Food / Logistics Planning for the John Muir Trail

If I could eat whatever I wanted while hiking, it would probably be potato chips. Fat, carbs and salt delivered in crunchy deliciousness… Unfortunately, potato chips are bulky and won’t fit efficiently in a bear can. Boo. I am going to be eating a lot of potato chips right before my hike and when I get to my resupply points.

A JMT food plan is basically a JMT logistics plan. There are limited options to resupply along the John Muir Trail. If you start from the traditional beginning of the trail at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, the first possible resupply point is Tuolumne Meadows (mile 22.8), then Red’s Meadow Resort (mile 60), then Vermillion Valley Resort (junction at mile 88 with a number of options to get there), and Muir Trail Ranch (mile 110) is the last on-trail resupply point. After that, your options are to (1) book it to Whitney Portal in 10 days or less, because all your food has to fit in a bear canister, (2) hike down to town via a lateral trail (most commonly over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley), or (3) pay for a horse packing outfit to do a food drop or recruit some friends to hike your food up to you (also most commonly at Kearsarge Pass).

To make a JMT food/logistics plan, I first made a loose itinerary of my hike to figure out how many days of food I would need and where I would resupply. I plan to hike an average of 10-12 miles a day and used the Wenk book to review trail descriptions and figure out where I might want to camp each night. I am starting from Tuolumne Meadows, and estimate it will take me 7 days to reach Vermillion Valley Resort from there and then another 8 days to reach Onion Valley and 5 more days to exit at Whitney Portal.  The private businesses that serve as resupply points along the trail each charge different fees and have specific instructions for sending resupply packages. So, I made some tough decisions, like “Do I want to spend $40 for the privilege of sending a package with only 2-3 days food in it to Red’s Meadow?” (No, I’ll suck it up and carry a bit more food and if I am short I can eat more burgers at Red’s and supplement from the General Store.) and “Do I really want to spend $265 for the Full Resupply Package at Mt. Williamson Motel?” (Yes, I may need some pampering by then…).

Here is what my resupply plan looks like:

LocationNo. of days foodBreakfastLunch/SnacksDinnerNotes
Tuolumne Meadows (Start)6+1 breakfast666
First day brekkie in civilization, Nero at VVR — possible to get food from Red’s if short
First day brekkie at VVR, last day dinner in Independence
Onion Valley5454
First day brekkie at Mt. Williamson Motel, last day will be back in Lone Pine!
Resupply packages I sent myself in 2017. Only sending two packages this year.

As for what I am eating, I am not being too fussed about being healthy or calorie counting. The JMT is only going to take me 3 weeks so I can’t really malnourish myself. Based on rough calorie estimates from the backs of food packages, I’m trying to bring about 2500 calories per day. Since how much food you can bring on the trail is limited by the size of your bear can, you want to bring calorie dense food. Fats are the best. The other thing I am trying to do is fatten myself up before the trail. When backpacking, generally I like to have hot dinner and breakfast (since I need to boil water to make coffee anyway) and then I just snack throughout the day without eating a real lunch. Here’s a list of what I will be eating on the trail:

Coffee (Starbucks Via)
Coconut Oil Packets (Trader Joe’s)
Nido (whole milk powder)
Instant Oatmeal
Freeze dried fruit

Tuna Packets (in oil for more calories)
Peanut Butter packets
Nutella Packets
Summer Sausage / Pepperoni
Dried Apricots
Fruit Leathers
Meat bars (Epic)
Cliff Bars
Candy Bars

Olive Oil Packets
Idahoan Mashed Potatoes
Tuna Packets
Chicken Packets
Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry dinners
Non-caffeinated tea
Hot Cocoa

If you’d like to learn more about food planning for the JMT, here are a couple great resources:

I also have a great JMT trip planning Google sheet I inherited from a friend, who inherited it from another friend, that I am happy to pay forward if you PM me.

JMT 2019 Gear List

Gear Philosophy

It seems like long-distance hikers, thru-hikers, ultralight hikers and outdoorsy people in general like to talk about gear too much. I think this is because (1) it’s easier to shop for gear online than to actually go outside and train in preparation for an objective and (2) reviewing gear and talking about gear and wearing and raving about sponsor’s gear is how all the “influencers” make money.

