Backpacking, Packrafting, and Swarming Mosquitoes in Denali National Park

Denali Backpacking: Mosquitoes and Memories

Every summer, usually in June, I take a two- or three-week wilderness trip with my husband, Luc. It’s one of our favorite traditions and always gives us quality time and good stories.

In June 2023, we set our sights on the northern part of the Alaska Range in Denali National Park. This was a multi-sport, point-to-point trip including backpacking and packrafting. We planned an epic trip with three different phases, each with their own beauty and challenges.

We started out with a treat: walking down Denali Park Road.

A Rare Window: Backpacking Denali Park Road

In summertime, Denali Park Road is usually hopping with buses. Park visitors board buses to travel the mostly unpaved 92-mile road through the interior of the park. It’s an incredibly scenic route and often rich with wildlife–it’s popular for a reason! For the last couple of years, the second half of the road has been closed due to a landslide. For backpackers like us, this opens up a rare chance to enjoy the west side of the park without vehicle traffic.

Generally, backpacking in this park means starting at the park road and hiking off-trail north or south into the mountains. We considered taking a handful of different off-trail routes to work our way west, but with the road closed to traffic, it was hard to pass up. Easily the most direct path, the road functioned as a big trail with easy walking and great views. We didn’t regret this choice

With our bags packed and our plan all set, my mom dropped us off at our starting point, which was not only helpful logistically but gave us some good quality time with her. On our first day, I found a bird’s nest on a gravel bar, complete with little eggs–one of my favorite things to find. Spirits were high and we felt like it was going to be a great trip!

For this first leg of our trip, we backpacked from the East Fork Bridge to Kantishna along Denali Park Road. Since this trip was early in the backpacking season for us, the first few days of friendly terrain also helped us get warmed up for the trip (and the rest of the season). We enjoyed 45 miles of easy walking, beautiful scenery, and lots of animal sightings.

As we walked along the road, I reminisced on the last time I’d traveled through this area about 15 years before. Back in my 20s, I worked in Denali NPS for 6 summers and 1 winter – Trail Crew in the summer and at the sled dog kennels in the winter. My summers here were where my introduction to off-trail backpacking, and it felt really fun to walk past places I had backpacked when I was just a baby backpacker, learning a lot and intimidated by things that are a normal part of our backcountry time these days. 

During my kennels winter, our big trip with the dogs was from the park headquarters to Wonder Lake on the winter trail that follows the same valley corridor as the Park Road. So many adventures and misadventures happened on that trip! It was really rewarding to revisit all of those memories and share them with Luc.

Camp Denali and Onward to the Wilderness

At the end of the road, we stayed at Camp Denali, where the hosts could not have taken better care of us. After a few days of backpacking, enjoying delicious, hot meals and friendly company at camp felt positively luxurious. While we were there, we also picked up our resupply that had been flown in, including our packrafts. We were ready for phase two of our trip.

As we made our way west past Wonder Lake, I thought about myself in my early backpacking days again. I remember thinking back then how the terrain beyond the end of the park road felt like something I could never have the skills to handle. But 15 years after that trip, as Luc and I hiked away from camp to do just that, I felt a little burst of gratitude for how much I’ve grown.

As we reached the McKinley Bar, we hopped into our packrafts to float down the very muddy river. And that’s about when things started to get pretty spicy.

The Worst Time to Backpack along the Alaska Range

While we were planning our trip, we had gotten a bunch of beta from friends who still work at the park. They were encouraging, but we did notice a bit of sideeye and skepticism about our timing. The mosquitos in the western part of the park are notorious, but naively, we felt confident we would be fine. We’d planned this trip during the sweet spot of relatively bug-free travel in the Brooks Range (early-June and done by the first week of July), which we naively assumed would also be good timing for the Alaska Range. And anyway, we’re Alaskans, so we feel like we’re good at managing bugs. We’ve experienced some pretty gnarly mosquito situations in the past and figured we had it covered.

