FAIRBANKS — The adage of “leave only footprints, take only photographs,” only partially covers the leave-no-trace ethic at Denali National Park today.
In addition to packing out toilet paper and not collecting moose antlers as souvenirs, rangers now ask backcountry hikers to not post precise maps of their adventures on the Internet when they get home.
That’s because detailed turn-by-turn instructions for GPS devices have the potential to threaten what’s supposed to be a trail-less wilderness as hundreds of footprints along the same routes scrape social trails into the landscape.
“If someone says this is the greatest campsite ever and then everyone camps there on a published route, we’re going to see impacts,” said Michael Raffaeli, a backcountry ranger at Denali.
The park service can’t do anything to physically keep bloggers or even guidebooks from publishing GPS coordinates of their trips, but rangers can make a point of systematically asking them not to do that. This summer rangers began adding the request to not publish, or follow, GPS routes as part of a safety talk visitors are required to hear before they camp overnight in the backcountry.
Informal trails are much older than GPS mapping websites. Hiking in the Denali backcountry isn’t easy and trails naturally form wherever hikers or animals pick the same path through thick alder groves or steep terrain.
Hikers inevitably seek out advice on the the best places to hike. Social trails branch out most thickly in places where tour buses drop off lots of visitors.
Rob Burrows, a wilderness resource specialist for the park, has studied Denali’s growing network of social trails since 2011. From his perspective, old-fashioned guidebooks, not GPS websites, are still more likely to steer hikers into the same over-traveled corridors.
“I’ve been watching some of the sites where those are posted, and I don’t get a sense that they’re used a lot,” he said.
In the past, the park service has asked popular tour book publishers Lonely Planet and Rough Guide to refrain from posting overly specific backcountry routes in their Alaska guidebooks, Burrows said.
“They’ve been very cooperative and very happy to provide the type of message that we like to provide here,” he said. “That is, not providing specific route information.”
Backpacker magazine has been less responsive to requests to not post backcountry GPS routes. Raffaeli and other backcountry rangers cite it as a prominent source for turn-by-turn backcountry itineraries in the park.
The park service sometimes closes parts of the park because of animal kills or sensitive nesting spots and could theoretically close parts of the park with heavily eroded trails, but there aren’t any plans for that now, Burrows said.
Instead, the park service is working to teach hikers to seek out gravel bars and other hard surfaces, and to avoid walking single file when the terrain allows for it. Backcountry campers get this message in a 30-minute video they’re required to watch about bear safety, river crossings and other safety issues. For people who lack the skills to travel off trail, the park service recommends guided hikes which have rapidly grown in popularity in recent years.
Restoring some heavily eroded trails is a losing battle. The park service plans allow for a handful of formally maintained trails in the most popular areas. This year, the park is building such a trail, the Gorge Creek Trail, from the back of the popular Eielson Visitor Center to the Thorofare Bar riverbed it overlooks.
Denali is unusual in Alaska because it attracts so many visitors, more than half a million per year in recent years.
It’s unusual compared to popular Lower 48 National Parks in that so much of it is undeveloped. Most of Denali National Park is trail-less for a reason. Although it’s bigger than the state of Connecticut, the park has only a handful of formal hiking trails, most clustered around the park headquarters, bus stops along the park’s lone road and the 92-Mile Denali Park Road. Most visitors don’t venture far beyond the park road or the limited formal trail system.
Park leaders have long prided themselves in keeping trails to a minimum. Leaving the backcountry trail-less offers hikers a wild experience that’s rare in national parks of the Lower 48.
In a history of the park’s nearly trail-less plan written this spring, backcountry ranger Sarah Hayes credited Denali naturalist Adoph Murie with inspiring the park’s trail-less philosophy by firmly opposing trail construction planned in the 1950s as part of a modernization plan called Mission 66.
“Let the tourist be on his own, and not be spoon-fed at intervals. Let him be encouraged to keep his eyes open, do his own looking and exploring, and catch what he can of the magic of wilderness,” Murie wrote in a 14-page opposition to Mission 66 trails plan that was quoted in Hayes’ paper.
In addition to making hikers feel guilty about the damage caused by making or following GPS trails, the new backcountry instruction comes with an inspirational message about navigating in the backcountry that echoes Murie’s opposition to the backcountry trails plan.
So far it’s been hard to tell if the new instruction has inspired hikers to avoid the convenience of GPS-marked routes, Raffaeli said. Most hikers don’t stop in at the backcountry office on their way out of the park.
Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: