Denali AKA Mt. McKinley


Runtrails' Web Journal
Previous       2015 Journal Topics       Home       Next



"The more strenuous Savage Alpine Trail runs more than four miles, and connects    
the Savage River area with Savage River Campground . . ."
~ Denali National Park website hiking page

Four miles will only get you point to point, which works if you spot two vehicles or use the free Savage River shuttle bus in one direction or the other (or both -- you don't have to drive your own vehicle out there at all).

If you want to close the loop on this hike on foot, you'll need to walk another 2+ miles along the park road.

I chose this option for a total distance of seven miles -- or a little less if you get off the bus or park your own vehicle on the east side of the river in the first parking area you see:

This is the end of the line for most private vehicles -- the parking area at Savage River.
The alpine trailhead is to the right beyond the parking lot and goes up past that rock formation.

I was curious to see this newly-completed trail because it was only about a mile long when we were here three years ago.

The trail began at the Savage River parking area, 15 miles back the park road. The trail rather steeply ascended the cliffs on the east side of the river, then leveled out and disappeared in a wide alpine cirque. I had fun exploring the tundra off-trail back then, but wanted to see where the new 3+ miles of trail would lead me now.


Except for the wind, today's sunny, warm weather was great for being outdoors at Denali National Park.

During Jim's bike ride and my hike we had gusts that were probably as high as 50 MPH and sustained winds of 30-40 MPH. Jim rode out on the park road from Savage River (Mile 15) to the Teklanika AKA "Tek" River CG (Mile 29) and back, plus some more toward the entrance until he decided to return to the truck we had parked at Savage River.

Outbound Jim had mostly cross and tailwinds. On the return he was really fighting the wind.

The map shows how far we drove (highlighted red road to Savage River). Jim continued out to
Teklanika River CG on his bike and back to Savage River. My hike was near that river.

I was fighting headwinds, too, going clockwise on the new Savage Alpine Trail loop. There were times up in the tundra and on ridges where I had trouble standing upright, even with two trekking poles to help with stability. It was that strong.

We left Riley Creek CG about 9:45 AM to drive our truck out to the Savage River parking area.

We had partial views of Denali on the way to Savage River and on high places in the road beyond that where Jim was cycling. He took the next picture several miles beyond the river:

I could also see Denali off and on from ridges where I hiked but the mountain was mostly under clouds today:

Since I knew where it is in relation to nearby mountains, I was able to tell some other hikers where to look. The white snow on Denali looks different than white clouds.


We parked on the far side of Savage River so Jim wouldn't have to cross the bridge in the wind. That added a bit more than half a mile to my hike, which was OK.

There are two parking areas at Savage River -- #1 on the trailhead side (not visible in this photo
taken partway up the ridge) and #2 on the other side of the bridge past the rangers' checkpoint.

Jim's main concern about riding on the park road was traffic, with all the shuttle and tour buses coming and going. Rangers make sure no private vehicles, with a few exceptions, go beyond the river.

Fortunately the buses, the RVs coming and going to the Teklanka River CG, and some large construction trucks were not a major challenge for Jim. He said all the drivers were courteous and slowed down when they passed him.

The start of Jim's ride at Savage River; past the river the road is not paved.

Jim's main problem was the wind. He rode a total of 33 miles before getting so tired of the wind that he packed it in. He would have done another 12 miles if he'd returned on the bike to the CG as he originally planned.

He didn't take any photos besides a couple of Denali and he didn't see any large critters along the way. That was a disappointment to him. In 2012 we almost always saw one of the "Big Five" Denali favorite animals along the road when we were hiking, biking, or riding the buses. (The Big Five are grizzly bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and wolves.)

Since we'll be going out to Tek soon to camp Jim rode through the campground to refresh his memory of the sites and the location of the water spigots.


I'm pretty sure I had more fun on my hike than Jim did on his bike ride. Wind is less of a challenge when hiking than cycling.

There are two established trails that visitors can access from the parking areas at Savage River.

One is a two-mile loop trail along both sides of the river (photo above), with a foot bridge at the far end.

It was closed yesterday because a bear killed a moose or caribou calf but it was reopened this morning. I did that trail several times in 2012 so my goal today was to hike the new section of the Savage Alpine Trail.

The Alpine Trail goes steeply up the mountain to the east of the river, across a rocky ridge, and into a high cirque (large bowl-shaped area) in the tundra.

Looking back toward the river from part of the rocky ridge

Looking up toward the cirque in the tundra

The trail used to simply disappear near the middle of the picture above. The last time we were here I continued hiking up into the tundra cross-country to a higher ridge so I could look over it to the north, where I could see some different mountains and canyons.

At that time trail crews were just beginning to work on another three miles that continue through the cirque, over another ridge to the southeast, and down to the Savage River CG area.

Today I got to see the results of their efforts. Most of the trail is smooth and I loved seeing new views.


I hiked the loop clockwise, starting with the steep, rocky section by the river. It's easier on my bum knees to go up than down steep trails. I didn't know what the last part of the new trail would be like but I figured it couldn't be any more difficult for me to descend than where I went up.

Luckily, I was right -- the last two miles, which basically go downhill, were much more gradual, with many fewer rocks, than the spiny western part of the trail above the river:


Folks who prefer a more gradual ascent and can handle a steep descent might prefer going counter-clockwise on this loop.

The downside of going clockwise today was the wind, because I had a headwind much of the time. It was so strong on the ridges and through the large exposed cirque that I had trouble walking. Even my lightweight trekking poles were blowing in the wind!



But the trail is easy to follow and the views were great, even as the clouds increased during the afternoon. I love this trail and will probably do it again next week or at the end of August when we come back a second time.

Part of the new trail is either still a work in progress or some repair work was being done in a wet area.

About 15 volunteers, some retired and some college age, were working on a long section of bog boarding about a mile from the east end of the trail. They had to haul their supplies, including boards and rocks, in wheelbarrows and in large canvas back packs.


I talked with most of them and thanked them for their hard work. They are with an organization called Wilderness Volunteers and they spend a week at various locations around the country, building and maintaining trails.

I talked to several hikers along the way, too. One group of four was heading up from the east (Savage River CG end) and wondered if they should continue. I described the trail and the views and encouraged them to continue because they looked fit and were dressed for the weather conditions.

I saw them again when I was almost back to the river and they thanked me -- they really enjoyed it.


Although the trail starts at a lower elevation at the river (west end) it is out of the brush and trees in about 1/4 mile because it gains elevation so fast through two sections of rocky cliffs:





Looking back to the first rocky prominence, which some folks like to climb;
Mt. Margaret is in background and across the river.

The mostly-rough trail continues to climb rather steeply to a rocky ridge that is fun to negotiate:



The trail along the ridge is narrow in some places, with long drop-offs. If you're afraid of heights, don't look down or back.

I came up on one woman (about where the people are located in the next photo below) who refused to continue along the ridge because there wasn't a "wall" to protect her on one side. Her husband's efforts to nudge her forward were futile and they both descended back to the river. Good thing she wasn't going the other direction!


The trail continues rolling through some more rocks and across a pass toward the large cirque on the slope to the north:



Continued on the next page:  photos from the second half of the hike + critters and flowers seen along the way

Happy trails,

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

Previous       Next

2015 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil