Weekend in Denali – Year of COVID-19

At the beginning of July, we spent a weekend in Denali, camping for 2 nights at the Riley Creek Campground. For a change, we weren’t off for big adventures, but I had the goal of mapping all the Park Entrance and Savage River trails for my Alaska Travel and Hiking Guide. I also wanted to find some more subjects for my Alaska Wildflower guide before our short summer is over.

Inadvertently, I also experienced Denali National Park at the height of the tourist season in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. The park had a . . . well, different than average feel.

Park visitors speak with Denali National Park Rangers and staff outside the Visitor Center which is closed for the 2020 summer season due to COVID-19.
Denali National Park information booth set up outside the main entrance Visitor’s Center which is closed for the summer to COVID-19

We stayed over the July 4th weekend. I felt very unsure what to expect during one of the biggest travel weekends of the summer. Typically, I avoid many of these trails in the summer because of the density of tourists. Yet, there aren’t many tourists in Alaska this year due to coronavirus concerns and semi-required testing or quarantine when entering the state. Plus, the shuttle buses were only running as far as Eielson Visitor Center, and there aren’t as many scheduled trips, so I figured this was an excellent time to finish my mapping in the entrance areas.

We checked in to the Riley Creek Campground upon arrival. The mercantile store where we check-in required masks, social distancing in line, and had hand sanitizer conveniently placed outside. Other than that, registration was pretty much standard.

Denali National Park Visitor's Center
Rear entrance of the Visitor’s Center. It’s a shame (but understandable) that it needs to be closed this summer, it’s beautiful and very well done with a ton of great information about the park.

Before heading out on the trails, we swung by the visitor’s center to see what restrictions there were in the park at the moment. Most buildings were completely closed, including the main visitor center. They had a makeshift information booth outside the main doors set up with plexiglass (which was taken down a few days later). All the park staff and rangers wore masks, and a lot of the visitors did while at the entrance.

It was noticeable how many fewer visitors there are this summer than usual. Typically I see the (big) Visitor Center packed nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, but only about 20 people were milling about the entrance. A few people were getting info from the rangers or using the restrooms before heading out for the trails or their cars and de-masking.

Hiking in Denali NP on July 4th is Annoying

Starting up the Healy Overlook Trail, it was quickly apparent we were on the most popular trail at the entrance. There were multiple large groups heading up as we arrived at the trailhead. Not long into our hike, we were nearly clobbered by a couple of runners heading down the trail. Soon after, some hikers almost barreled over us that were also running down uncontrollably.

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I usually give other hikers a polite nod and “hello” in passing on the trail, but not many seemed to notice or return the gesture. Almost no one hiking down the hill gave us the courtesy of stepping aside to give the uphill hikers the right of way. Then there was the music.

Healy Overlook Trail in Denali National Park
Illusion of a quiet, peaceful Healy Overlook Trail

What is with people hiking with Bluetooth speakers blaring?! I will be that curmudgeon criticizing this annoying practice. It’s incredibly irritating and disrespectful to others on the trail. I didn’t realize this was even a thing, but I think we were subjected to about 20 different groups blaring their music on the trail. Apparently, this has become a big thing lately, and there is a lot of argument over it. There shouldn’t be. As a wildlife photographer, this practice is infuriating. I digress, but I’ll be writing an article about hiking etiquette soon.

Hiking beyond the maintained trail was quite a bit nicer. There were a few other big groups, but they seemed more courteous for the most part. I imagine that a large portion of the people hiking up to the overlook are not typical hikers, so maybe I can forgive them for their total lack of trail politesse.

Overlook at the top of the Healy Overlook Trail
Looking back at some hikers at the overlook

Despite the fewer travelers to the park, the first hour on this hike might have been my most annoying time in Denali, with the exception of a group of tourists on one of my shuttles a few years back (I literally walked off the bus to walk and flagged down the next one that had room). I’ll assume that is was more of a July 4th, atypical crowd that was the issue.

Rocky ridge leading up to Mt. Healy in Denali National Park
The rocky ridgeline that leads up to Mt. Healy

Quieter Times

By the time we were on our way down, it was later in the day, so there were fewer people to pass while hiking. My heels were blistering, so I had to stop and apply moleskin. I’m on some medication for blood pressure that has caused my feet to swell slightly, and unfortunately, that means my favorite hiking boots don’t fit well anymore. By the time we reached the trailhead, I couldn’t be in them anymore.

I needed to stop at the car for some snacks and so I could put on my trail running shoes for the rest of the afternoon/evening. We hiked under the midnight sun until, well, midnight before returning to camp.

Horseshoe Lake at 11:00 pm | Purchase Print

The campsite at Riley Creek was as nice as it usually is. One of the campground loops is closed for the summer, but it was quiet for our stay. I did have to keep checking back for availability since I was making reservations the week before a holiday weekend but eventually sites opened up.

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After the initial chaos of the 4th, the following two days were much quieter. We did lose out on one planned hike in the Primrose area because of a closure due to grizzlies defending a kill. Walking the Mountain Vista trails and along the Savage River was quiet, with just a few other hikers. Afterword we polished off the remaining six miles of northern entrance trails and only saw one other couple and a ranger at the Park Headquarters.

An arctic ground squirrel eating Eskimo potato along the Mountain Vista Interpretive Trails | Purchase Print

The area near the headquarters where the dog sled teams are usually doing public showings was a ghost town. The kennels, which typically draw a big crowd, are also closed for the summer.

On our last morning, I finished mapping the trails near the main Visitor Campus. We saw one other person outside the main entrance. Of course, it was Monday, and without the out-of-state tourists and most of the Alaska residents back at work, I find it chillingly quiet. It’s such a peculiar feeling in the summer to not have the constant hum of the natural-gas-powered buses going by and the scurry of tourists between the gift shop, visitor center, and cafeteria.


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