Denali AKA Mt. McKinley


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"There are two ways to experience Denali [hiking] -- on a marked trail, or off-trail in any  
direction you choose . . . One of the reasons Denali exists is to provide people with a
chance to explore wilderness, and a result of this is a limited trail network. "
~ Denali National Park webpage re: hiking

Denali is one of the few parks in this country where visitors are actually encouraged to hike off-trail. It's fun and it's easy, especially in the tundra where you can see where you've been and where you're going and have little chance of getting lost.

The Savage Alpine Loop is one of my favorite hikes in Denali National Park. I've experienced it both on and off-trail.

I hiked the trail a mile up from the Savage River in 2012 and wandered around the tundra but most of the loop was still a work in progress then. I was happy to be able to complete the loop on the new trail this past July.

I enjoyed it so much that I really wanted to share it with Jim. He was game to try it today if the weather cooperated.

As you can see, it did.

Although the morning began with lots of clouds at the campground near the park entrance we decided to go on out to Savage River and see what the weather was doing there.

As we've discovered previously, that was a good plan because it was sunnier out there and got better and better as the day wore on. There are so many micro-climates in this huge park that it's likely to be quite nice just a few miles from where you are if you're in rain or clouds.

More blue sky and fresh snow on low peaks on the way to Savage River this morning

Our only disappointment was not getting to see Denali completely "out."

We got views of Denali's lower snow-covered slopes during most of our hike but never could see the north and south peaks clearly:



Although it was cooler again today than average -- 37 F. overnight at Riley Campground and only 55 F. in the afternoon -- we stayed warm in the sunshine during our hike. There was some wind on the exposed slopes but not nearly as bad as the gusts I encountered last month on this trail.


The Savage Alpine Loop Trail is advertised as 4+ miles in length from the Savage River parking area at Mile 15 to the Savage River Campground at Mile 13 on the park road, or vice versa.

That distance doesn't close the loop, though. No matter the direction you hike the "loop" (more of an arc, actually), you end up a couple miles from where you started, as you can see from our GPS track below:


There are several ways to close the loop besides spotting two vehicles, which isn't practical for most park visitors.

In July, I parked our truck on the other side of the river, hiked clockwise, and walked along the road at the end, for a total distance of about seven miles. I was hoping to be able to see some moose, caribou, or other large critters in the wide gravel riverbed during the road walk but didn't see any wildlife.

Another option is to drive your own vehicle to either end of the trail and use the free Savage River shuttle bus. It conveniently stops at both ends of the loop so you can hike in either direction and get on or off either at the beginning or end of your hike.

Or you can leave your vehicle at the entrance area and use the shuttle bus the whole way. Just get off where you want to begin the hike and get back on when you're done. Easy peasy.

Stream and snow-frosted peaks along the park road to Savage River this morning

Our choice this morning was to park our truck near the Savage Campground shuttle stop. We arrived just in time to take the free shuttle bus two miles farther to the Savage River, where we began our hike.

That way we could walk clockwise on the loop, doing the steeper climb through the rocks and rock ridge above the river first. Not only is that the easier way on our knees (it is more gradual down to the campground at Mile 13 than down to the river at Mile 15), but we were also glad to have the truck at the end of our hike instead of having to wait for a bus then.


Jim hasn't gone up this trail previously through the various rock formations so I was curious if he'd find it as much fun as I do. He did!

Here are some scenes from the rocky ascent to the tundra:

Some fall color at the trailhead

West toward the Savage River and Mt. Margaret

North along the river

South to the park road, one of two parking areas, and the river upstream

Jim pauses to look around in the first rock formation area.

The narrow trail switchbacks up this slope through rocks and some smoother spots.



At this elevation the tundra isn't as bright red yet as it was three years ago but it's getting there . . .

Once at the top of the switchbacks the trail undulates over a ridge and through some other cool rock formations that are like the jagged spine of some giant creature:



Looking back = the view if you hike the other direction.

First of two "slots;" you have to kind of lean to get through this one!

Jim follows the trail around the side of these rocks.

Looking back

A few more rocks ahead

The second slot is a little wider.

Almost through the rocks and across the saddle AKA pass

Looking back from the tundra to the SW toward the Alaska Range and Denali

Denali's upper slopes and peaks are mostly hidden under the clouds.

Continued on the next pagescenes from the last three miles through the tundra and down to the road

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody the ultra Lab, and Casey-pup

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2015 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil