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
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.
(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.
ON THE MENU
On the road
Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
Instant oatmeal with brown sugar
Glacier Creek Pasta Salad
Trail mix, molasses cookies, granola bars
Deliciously spicy rice dish dressed up with a little cashew crunch
¼ cup milk (from powder)
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons curry powder
3 cups water
2 cups instant rice
Combine salt, curry powder, water in a cook pot and bring to a rolling boil. Stir in rice, then cover and simmer. When rice is soft and liquid has been absorbed (about 5 minutes), add milk and cashews. Stir and serve.
Glacier Creek Pasta Salad
Gourmet ingredients in an easy backcountry one-potter
4 ounces corkscrew pasta
2 ounces sliced black olives
¼ cup chopped cashews
2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon lemon pepper
3 ounces honey mustard dressing in a zip-top bag
Boil and drain pasta. Stir in olives, lemon pepper, and salad dressing. Add nuts and Parmesan cheese to taste.
The Grocery List
[ ] Cashews (2)
[ ] Molasses cookies (2)
[ ] Trail mix (2)
[ ] Dehydrated milk (3)
[ ] Granola bars (3)
[ ] Instant oatmeal with brown sugar (3)
[ ] Jelly (3)
[ ] Peanut butter (3)
[ ] Bread (4)
[ ] Instant rice (4)
[ ] Parmesan cheese (4)
[ ] Sliced black olives (4)
[ ] Corkscrew pasta (5)
[ ] Honey mustard dressing (5)
Pack Lemon pepper, curry powder, and salt
NEAREST GROCERY STORE
Canyon Market and Cafe
Milepost 238.4 Parks Hwy.,
Denali, AK; (907) 683-7467