But… This trip was a very humbling experience! The swarms of bugs were on a whole new level, by far the worst both my husband and I had ever encountered.

As we floated down the river, the mosquitoes were truly horrible. Keeping our spirits high, we kept telling ourselves and each other that it would just be a temporary thing. We felt like it would just be a short frustration, there’s no way it could be that awful for the rest of the trip…but it was.

How to Manage Really, Really Bad Mosquitoes on the Trail

So with bugs that bad, what can we do about it?

The first (and best) tip to dealing with bugs is prevention. Know if and when the bugs are bad at your destination, and plan your trip to avoid the buggy times. We definitely made this mistake. Our timing was too late: we missed that key window where winter has thawed out but the bugs haven’t all hatched yet.

But sometimes, you get caught in a buggy place unexpectedly, and you have to play the hand you’re dealt. With bugs as bad as we had, there was no way to make things good. It’s more that we were using strategies to make the experience less bad.

After a couple of days, as it became clear the bugs weren’t going to let up, we realized how much even short breaks without bugs helped make things easier. We started setting up our tent even for short breaks, so that we could eat and recover for a few gloriously bug-free moments. Yes, it was time consuming, but it made a big difference.

Seek out wind. Even a light breeze goes a long way to blowing bugs away. We had one short section with a breeze on our trip–more on that later!–and wow, it was a massive relief.

Use deet (sparingly). Yes, deet is a pretty awful chemical, and we avoid using it as much as possible. But it does work, and sometimes it’s worth using in extreme circumstances like this. To minimize our exposure, we put small amounts on our clothing rather than our skin.

We also used bug nets on our heads throughout most of the trip. In addition to the nets, we also wore bug-proof clothing from head to toe, making sure we covered absolutely all of our exposed skin.

As you can probably imagine, swarms of mosquitoes also made things tricky when nature called. We used our tent like a tarp to cover ourselves up when we needed to relieve ourselves. In retrospect, I wish I’d brought a female urination device (aka a pee funnel), because it would’ve helped minimize skin exposure on bathroom breaks. Needless to say, this trip required a lot of creative solutions!

Better Tools for Coping with High Stress

It’s hard to convey the reality of what being in swarms of mosquitoes felt like day after day. The loud, non-stop buzzing around us raised our stress levels quite a lot. It felt like being under constant siege.

Here’s a measure to convey the level of bugs we’re talking about – Luc grew up in McGrath where the mosquitos are also notoriously bad. He’s told me for years that they had a record of killing 50 bugs in one hand slap – which he used to keep me humble on past trips when I thought the bugs were bad but we’d only kill ~15 in one slap. Well on this trip I killed 100 bugs in one slap! It was very gross and also very validating. 

Navigating this level of bugs is quite stressful and uncomfortable. We had to keep ourselves fully covered even on warm days, which meant feeling sweaty and sticky a lot of the time. Head nets are also annoying to wear because they interfere with your vision and breathing. We were almost constantly mentally and physically uncomfortable. All this also made it harder to feel connected with and in awe of our spectacular surroundings.

To deal with the stress, every day we were quite eager to hurry up and get to our destination. Often it felt like arriving at camp was the only real relaxation we got each day. (Although it helped a lot when we started pitching our tent to take breaks, as mentioned above.) It was hard to stay present when we were so mentally drained from dealing with the bugs all around us.

In the midst of all this chaos and stress, I tapped into my nervous system skills to help me through.

I used to deal with hard situations by ignoring my body’s stress signals and simply pushing past them. A few years ago, I decided to learn new tools to tune into my body and keep my nervous system in balance. When I stopped relying on my old ways, for a while my capacity to handle stress actually got lower. At first, this was honestly pretty discouraging and frustrating, as things often feel when we’re learning new things.

With patience and practice, I’ve gradually rebuilt my capacity with my new toolkit of listening to and supporting my body’s discomfort and regulating my nervous system in the process. Instead of just pushing through my discomfort, I’ve learned how to be present with my stress response, support myself through it, and work through deactivation and re-centering after a stressful experience. This trip was an opportunity to put those skills into practice in a major way.

I felt proud as I noticed a new kind of capacity I had on this trip. All of the nervous system work I’ve been doing over the last few years really helped me manage the discomfort on this trip–and there was a lot! This experience boosted my confidence that I can handle a lot more stress now without being overwhelmed and without overriding my body’s natural stress signals.

If you’re curious about these skills, foundational nervous system work is woven into my training courses, Summer Strong and Ski Babes. I also walk people through deeper exploration into their personal nervous system cycles in my Winter Healing Circles. Find out more about our programs right here.

Big River Crossings and a Much-Needed Bug Break

The second leg of our trip, from Camp Denali to Perkypile, took 10 days. Besides the bugs, the big challenge in this segment was the river crossings.

Our route paralleled the orientation of the Alaska Range, which means the rivers flowed straight across our path as they drained from the mountains. We had several major glacial river crossings to negotiate, and it being June, snowmelt was fueling somewhat high flow in the rivers.

Luc had just finished teaching six weeks of river safety classes, so he was feeling sharp with his river skills. This was a huge help as we managed the challenges of swift water. We could have used our packrafts to float across the rivers, but this approach is very time-consuming, so we opted to cross on foot. Luc’s skills were indispensable to get us across these formidable crossings safely!

As we debriefed the trip at home later on, we agreed that taking the time to use the packrafts to cross would’ve been the smarter, safer thing to do. The crossings may have had some consequences if something went wrong. We were certainly grateful we didn’t have any incidents or issues on the crossings. Luc talks a bit more about these river crossings in his trip report.

Along the way, we had a totally classic Denali experience: we got almost no views of Denali itself. We were traveling below the mountain for many days, and in theory the views would’ve been incredible. But the mountain was only out for one day–the day we were at Wonder Lake. The rest of the trip, the clouds clung to the peaks around Denali, revealing just the foothills.

As we made our way down the Alaska Range, we took a side trip to Mt. Foraker, thanks to a tip from friends. They’d told us how spectacular this little jaunt is, and they were so right! One of the best parts: a breeze provided some much-needed relief from the swarms of mosquitoes we’d been battling. For two glorious days, we could travel without head nets or full bug gear. The sense of relief was incredible! We remembered why backpacking we like backpacking!

Besides the lack of bugs, the scenery was magnificent. We traveled along a lateral glacial moraine for a good while, overlooking the Herron Glacier. We followed game trails in alpine tundra below a sea of snow-capped peaks. Easy walking, spectacular views, no bugs…it was dreamy!

As we sat at camp one morning, the weather put on a show for us. We watched as cloud banks rolled in from the south, heading north toward the peak of Mt. Foraker. As the clouds moved, they hit a high pressure system and curled dramatically. This video shows what I mean.

This side trip was definitely the highlight of the whole trip, and the weather show was a highlight within the highlight and a memory I’ll treasure for a long time.

Heading Home

After we finished our Mt. Foraker side trip, we were sadly back in mosquito territory. Donning our bug gear once again, we made our way to an airstrip at Perkypile to collect our next resupply. From there, we had planned another segment of travel for the third and final leg of our trip. We planned to make our way to Rohn, then travel along the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River to Nikolai.

We made a game-time decision to cancel this segment. We took a flight out to McGrath instead, where we met Luc’s parents. The bugs had really taken a toll on us, and we decided quality time with family (surrounded by four walls!) would be a better call. It was really buggy in McGrath too though, so we didn’t stay for long. 

Our long trips often have lots of ups and downs, and this one was no exception. We were met with some pretty humbling lessons and big challenges. Despite that, I’m proud of how we navigated the worst of days, and I’m grateful for the easier, magical days too. Our time in the Alaska Range will not soon be forgotten, that’s for sure!


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