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Perfect 10: North America’s 10 Most Memorable Hikes

Ten trails. Ten unmatched miles each. Get maximum bang for each boot step on hikes that our most-traveled contributors call their all-time favorites.

Perfect 10: Mt. Eielson, Denali National Park
Get guaranteed mammoth wilderness in America’s wildest national park.
—Gus Axelson

I took one step into the backcountry and felt like I had been set free from a cage. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my first year as a dad, but I needed to reconnect with the man I was before my nights were sleepless, lullaby-infused grudge matches. My wife knew it, too, so she sent me to Denali National Park, with her brother, Brett.

My timeline was naturally tight: only a few days to get my fix. So I asked a park ranger for the quickest route to badass country, and he drew up a 10-mile horseshoe crossing Gorge Creek and angling up Sunrise Creek to the Sunrise Glacier, where we’d pick our way through to a pass and then return via Green Dome to Thorofare Pass.

From the Eielson Visitor Center, we picked our way southwest down a steep ridge toward Gorge Creek. Minutes into the trip, I nearly stepped in a pile of soapberry-filled bear scat the size of horse manure. Bingo—instant wilderness on a larger scale than I’d ever encountered.

At about mile three, we forded a quarter-mile-wide braid of the Thorofare River. Two miles later, I stood beneath a 20-foot-tall wall of blue ice, a dark maw at its base where meltwater surged into Sunrise Creek. We camped upvalley, hemmed in by rock and ice and 7,000-foot peaks.

The next day, the morning sun lit our path: a steep 1,000- foot ridge we’d need to climb to find the pass. Halfway up, rubble trundled from above. A baseball-size rock hit my ankle. Then a volleyball-like rock careened past, exploding upon impact, right where we’d camped. I’d asked for wild, and got it. New priority: making it home safely to my son. We retreated and camped in a small side valley.

The next morning, I got up early to cook breakfast. As I mixed pancake batter, I noticed a boulder in the willows. Then the boulder moved. Bear! We yelled and waved. I was dusted with mix, a human Krispy Kreme. Finally, she turned slowly like a freighter and plodded away.

So when you need a big dose of badass, come to Denali. Maybe you’ll score a permit for Sunrise Creek, maybe not. But it doesn’t matter: Any 10 miles here will do.

PERFECT 10 Sunrise Creek to Sunrise Glacier to Thorofare Pass
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DO IT
Take the park bus to Eielson Visitor Center, then hop off and hike south. Plan on two or three days, minimum.
MAP USGS quad Mt. McKinley B-1 ($8, store.usgs.gov)
PERMIT Backcountry Unit 12 (pick up in person at the Backcountry Information Center 24 hours in advance)
CONTACT (907) 683-9532; nps.gov/dena

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1 Comment

  1. lagunahiker

    If you’re planning on hiking Mt Whitney from Kearsarge Pass, study a map carefully before you go. The hike includes a climb over Forester Pass (13,200 ft), the highest pass on the John Muir Trail, as well as the climb over Kearsarge Pass, a 12,000 ft pass. It’s a great hike, with great views (I’ve done it three times), but it is significantly more difficult than backpacking the Portal Trail.

    Avatar of lagunahiker

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