I feel very ambivalent about people bandying around numbers about how big the outdoor industry is and how it should have more political clout. As much as I appreciate what Patagonia does in sponsoring creative endeavors like The Dirtbag Diaries and fighting for Bears Ears, I don’t think that we can spend our way out of the environmental crises, no matter how environmentally friendly your camp shoes are. What we need to do is what they used to teach in elementary school back in the 80’s, before environmental issues were so politicized — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. (Patagonia realizes this too.)

The outdoor community in the United States is very white and very privileged. People often talk about camping and backpacking as if it is free! Outdoor gear is very expensive and obsession with the latest and lightest gear can make costs appear even more daunting and insurmountable for #unlikelyhikers just trying to get into the outdoors. Having the right gear is important. For example, having a sleeping bag that is warm enough and light enough and not too bulky will definitely be key to an enjoyable backpacking experience. But, shaving off a few grams from your pack weight by buying a $20 titanium spork?… Probably not necessary. (Full disclosure: I had said titanium spork and am still sad I lost it. Still hoping it will turn up.)

When I started putting together my backpacking gear in 2016, I did buy nice, fancy, lightweight “Big Three” — pack, shelter and sleeping bag — after intensively researching the interwebs. And, I have been really happy with those choices. However, the rest of my kit was developed over time by cobbling together stuff I already had (my tiny Thermos was initially purchased to be a purse Thermos for commuting to work) or by trying the cheapest option (I still use a BRS stove) and gradually buying more expensive pieces as I figured out what would actually enhance my quality of life on the trail, e.g. moving from a Chinese knock-off Thermarest Z-lite sleeping pad to a real insulated inflatable pad. If you are interested in putting together a beginner backpacking kit on the cheap, PMags’ blog is a great resource, as he says “[t]he best way to learn about backpacking is not discussing gear online or going to gear sales but is actually to get out there.”

Without further ado, here is my JMT gear list.

JMT Gear List

Big Three

  • Pack
    • ULA Circuit  — My pack was once purple, but now it is faded to blue after a summer being used as my guide pack on the Matanuska Glacier. Many ice tools and ropes have been carried on the thing.  Also good as a carry-on on planes. Super simple design but very functional, the only thing I have not been able to figure out how to do with this bag is rack a splitboard onto it. IMG_6043
  • Shelter
    • Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo — No tent poles so ultra squishable and packable. Uses one trekking pole. Large floor for spreading out gear. Not free standing, but I’ve never had an issue setting it up with rocks, and it sheds wind super well, better than a dome shaped tent.campsite
    • Tent accessories: Tyvek ground sheet (purchased from SMD along with the tent), 8 stakes (assorted — bought the SMD tent stake set initially, but have lost some and cobbled together others over the years) and two short pieces of tent cord (2 meter and 3 meter) for guylines.
  • Sleeping System
    • Enlightened Equipment Revelation 20 Degree Down Quilt — This is literally the best thing I have ever purchased. It warms up super quick when it is cold, and unzips flat like a blanket when it is warm. The nylon shell is remarkably soft and comfortable. As an itinerant person, I sleep in this year round. I cannot go back to a sleeping bag. If forced to use a sleeping bag, I unzip it all the way down and use it like a quilt. In 2017, I was worried 20 degrees wouldn’t be warm enough and bought a sleeping bag liner and hated it. It twisted up around me negating all the wonderful things about a quilt. I’d rather just pack thicker long johns and my down parka to sleep in. Some people say quilts are drafty, but I think there is a lot of user error. The neck drawstring is key and you must wear a hat.
    • REI Co-op Flash Pad Regular — R Value of 3.7 at 15 oz and less than $100 when REI is having a sale. It’s been good so far. I purchased this after the JMT in 2017 after discovering that I cease to be able to sleep on a Thermarest Z-lite closed cell foam pad if temperatures drop below freezing, also sleeping on a Z-lite was messing up my hip flexors because they weren’t able to recover in the night. I will let you know about durability after this thru-hike attempt.
    • Sea to Summit Aeros Premium Pillow Regular — Fabric-y surface hides the fact that it’s just an inflatable pillow. When I started backpacking, I used extra clothes rolled up in a fleece jacket for a pillow. I purchased a pillow before the JMT in 2017 with the thought process, “If I have to wear all my clothes to sleep to stay warm, I won’t have a pillow.”
    • Gossamer Gear 1/8 inch Thinlight Foam pad – NEW! Trying this as a sit pad / yoga mat / extra sleeping pad protection/insulation / emergency sleeping pad in case inflatable pad springs a leak — I’m paranoid about leaks because last time I hiked the JMT, I was still super hard core and using an indestructible Thermarest Z-lite closed cell foam sleeping pad but it wasn’t warm enough once temps dropped below freezing.

JMT campsite 2017

What I looked like camping on the JMT in 2017. My quilt is draped over my tent to dry out a bit over breakfast before we pack up.


  • Hiking Clothes (Worn)
    • Smartwool 150 T-shirt – NEW! Was going to slum it and wear any old synthetic T-shirt but splurged on a merino wool tee for its anti-stink quality. I have 7-day and 8-day stretches planned for this trek, which will be the longest I have ever been without a shower.
    • Montbell Chameese lightweight fleece jacket
    • Target sports bra and synthetic underwear
    • Northface Aphrodite Pants – Lightweight, quick drying, legs roll-up easily for stream crossings. I think it’ll be cool enough in September to prefer hiking in pants, and pants provide protection from brush and bugs.
    • Baseball cap
    • Sunglasses – random gas station, but polarized
    • Darn Tough Micro Crew socks – I used to have two pairs of Smartwool hiking socks, and two pairs of Smartwool ski socks, but the hiking socks wore out and I replaced them with two pairs of these Darn Tough hiking socks, which are just starting to show wear after 2 years of much more use than the Smartwool socks ever got. I still prefer Smartwool ski socks though.
    • Shoes – I currently own and hike in New Balance Leadville trail runners and Merrill Moab Mid GTX hiking boots. Not sure which I will want to wear and both are getting kind worn, but I think it is risky to break in new shoes now. Leaning toward the hiking boots for a bit more water resistance. I have just purchased new Superfeet insoles to put in which ever pair I choose.
  • Rain Gear
    • Outdoor Research Women’s Aspire Jacket – I have a pretty uncanny ability to make it not rain on multi-day backcountry trips, so I do not have strong opinions on rain jackets. (Tina vs. Whittier — the wettest city in Alaska and the United States, according to Wikipedia — 1 day of rain out of 9 on three separate three-day kayaking trips. Dry rain does not count.) The lining of my old Northface rain jacket started delaminating and ripping so I bought this one because it was very well-reviewed. Will let you know what I think after the JMT.
    • Montbell Versalite Rain Pants – Will shred upon contact with pretty much anything. (Patched with a lot of Tenacious Tape from the one time I tried to wear them on the glacier.) However, super light and useful as extra warm layer, mosquito barrier, pants to wear while doing laundry.
  • Sleeping Clothes
    • Uniqlo Heattech extra warm long johns
    • Uniqlo Heattech extra warm long sleeve undershirt
    • Extra underwear and socks (one to wash, one to wear)
  • Warm stuff
    • Uniqlo Ultra Light Down parka – Inga Askamit, author of Highs and Lows on the John Muir Trail is a fan too. But last winter they started only selling a seamless parka and my friend’s mom who works at Uniqlo warned me that the baffles in the seamless jackets will separate after a while because they are not sewn so that jacket is much less durable.
    • Merino wool Buff – functions as warm hat, balaclava, ear muffs and sleeping eye mask as needed.
    • Hestra Touch Point Warmth Glove Liners —  Merino wool synthetic blend. Expensive, but I got with a Big Sky gift card and they managed a whole season of ripping apart and applying skins to splitboard before developing any holes, which I will darn before the trail.

