Added by Devin K
This easy backpacking trip provides spectacular views of Denali, solitude, and opportunities to see wildlife.
If you are looking for an overnight backpacking trip in Denali National Park with spectacular views of Denali, this is a great option. There is no trail and if you happen upon one, DO NOT follow it. The best part about Denali is that there are not many trails and most of the park is designated wilderness.
Denali National Park is split into units, which have daily quotas as to how many people can be in them. Mt Eielson is in Unit 13 with a limit of 4 people and the permit must be obtained at the backcountry office day of, no reservations. You'll have to watch a video on safety if this is your first time getting a permit.
I highly recommend getting a bus ticket to Eielson Visitor Center beforehand at the Wilderness Access Center because there is no driving in the park past mile 14 and buses get filled quickly. The bus trip will take about 3 hours to get there and you can either start at the visitor center or hang out on the bus until you come to a righthand bend in the road. The bus driver will know the stop because it's a popular one.
The loop itself is around 16-17 miles depending on where you start and where you go. Either way you have to descend down a slope to the Thorofare River below. I recommend crossing where it is widest and there are plenty of braids. When we did this the water was freezing and a bit high due to recent flooding, but crossable. When we got across to the Copper Mtn Bar there were curious Caribou that would run at us and sprint away making for a fun greeting to the other side.
Once across, head south along Glacier Creek making sure to stay high on the bank. After you pass Mt Eielson on the left the creek will turn up to the left into a gully. Head up the gully to the saddle. This is the most strenuous part of the trip with the most elevation gain, and it may have snow, which actually makes it easier going.
The top of the gully at the saddle is where we chose to camp because it was about halfway and had an amazing view of Denali. This area is also flat and you can see for a good distance around while cooking. We didn't see any bears either day, but the rangers we talked to said they see them a lot in this area and one of them had actually been charged, so be aware and make plenty of noise. We actually set our camp up at midnight and it was still light out enough to read, cook, or pretty much do anything. Leave your headlamp at home if it's the middle of summer! This portion took us 4 hours to get to, but we played around and took side trips along the way.
The next day head over the saddle between Castle Rock and Mt Eielson to Contact Creek. There are plenty of Dall Sheep trails skirting the side of Eielson that make traversing easier to get to Contact Creek. Contact Creek flows down another gully, which is the easiest way down. Make sure to check out the Forget-me-not's on the way down!
When you reach the valley floor where the Thorofare begins turn left, but not before looking up valley (south) to Scott Peak. This area is beautiful and when we were there it was green as pictures of the Scottish Highlands with snow capped peaks in the backdrop. It took us about a couple of hours to get down to this point.
Here you have the option to cross at the wide braided section or keep heading down staying once again on the bank back to the original braided section you crossed at the beginning. The goal is the Eielson Visitor Center, which you'll be able to see not too far down the valley. We chose to cross upstream even though the stream was much higher than we had hoped and much stronger than expected because we were running short on time to get back to the bus we needed to catch to make it back in time for work (we worked as guides at the park). This decision almost cost us more than our bear spray to say the least. Make sure you know proper river crossing techniques and follow them!
Once across the Thorofare make your way up to the visitor center through thick birch and willows. Be careful in this section because there are often bears here and in our case a big cow moose and her calf. The last day took us around 6 hours due to river crossing complications.
There are multiple buses that leave the Eielson Center during the day, so make sure to look at the schedule beforehand so you don't miss the last one. The schedule does change throughout the season, so make sure you factor that in. The bus ride on the way back is a great time to nap or enjoy the scenery that you may have missed on your way in, plus you never know if you'll see a grizzly take down a caribou!
This is a popular trip, but if you time it right and get far enough back there you'll be able to enjoy the solitude we had. We actually didn't see a single soul while we were on our trip. I have never heard silence like what we experienced the second morning on the saddle. There were no mosquitoes, birds, people, planes, or wind to disturb the silence while taking in the view of Denali and I will never forget it!
- River crossing shoes
- 20° sleeping bag
- Water filter
- Bear canister
- Rain pants
- Rain jacket
- Hiking boots
- Water bottles
- Mt Mckinley B1 map
- Unit 13 permit
- Insulating layer
- Extra socks
- First aid kit
Please respect the places you find on The Outbound.
Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures. Be aware of local regulations and don't damage these amazing places for the sake of a photograph. Learn More
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