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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
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,
PERMIT Backcountry Unit 12 (pick up in person at the Backcountry Information Center 24 hours in advance)
CONTACT (907) 683-9532;

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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.

    Profile photo of lagunahiker

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