Water System

  • Sawyer Squeeze filter
  • One 2L Sawyer Squeeze Bag for collecting dirty water
  • 1L Nalgene Bottle – for drinking out of, and can function as a hot water bottle for cold nights, I don’t anticipate carrying more than 1 liter of water at a time for most of the trail.
  • 2L Evernew water bag – for carrying extra water and as back-up Sawyer Squeeze bag
  • O-ring that came with the filter for backwashing
  • Contemplating bringing Aquamira for back-up, as I expect to camp in below freezing temps at some point and am a little worried my filter will freeze like last time. Of course, I know now to not filter water first thing in the morning when it’s really cold. Filter before the sun drops below the horizon and everything freezes, then put it in your puffy jacket pocket and sleep with it.

Food storage

  • Bear Vault 500 Bear Canister – A bear canister is required on the JMT. It is heavy and makes my pack bulge a uncomfortably. It takes up most of my pack, so as I eat my food, I will gradually stuff more and more items in there during the day. In the Sierra, bears are very habituated to people and bear cans. In 2017 when we picked up our JMT permit, we were advised by the ranger in Yosemite National Park to place our bear cans close to our tents (12-15 feet away?), within sight and to make noise and scare the bear off if one approached… Very different from bear can protocol in Alaska or Montana where there a grizzly bears. Bears are super smart and adaptable, so when in doubt, ask the local rangers what it the best policy. Bear cans are not odor proof. The purpose of bear cans is to keep bears from being able to get to your food (bulky round shapes keep bears from being able to crush them with their jaws) and in the long run train them to leave campers alone. If a bear asks to borrow a nickle or a credit card, don’t give it to him!

Camp Kitchen

  • BRS Ultralight 25g Backpacking Stove – Cheap, made-in-China stove that may be less efficient than a fancy Jetboil, but is much more packable.
  • 700ml Evernew Titanium Pasta Pot – I started out with a larger aluminum pot, but figured out that I am pretty happy boiling about 600ml of water for dinner and a hot beverage (coffee in the morning and tea in the evening), so I upgraded to this little titanium pot which fits a small 4 oz fuel canister.
  • Bic mini lighter
  • GSI Outdoors Long Essential Spoon, Large – NEW! Trying this out because silicon spatula sides sound good for cleaning out pot without awful scraping noise. Long spoons are popular for getting food out of the bottom of Mountain House meal bags. It looks kinda ridiculous next to my tiny pot though.
  • Small ~330ml Thermos – Almost lost this hitching out of Lee Vining in 2017, but had the foresight to exchange contact info with the nice English mother-daughter pair that picked us up and got it back! Was sad hiking 4 days without the Thermos, so definitely bringing it!

Shit Kit

  • Montbell potty trowel — It is wayyy easier to dig a proper cathole with a potty trowel than with the heel of your shoe or a tent stake, or whatever ultralight folks claim…. Doubles as extra camp spoon! I kid.
  • Toilet Paper
  • Wipes


  • Sunblock
  • Chapstick with SPF
  • Toothbrush and travel size toothpaste
  • Mini Vaseline – anticipating really dry hands. 😦

Paper Goods


  • iPhone SE + charging cable + headphones – Camera and GPS.
  • NEW! Small GorrillaPod smart phone tripod and shutter remote – I’ll be hiking alone this time, who will take beautiful photos of me? Me! Let’s see how much I use it.
  • External battery + charging cable
  • Black Diamond Spot Headlamp – I actually hate the fancy multi-touch control of this headlamp and would rather one that just cycles through all the functions the old fashioned way, but I guess by the end of the JMT I’m going to be a pro at using this.
  • Extra AAA batteries for headlamp

First Aid Kit

  • Exact contents TBD. I will be carrying stuff for blisters (leukotape), wound care (bandaids, gauze and iodine wipes), pain meds (ibuprofen and acetaminophen), and anti-itch stuff (benedryl as well as some topical-steroid anti-itch cream).

Repair Kit

  • Dental floss with sewing needle taped to box
  • Duct tape wrapped around Sharpie
  • Small amount of fabric repair tape (Gear Aid Tenacious Tape)
  • Safety pins – mainly for hanging laundry on pack, also good for first aid.

Misc. Backpacking Gear

  • Mosquito headnet – I’ve made it through a summer in Alaska and a summer in Montana without ever using bug spray, just long sleeves and pants and a headnet. (Not possible in muggy, hot places like Japan or Taiwan.)
  • Earplugs – For windy and rainy nights and if people are partying at VVR.
  • Swiss Army Knife
  • Compass
  • Camp towel – small microfiber towel I got from a Tell charity run
  • Sea to Summit ultrasil pack liner – I only bought this because there are no trash compactor bags in Japan.
  • Small dry bag for sleeping bag and down puffy
  • Crocs – Best camp shoes if you will be wearing socks.
  • Montbell Versalite Pack 15 – for side trails, summits, carrying stuff around camp. Like Montbell Versalite rain pants, not the most durable but super light and packable.
  • Black Diamond Alpine FLZ trekking poles – These poles collapse small enough to fit in my ski backpack in the winter when splitboarding and extend long enough to hold up my tent in the summer. Love them.
  • Wallet – small plastic mesh zip pocket from Daiso.
  • A few extra Ziplock freezer bags – A gallon Ziplock bag makes a great in-tent pee bottle for women, just make sure to double bag in case there is a leak. Set outside your tent door after using and empty at your leisure in the morning.

Glacier National Park

June 27-30, 2019

When my mom was my age, she and my dad sold our house, packed up everything we owned and drove across the country from Georgia to California with two young kids in the car (me 8, my brother 2) so that my dad could start a company in Taiwan. That is way more hard core than me quitting the legal profession at 35 to pursue outdoor adventures. I have no responsibilities. I can hardly imagine. Compared to my mom, I feel like I have not gotten very far in life at 37.

And my parents could not have foreseen that that trip would have germinated my romantic notions of The West and eventually lead me to live this definitely not achievement-oriented / make-your-Asian-parents-proud vagabond life

This was what I thought about during my drive from Big Sky to Cut Bank Campground Thursday evening after work for the beginning of my solo adventure in Glacier National Park. The skies north of Butte and Helena were immense and the clouds enormous. During my six hours drive to Cut Bank, I drove through two storms. The sky would darken as if it were dusk, and then I would emerge into day again. And then it would become night. And then I was driving with headlights and wipers and sunglasses on as the setting sun emerged again below the storm clouds at 9pm.


Cut Bank, a quiet and secluded area of the park, when I arrived at dusk

It’s not an adventure if eveything goes as planned. I had planned to camp for two nights at Many Glacier, but I got greedy and I am in the backcountry permit office in Many Glacier discussing backpacking options with the ranger when Many Glacier Campground fills up in the morning. So, I grab the last backcountry camping permit for Gunsight Lake for the following night, drive to Rising Sun Campground to stake out a spot for that night and then drive back to Many Glacier for a day hike.

I can’t decide whether to hike to Grinnell Glacier viewpoint or Iceberg Lake and let the parking situation dictate my decision. I get the last parking spot in front of Iceberg-Ptarmigan Trailhead, so Iceberg Lake it is! (“Ptarmigan” always makes me think of Chicken, Alaska which supposedly got its name because its early residents didn’t know how to spell “Ptarmigan.”) The trail to Iceberg Lake is perched on one side of a u-shaped glacial valley with beautiful views almost immediately of sharp fin-like glacially carved peaks. The trail was lined with Indian paintbrush and fluffy white bear grass flowers. I stop with all the other tourists to observe a mama bear and her cub playing a safe distance up a small drainage above the trail. I really enjoyed the vibrant turquoise green and brick red of the mudstone on the trail where there was water running over it. 

I stop for a snack break and water above Ptarmigan Falls, which is very much like Vernal Falls at the beginning of the JMT, but there doesn’t seem to be a good place to take a photo of the falls without falling. The second half of the trail to Iceberg Lake recalls The Great Valley from the Land Before Time, much like Yosemite Valley from Half Dome or all of Zion NP. Iceberg Lake is the tarn under the cirque at the end of the valley that forms part of the Continental Divide. The lake is beautiful when you first see it, but as I approached the shore in search of a good lunch spot, there were kids throwing rocks in the lake, rowdy folks shrieking from each other’s polar plunges and unsteady tourists trying to walk out onto the “glaciers” in the lake. A regular circus. High above the commotion, a herd of sheep impressively traversed the cirque to get to little patches of green grass, so I stayed and watched a while. 


Iceberg Lake

It was still early so on the way back to the trailhead, I decided to take the side trail to Ptarmigan Lake. Not a few minutes from where Ptarmigan Trail forks off, I found half a dead baby sheep on the trail, followed by some bear scat a bit further on. Unlike the trail to Iceberg Lake with its expansive views, this trail was in heavily shaded woods. I started “Hey Bear!”-ing and soon ran into two girls who told me they turned around because they were spooked. I kept going anyway, because, whatever, I’m a card carrying Montanan now and can’t be scared of no bears. 

I cross paths with an older couple coming back from Ptarmigan Lake who inform me that I’ll have it all to myself, there is no one on the trail behind them. This is excellent news in light of all the bear signs, but once they are out of earshot, I say out loud to myself, “I guess I can pee wherever I want!” Iceberg Lake trail had the problem of being too exposed and well-trafficked and there had been a line at the pit toilet. 

Following a moderate climb, the views opened up on Ptarmigan Pass. This cirque, at the end of another glacial valley that forms a Y with the one ending at Iceberg Lake, is much less dramatic and photogenic than the one at Iceberg Lake, but I can see the faint line of the trail that switchbacks up to Ptarmigan Tunnel, which is really cool. Why is there a tunnel? Why doesn’t the trail just lead over a normal pass? How did they build the tunnel? What is on the other side? Piques the imagination. It made me think of the “Tower of Babylon” short story by Ted Chiang. Ptarmigan Pass does not open until mid-July.


Ptarmigan Pass in the distance

I aspired to get up early for my overnight backpacking trip, but only managed to wake up at 8am. By the time I get onto Gunsight Pass Trail (part of the CDT), it is almost 11. The trail dips off Going to the Sun Road into the lush, heavily vegetated valley floor. The trail is narrow and lined with bear grass in full bloom. When I stop for water where the trail first meets the river flowing over rocks in swirly waterfalls, a deer appears and doesn’t seem bothered by my presence. I stop for lunch where the trail follows a meandering stream at the bottom of the valley, and a moose is also lunch-ing nearby in the marsh on aquatic plants. 


Bear grass lined trail to Gunsight Lake

I arrive at Gunsight Lake campsite around 2pm and while it looks idyllic, I seem to collect a cloud of mosquitos as I hang my food and pick a campsite. I have a headnet, but the mosquitos attack my hands as I stake out my tent. So I keep moving and after I set up my tent I head off to try to hike to Gunsight Pass and see what’s on the other side. 

The trail climbs up over Gunsight Lake on switchbacks with great views of the splindly waterfalls on the opposite side of the valley that cascade into the lake. I climb over and around a small snowfield, then the trail cuts into the rock walls of the steep mountain side. I am thwarted from making it over the pass by a snowfield about half a mile from the pass. It’s not too wide, but would be a long drop down into Gunsight Lake. With no means of self-arrest, I decide not to risk it. I attempt to climb around the snowfield off trail, but get scared, especially after thinking about how I have to downclimb anything I climb up, turn around and head back to camp. 


Gunsight Lake and Gunsight Pass Trail

After getting around the small snowfield I climbed over before, I see a hoary mountain goat maybe 100 feet ahead of me on the trail. It starts walking toward me so I pull out my phone and start taking photos. It starts getting really close, so I turn my phone to video and back up against the wall. I don’t want to be butted off the trail! The goat seems to check me out, probably asking for food, and determining I’m not going to feed it and am not a threat, kindly climbs up off the trail and lets me pass. I was very jealous of the ease in its climbing ability. If I was a goat, I would have made it to Gunsight Pass!


Live to hike another day or YOLO?

My final day in Glacier was a straightforward hike out the way I came, a drive across the Sun road, with no stops because there was no parking anywhere, ending up at Polebridge Mercantile, where I bought and ate three pastries and hung out until they opened up the showers at 4pm. 


Glacier NP definitely reminded me of Alaska, even down to Polebridge Merchantile. 

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.

Eielson weather forecast.JPG

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.


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.


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 with lenticular cloud


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)!