|NATIONAL PARKS QUICKLINKS|
Backpacker Magazine – August 2008
Hike with grizzlies in this remote northern corner of Alaska's greatest park.
Track big game in the Toklat Valley.
The Toklat River is a virtual expressway for the park's legendary big game. In this wide-open, trailless drainage, we've watched wolves hunt snowshoe hares, dodged caribou running up riverbars, and stood our ground while grizzlies bluff-charged camp. And oh, the views: When it's clear, you can't get a better look at McKinley without a bush plane or climbing guide.
Your trip starts with a ride to Ice Cream Gulch at mile 51 on the park road. Hop off the bus and bid goodbye to the tourists headed toward Wonder Lake. You're going south for six miles, along the east branch of the rushing Toklat River, where the Toklat wolf pack hunts and howls from the ridgelines of their ancestral home. You'll know you've hit your first campsite when seemingly out of nowhere a 400-foot waterfall explodes out of the glacier-carved mountains. Throw your tent down anywhere with good visibility (so you can see bears approaching), walk your food canister at least 100 yards from camp, and consider the thrilling and disconcerting fact that for the next five days you're no longer at the top of the food chain.
The mistake every Denali rookie makes? Overestimating your travel speed. Squishy tundra and bushwhacking make for slow going, but the solution is easy: Allow an hour per mile, adjust your goals accordingly, and build in down days for exploring.
Basecamp on day two, and then follow the river south for two miles to the toe of an unnamed glacier that pours off the northern spine of the Alaska Range in alternating strips of ice and moraine. One-tenth of Denali is covered in glaciers; spend a few hours exploring the clear blue crevasses and strange wormlike insects called springtails that thrive on the porous ice. Back at camp, pad around the tundra looking for a kettle pond–shallow pools left in the wake of receding glaciers–to soak in under the midnight sun.
Break camp early the next morning and cross the Toklat (facing upstream and side-stepping, but never looking directly at the dizzying current). Follow the west bank north for four miles to an unnamed pass just south of Divide Mountain. Climb the 4,000-foot pass, which opens onto a panorama of whitecapped mountains and is a great place to shoot sunrise or sunset pics of alpenglow on the distant peaks. Descend to the west branch of the Toklat and turn south, hugging the east bank for another half mile until you come to the first side canyon to your left. Set up camp and digest dinner with a 1.25-mile walk to the back of the steep-walled canyon, where a lush green bowl attracts Dall sheep ewes and their cotton-white lambs.
On day four, pack your gear, but leave it in camp while you hike three miles south up the Toklat's meandering west branch, glassing the ridgelines for wolves hunting caribou and sheep. Backtrack to your gear, and hike north two miles to the Toklat bridge at the park road. Cross the bridge and hug the northeast bank for 1.5 miles north to the second of two rock-filled draws.
Turn east, following the draw to a grassy divide. Set up camp in the forget-me-nots, and scramble to views of the East Fork Valley, multicolored Mt. Sheldon, and, on a clear evening, the behemoth of all North American mountains, 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley. Trace an unnamed ridge east, then south up Polychrome Mountain. Make camp in a grassy divide below the summit and scout a line up 4,961-foot Cabin Peak, the next day's climb.
The hike to Cabin's summit transitions from fragile mountain heather to jagged rock. Watch for moose down low, marmots sunning themselves up high, and arctic ground squirrels scurrying away at the top. The views from the summit include the lush Wyoming Hills and the pastel Polychrome Mountains. Return to camp. The next morning, hike back to the road, flag down the bus, and head out.
>> PLAN B: Mcgonagall pass Get in-your-face views of McKinley and walk up to the sweeping Muldrow Glacier on this 38-mile hike. From west of Wonder Lake Campground, walk four miles through big timber to a crossing of the mighty McKinley River, which seeps out of the Muldrow Glacier at an average of 34°F. (Ask backcountry rangers for the latest information on water levels, but regardless of depth, prolonged exposure to glacier-fresh water is always a challenge.) Across the gravel bar, pick up the social trail and head to the highest barren tundra bench, known as Turtle Hill. Ford rushing Clearwater Creek and follow Cache Creek toward the mountain, climbing to tundra and then onto the glaciated pass.