Ready for your Alaska epic? This 14.6-mile horseshoe offers a low-risk introduction to Denali’s 6 million trackless acres—with big-ticket payoffs like raging glacier-fed rivers, grizzlies, and McKinley views. Park at Riley Creek Campground and hop a westbound camper bus with room for backpacks. Ask the driver to stop at Grassy Pass (1), 2.2 miles beyond the Eielson Visitor Center, and hike 100 yards northwest to the top of a rocky chute (2). Descend the 200-foot gully, then hike southwest across a gravel bar veined by the Thorofare River. Near mile two, pass the Glacier Creek drainage and ascend a small, brushy ridge (3) for up-close views of Mt. Mather, Mt. Deception, and Mt. Brooks. Half a mile later, bushwhack southeast to rejoin Glacier Creek (make noise to warn off grizzlies), and go south two miles to the Intermittent Creek drainage (4). Veer left (east) and climb 1,200 feet in 1.5 miles to a grassy campsite (5) above the Muldrow Glacier. Next day, continue ascending along Intermittent Creek to a saddle (6) beneath 5,802-foot Mt. Eielson. Drop your pack for a short, .6-mile side trip up a nearby ridge (7) for views of Mt. McKinley’s double summit, 30 miles away. Return to the saddle and go east to the headwaters of Contact Creek (8). Descend this mile-long drainage to the Thorofare River gravel bar and head north for the return trip. Unclip your pack to cross the toe-numbing Thorofare (from miles 9.7 to 12.7). On hot days, glacial melt makes the river impassable; wait until morning for lower flows. Near mile 14, enter the Gorge Creek drainage (9) and hike northeast on a gravel bar for .3 mile to a cairn (10) marking an overgrown trail to the Visitor Center. Turn north onto the path and climb steeply past tall, willowy bushes. Less than a mile later, the route ends at Eielson Visitor Center (11); return on any green shuttle bus.
Shuttle Park at Riley Creek and take a Camper Bus west to Grassy Pass.
Permit Get permits for Units 12 and 13 (within 24 hours of trip) and a bear canister (free) at the Backcountry Information Center. Then buy a bus ticket ($30.75, round-trip) at the Wilderness Access Center.
Gear up Denali Mountain Works, Milepost 239 Parks Hwy.; (907) 683-1542.
USGS quad Mount McKinley B-1
Trip data Download a GPS tracklog at backpacker.com/hikes/479100