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Rip & Go: Mt. Eielson Loop

Explore pure wilderness on this two-day circuit in the Alaska Range.
mt. eielsonA view from Grassy Pass. (Michael Deyoung)


Without marked trails or even intermittent cairns and blazes, the Denali backcountry is a routefinding challenge. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a champion orienteer to find your way. Directional cues are built into the landscape—if you know where to look.

(A) Waterways Keep an eye on the current. On this route, you’ll travel opposite the stream flow until the Mt. Eielson saddle, and go with the flow afterward.

(B) Drainages Glacier Creek (mile 1.9) generally runs north-south. The Intermittent Creek and Contact Creek drainages (at miles 5.3 and 8.5, respectively) parallel the park road.

alaska(C) Road There’s only one thoroughfare in the park, a 92-miler that runs east to west—and it’s visible for much of the way.

Mountains On sunny days, 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley (D) is the unmistakable hulking landmark 30 miles southwest of Mt. Eielson (E).

True to its Athabascan name, “Denali” (meaning the Great One) is the tallest mountain on the continent and the park’s undisputed superstar—but this granite massif is often shrouded in clouds. In a good weather window? Don’t miss your chance to ogle the Great One. On this hike, the saddle below Mt. Eielson is the best vantage. Stuck at the park entrance? Hike 1.5 miles and 1,500 vertical feet on the Mt. Healy Trail to a view of Denali lording over the vast Alaska Range.

“Most people think the park isn’t open until the buses are running the entire length of the road,” says backcountry ranger Jessica Toubman. Not so. In 2010, crews started clearing the road in March. Beat the swarms (both kinds: people and mosquitoes) by planning your Alaska epic for May. Expect average highs to be 20°F cooler (50s, versus 70s in July), but lower temps mean less melt water, so river crossings will be easier. Alternately, hit the park in mid- to late-September; fall colors are settling into the aspens, and bluebird days for perfect McKinley viewing are almost guaranteed.

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