, bread, tuna, granola biscuits and cheese. I would recommend purchasing food on the mainland because there is more selection and it is cheaper. However, there is a relatively large supermarket at a shopping center very close to the Miyanoura tourist info center.

After the hike I spent maybe 4500 yen on food in 2 days while staying at South Village. We bought stuff from a grocery store in Kurio and went out to a nice izakaya for Brig’s b-day.

Transportation

I had to take the jetfoil to the island because the normal ferry was under maintenance when I departed. The jetfoil cost 8400 yen and takes about 2 hours. Website here.

On the way back I enjoyed riding on the normal ferry — Ferry Yakushima 2. It costs 4500 yen and takes about 4 hours. It’s a nice ferry with a gift shop, cafe, various seating areas, and library, which I appreciated because I didn’t bring any reading materials. I borrowed a book and learned about the geology on Yakushima. I also struck up a conversation with a 70-year-old hiker (we identified each other by our backpacks) from Fukuoka who has been to Yakushima over 60 times and plans to make it to 70 trips by the end of the year. He gave me a lot of great tips for my next trip to Yakushima. There was also an amazing view of Kaimondake, Kyushu’s little Mt. Fuji, from the ferry.

There is also a municipally run overnight ferry that is 3000-some yen. My friends took it and said it was okay. It’s the cargo ferry and docks overnight at Tanegashima. The issue with the overnight ferry is that it doesn’t leave from the main ferry terminal in Kagoshima and it’s a bit of a mission to get to the right ferry terminal.

Jetstar flights between Kagoshima and Narita can be had from about 6500 yen each way.

On the island I relied on the bus. There is a bus that goes pretty regularly on the main road most of the way around the island, maybe once an hour. For hikers, there are four buses a day to Shirataniunsuikyo from Miyanoura, and two buses a day to Yakusugiland from Anbo (the other main town on the island). For an idea of bus fares, here’s what I actually spent:

Bus from Miyanoura to Shirataniunsuikyo – 520 yen

Bus from Hirauchi to Kurio beach – 500-some yen each way

Bus from Hirauchi to Miyanoura Port – 1870 yen

Lodging

The first night I ended up illegal camping (oops) at Oceanview Campsite. There isn’t much in the way of facilities there, but it was free.

The 2nd and 3rd nights I stayed in the mountain huts. These are free, but I paid the recommended donation of 2000 yen for overnight campers in the national park.

After my hike, I spent two nights tent camping at South Village youth hostel. It was 1080 yen per night for “camping” with access to a well-appointed guest house with kitchen, dining and lounging areas, big screen TV, washers/dryers, bathrooms, showers and private hinokiburo! The staff were really nice and I definitely want to stay there again. (Actually, I would love to work there…) The website says they only take reservations for 3-nights or longer, but you can stay there for a shorter period of time depending on availability.

For Kagoshima lodging I stayed at Green Guesthouse Kagoshima. A capsule is 2300 yen/night (single sex dorm was full when I went). It is just okay. The building shakes when large trucks go by. Reception wouldn’t accept my takkyubin in typical inflexible Japanese service manner. (I get that they are small and don’t want everyone to send their luggage ahead, but I sent my sleeping pad and trekking poles to arrive the day I checked in and after I checked in they still wouldn’t just receive the package for me. I had to wait for redelivery in person.) Wifi was spotty. But it’s less than 5 min from the ferry terminal, so would probably stay there again if going back to Yakushima on a solo trip.

Moneys

In summary, for 6 days, 5 nights on the island, I spent around 20,000 yen not including the cost of getting to and from the island. Including cost of getting to and from the island from Kagoshima, staying a night in Kagoshima (which you have to do because of ferry times unless you take the overnight ferry) and the cost of flights to and from Tokyo, I spent about 50,000 yen on my trip to Yakushima.