guide to a spectacular backpacking trip in Denali National Park
Mount Eielson Loop & Anderson Pass
MAP: Trails Illustrated shows the entirety of the Park, but the scale is too small for field navigation. The best USGS topo that shows that entirety of this hike is Mt McKinley B-1, AK 1954 (see below)
PERMITS: required for backpacking, but not day hiking
DESIGNATION: Denali National Park
BEST SEASONS: August
DISTANCE: ~33 miles
ELEVATION: trailheads ~3,500ft – Eielson Pass ~4,700ft – Anderson Pass ~5,400ft
WATER: numerous sources including Contact Creek, Intermittent Creek, Glacier Creek, Camp Creek, and the Thorofare River
DIRECTIONS: Ride the Denali Camper Bus or Shuttle Bus into the Park for 4 hours to Eielson Visitor Center and begin south on the Tundra Loop Trail. The alternate trailhead (Grassy Pass) lies two miles west of the Visitor Center.
ROUTE: varies from open gravel bars and tundra to treacherous scree – no trails
GUIDEBOOK: Denali Guidebook has it all.
Be sure to review the bear safety tips before your trip, and see how to hike in Denali for more information.
Map & Mileage Overview
The map below shows the hike described on this page. You can right-click on the image to view a larger version or download it.
The track marked in red is the traditional Mount Eielson Loop. Its east end on the park road is the Visitor Center, whereas the west end is narrow ravine off the park road called Grassy Pass. Done on its own, the Eielson Loop measure about 14 miles.
The purple track shows the extension to Anderson Pass. If done on its own as an out-and-back from Grassy Pass, the Anderson Pass hike is about 26 miles.
If these are done together (as described below) the total distance comes to a rough 33 miles.
Remember, your rate of travel will be significantly slower in this off-trail terrain. I recommend taking 4 days for the full hike described below.
As is always the case in Denali you’re free to roam and create any number of alternate routes. This trip is simply a suggestion.
Additional ideas for the area including climbing Mount Eielson, and exploring the upper basins of the Thorofare River to Sunrise Creek and Sunset Glacier. Skilled adventurers can also look into explorations of the Muldrow Glacier.
From Eielson Visitor Center, follow the Tundra Loop Trail to the south and descend into Gorge Creek. A trail can be found on the south side of the creek, climbing back up to the tundra.
Continue hiking south, aiming for the confluence of Sunrise Creek and the Thorofare River. Cross Sunrise Creek, and then cross the Thorofare River, upstream of the confluence.
Follow the Thorofare River upstream for another ~1.25 miles, to its confluence with Contact Creek. Contact Creek enters form the right (west). Ascend the creek’s drainage to Eielson Pass.
One may follow either Intermittent Creek or Wolverine Creek off the west side of the pass. Your destination at the bottom of the descent is Glacier Creek. If you’re descending via Wolverine Creek, you’ll encounter a confluence with Crystal Creek before joining Glacier Creek.
Continue to Anderson Pass
(to close the Eielson Loop, skip down to the next heading)
To continue to Anderson Pass, Follow Glacier Creek upstream for about 6 miles. It’s best to travel on the west (right) side of Glacier Creek.
Eventually you’ll come to expansive grassy areas, where the glacier from Sunset Peak meets Glacier Creek. Looking at the topo map, you’ll see a place immediately south of here where the headwaters of Glacier Creek come in from the east. The grassy areas at these headwaters provide for the last good camping before Anderson Pass.
Continue a half-mile south to the glacial moraine that comes down from Anderson Pass. A creek pours down from the pass – as you ascend toward the pass, the creek often carves troublesome ravines or disappears underground.
As you approach the crest of the Pass, it’s generally best to stay to the left. On the final ascent, you’ll top out a point that’s higher than the proper pass, on its north end.
Retrace your steps to the confluence of Intermittent Creek and Glacier Creek.
Close the Eielson Loop
(Intermittent Creek to the Park Road)
Almost immediately south of the confluence of Intermittent and Glacier Creeks, you can climb the steep hills to your right (east) to gain an expansive bench of tundra.
Continue north across the tundra. Reportedly a faint trail can be followed through here, though I never saw much of it in 2014.
Cross Camp Creek – depending on where you reach it, you may have to descend and regain a bit of elevation to do so. On the far side of Camp Creek, you’ll descend finally to the broad gravel bars of the Thorofare River.
Take care in choosing a wide, braided area to cross the Thorofare.
Ultimately you will see the ravine that leads up to the southernmost bend in the park road (The road itself will be visible, cut from the hillside). Ascend this brushy and muddy ravine (called Grassy Pass) to the road.
My Trip Report and Photos
This was such a wonderful hike that I created a separate, day-by-day journal. Within it you’ll find over 200 stunning photos and more in-depth insights about the route.
Hi Jamie, thanks for this detailed report!
I’m about to embark on a 8-day solo backpacking trip on this same route this Monday — I appreciate the tips on your blog!
Do you have, and wouldn’t mind sharing, a GPS file with your route information if you have it handy?
I’m hoping to learn more about potential waterpoints, and camp spots. It’ll be my first time navigating off-trail, and I appreciate any help I can get 🙂
Thanks and stay safe! My email is geraldous, at gmail.
Jamie Compos says
Hi Gerald, unfortunately I never logged a gps track for the hike. For most of the time you’ll be following a flowing water course as your primary navigation. Enjoy it out there!
Hey Jamie! Just wanted to say thanks for writing up this great trip report. My wife and I are going to be in Denali this September and hope to do this trip. All the info and photos you posted are super insightful! Cheers from Lake Tahoe!
Jamie Compos says
Thanks for the comment Jason, I hope it all works out for you!
I am curious how your hike went. A buddy and I are looking for where to backpack for a week or so in Denali also in September. Any thoughts or reflections from your experience will be welcomed.