Denali AKA Mt. McKinley


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"Denali is nearly the size of Massachusetts (or just over half as large as   
Switzerland), and most of the park is devoid of human-made trails.
The idea of hiking in the wilderness, with no trail to follow, excites some hikers
and confuses or intimidates others. However, the nature of Denali's Park
Road and bus system, and the terrain itself, can make trail-less hiking
more approachable than it may seem at first blush. Off-trail hiking
 in Denali can be challenging, but hugely rewarding."
~ Denali National Park web page re: hiking
Count me as one of those hikers who is excited about the opportunity to wander off-trail. Denali is the only national park I've visited that actually encourages hikers to get off the trails.

It's fun and shouldn't be scary. It's easy to follow riverbeds out and back or make your way through the tundra where there aren't any trees to block your view of where you're going or where you've been. Just pick out landmarks and it's nearly impossible to get lost.

My goal today was to hike up to Mt. Margaret's ridge and wander around her broad plateau in the tundra. This large mountain looms over the western side of the Savage River Trail and canyon and borders the north side of the park road:

I took this picture of Mt. Margaret 7-16-15 when I was hiking up the Savage Alpine Trail
on the other side of the river; the highest peak is to the left.

Profile of Primrose Ridge (L) and Mt. Margaret from the road this morning

Although it was cloudy at Riley Creek Campground when I got up at 5:30 AM with a 50% chance of rain during the day, I remembered how totally different the weather was just a few miles out the park road the day I did my Discovery Hike.

Hoping that conditions were better fifteen miles away at Savage River, I headed out early in the truck and was rewarded with clear but very distant views of Denali from 6:15 to 9:15 AM. Yay!!

Early AM view of Denali from about Mile 10 along the park road

The higher I got on Mt. Margaret, the more of Denali's lower slopes I could see.

By mid-morning clouds set in and the mountain was hidden from view, at least from my location.

I parked in the lot on the far side of the river, letting the ranger in the guard house at the bridge know my plan:


View of Savage River bridge from Savage Alpine Trail (7-16-15); arrow marks
beginning of today's hike up the road.  Mt. Margaret looms to the right.

The only trailhead I know is 2.5 miles farther out the park road, a gradual incline.

Since I wasn't able to drive our truck up there and didn't have a shuttle bus pass, I walked up the road like I did three years ago (these are today's pictures):



Denali is still "out."

Looking back after 2+ miles to Mt. Margaret (L) and mountains east of the Savage River in the distance

The views were good but, unfortunately, my road walk wasn't nearly as exciting as the one three years ago when Jim and I saw some caribou and moose along the way.


I hiked up Mt. Margaret once in 2012

That day was memorable for several reasons -- I got very close to some Dall sheep,


two caribou,

and a moose,

and I made a big mistake trying to take a shortcut on the way down. What looked like easy terrain to hike turned out to be very difficult because of the dense willows and smaller shrubs.

I knew I wouldn't be doing that again today.


What I really wanted to do today was a loop, not just an out and back, with the descent off the mountain down to the little pedestrian bridge at the beginning of the river canyon:

Three years ago I saw a hiker going up the mountain (to the left above the bridge) but I wasn't able to figure out where to come down while I was up on the ridge.

This time I didn't even look for that route. I did a loop on the plateau and a much shorter shortcut to the road. Here's my GPS track:

Today's hike was boring in comparison to my hike on Mt. Margaret three years ago. I did rouse about a dozen ptarmigan in the tundra . . .


. . . but didn't see any sheep up close -- just a few far in the distance (next photo) -- nor any moose or caribou.

Dall ram with some heavy horns

As I was climbing up to the ridge I talked with two backpackers who were coming down. They pointed to a location where they saw some sheep last night but I wasn't able to see any there this morning.


There is an obscure trailhead on the north side of the park road about 100 feet beyond the Primrose Overlook:

Primrose Overlook (L); the trailhead to Mt. Margaret is just around the corner on the right.


A faint, overgrown trail runs through thick willows for about a quarter of a mile, then through low shrubs and tundra for another half mile up toward Mt. Margaret's Primrose Ridge:

Moose tracks through the willows; moose, bears, caribou, and other wildlife use 
human trails,  just like they use the park road to get from one place to another.

The trail is easier to see and follow on the descent than on the ascent.

The plants get shorter and shorter as you climb higher.

I had clear views of Denali as I ascended Mt. Margaret. I kept turning around so I could take pictures of it every couple hundred feet (I'm obsessed with Denali!): 

Looking back down the slope to the road and Alaska Range; Denali is at the far right.

Most of the trail isn't this steep.

Above and below:  I can still see Denali in the distance as I climb higher and higher.


Denali in black and white:  some low clouds are beginning to form
about the same time my trail disappears.

About 9:15 AM clouds began to obscure the mountain. Eventually I was on the other side of the ridge and couldn't have seen it anyway.


Before reaching the ridge the trail disappears and hikers can just go cross-country anywhere they want through the tundra:



Clouds eventually obscured Denali to the SW but I didn't get into any rain.

There are numerous rock formations on Primrose Ridge
and Mt. Margaret's peaks;  they are fun to explore.


I hiked farther back (north) on the huge plateau on top of the mountain today than I did three years ago so I could get better views of the valley beyond:

I decided that it's more interesting to hike the eastern edge of Mt. Margaret above Savage River and canyon like I did the last time but it was interesting to see some new territory today. Mt. Margaret is very large so there is a lot of terrain to explore. 

The highest point on Mt. Margaret is 5,059 feet. You can see it in the distance in the next picture:

Most of the ridge lies about 1,500 feet above the park road, affording great views to the east, west, and south.

Since treeline is so low you can see where you're going and where you've been. From most of the ridge and plateau you can see the road to the south and the riverbed to the east so it'd be hard to get lost up there:

You can see the Savage River and park road beyond the SE shoulder of Mt. Margaret.

And there's the park road to the SW.

There were more flowers than I remember from my 2012 hike later in the summer.

Here's one flower picture; I'll show more in the next entry about wildflowers we've seen during this trip to Denali.

Above 4,000 feet I saw lots of wildflowers.

I did a loop on the ridge and plateau but found my way back to the faint trail, took a bit of a tangent through some shrubs, and walked down the road to the parking area by the river.

By then Denali wasn't visible any more:



At the end of the hike I walked along the river for a short distance.

I had a total of about ten miles. Five were on the dirt park road and five in the tundra on rocks, moss, and wet areas. Elevations ranged from 2,598 to 5,080 feet, with a total gain and loss of 5,287 feet. I got back to the campground about 1 PM.

Some areas of the tundra have little pools of water, which is
good for the sheep and smaller critters that live up there in the summer.

While I was gone Jim took both dogs out for rides on the bike. He took Casey a second time in the evening, for a total of about five miles today. It was Cody's first time with the bike. Jim took him less than 1/2 mile and went very slow because Cody hasn't run much in the last several years. Cody adjusted to the Walky Dog attachment pretty fast.

I also walked both dogs in the afternoon and we all went around the campground loop and a nearby wooded area again in the evening. I had a total of at least twelve miles of walking today.

Next entryphotos of summer wildflowers in the park

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