A wildlife-filled exploration in Denali National Park – follow glacial rivers around Polychrome Mountain and over the Cabin Divide to the Toklat River rest stop.
Cabin Divide Loop – Units 31 and 32
MAP: Trails Illustrated shows the entirety of the Park, but the scale is too small for field navigation. USGS topos for this hike are Healy C-6 SW and Denali C-1 SE (see below).
PERMITS: required for backpacking, but not day hiking
DESIGNATION: Denali National Park
BEST SEASONS: June through September
DISTANCE: ~16 miles
ELEVATION: east trailhead ~3,000ft – Cabin Divide ~3,400ft – Tolkat Rest Stop ~3,000ft
WATER: Cabin Creek flows clear, as well as numerous tributaries of the East Fork and main Toklat Rivers.
DIRECTIONS: Ride the Denali Camper Bus or Shuttle Bus into the Park for 2.5 hours to mile marker 43.5. Instruct the driver to drop you off at the East Fork Bridge.
ROUTE: open gravel bars along a glacial river, forest, and tundra – 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.
This hike creates a loop that begins at the East Fork Bridge and ends at the Toklat River Rest Stop, though it can be done in either direction.
Follow the East Fork downstream to Cabin Creek. Turn left and follow the creek’s drainage west, over the pass to the north of Cabin Peak. Continue west down the far side of the pass, eventually reaching the main Toklat River.
Follow the Toklat River upstream for about 5.5 miles to the rest stop along the park road.
As usual, many variations of this hike are possible… this is the beauty of backpacking in Denali!
Rather than following Cabin Creek on the north side of Cabin Peak, a pass on the south side of the mountain also provides passage between the East Fork and Toklat River.
It’s entirely possible to hike up Cabin Peak.
Climbing Polychrome Mountain is not recommended due to exposed, unstable, rotten rock… though its east end has opportunities for exploration, beginning near mile 47.5 along the Park Road.
One may continue downstream along the glacial rivers toward the Wyoming Hills.
A longer option continues to the west of the Toklat River to Stony Creek, via a pass to the south of Sheldon Creek called “Bear Draw” on the 7.5-minute maps.
Toklat River Contact Station (Rest Stop)
Here at the end of your hike you’ll find a visitor center with restrooms and a small bookstore. All buses traveling the park road stop here (with the exception of the Natural History Tour), so expect to see day hikers and others milling about. Park rangers and Alaska Geographic employees work a desk inside.
Here’s some images I cropped from the USGS topo maps, showing the route as described over Cabin Divide. You can right-click on the maps to view larger versions or download them.
This first map (Healy C-6 SW) shows the East Fork River, Polychrome Mountain, Cabin Peak, and Cabin Divide. The described hike starts on the center-right area of the map at the bend in Park Road and travels northwest along the river.
This second map (Denali C-1 SE) shows the western continuation of the trip – primarily upstream along the mile-wide Toklat River (south).
My Trip Report and Photos
I hadn’t found this hike listed anywhere beyond a friend’s recommendation, so I didn’t know entirely what to expect as far as the terrain and scenery. Very little of this area was listed in my trusted copy of the Denali Hiking Guide, either.
I liked how this gave the route some mystery – we’d have an opportunity to forge our own way through the wilderness, without step-by-step directions of the best places to cross the rivers or other details.
On July 21st we boarded the 7am Camper Bus, as had become routine by this point in the season, and rode the relatively short distance to the East Fork River. A lot of backpackers were on the bus today, so it made multiple stops, but the driver was efficient at making consistent progress down the road. Soon we were left on the east end of the bridge over the East Fork River, as I’d requested, and the bus pressed on without us.
The dust from the departed bus was still settling when we saw a grizzly bear! It was upstream among the channels of the East Fork River, ambling this way and that with no particular direction… as a wild bear will. It was a few hundred yards away and hadn’t taken notice of us, so we stood on the road for a few minutes and observed him. Even though we were on the road and weren’t quite hiking yet, this was our first bear sighting while on foot!
We watched for a few more minutes as he swam across the deepest, strongest channel of the river with ease, and shook himself dry like a wet dog. We immediately appreciated how swiftly the bear could cover a lot of distance in no time. With the realization came the sudden desire to clear out of the area and begin our hike, which fortunately began on the opposite, downstream side of the river.
down the East Fork of the Toklat River
I looked over my shoulder for the next twenty or thirty minutes, but we wouldn’t see the bear again.
We crossed the river almost immediately, and were underway for less than an hour when we ended up taking a long break. I wasn’t feeling well, presumably from something I ate last night. Our forward progress through here had been slow – staying down at the water level would have required multiple, tedious, significant river crossings. The alternative of staying high and to the left brought us over some exhaustively undulating slopes that were swampy and riddled with mosquitoes.
So we rested for a while in the tundra. The morning had been cloudy, and our last check of the weather forecast hadn’t been very encouraging. After last week’s debacle, it was increasingly difficult to muster the motivation to press on through this terrain – it only seemed to want to push us back to the road.
I also conjured up some worries about the unknown condition of tomorrow’s main Toklat River. It had rained so much last week (All summer, really). If we got any more rain overnight, a potentially necessary river crossing could be disastrous.
Throughout this extended break we observed as a virtual parade of caribou made their way along the river corridor, one after another after another. Backpacking is often all about going from point A to point B, but you really have to sit still for a while in this park to truly appreciate it, letting the wildlife’s comings and goings unfold while you’re at rest.
One of Denali’s greatest assets is the way in which its wildlife is abundant and free. There’s fortunately so much undeveloped space left in the last frontier that the natural migratory routes are largely intact. Creatures seem to go about their business as though man doesn’t exist, and (I get the impression that) there are no missing species that have been eradicated by man. It seems that even a sprawling area like Yellowstone isn’t truly large enough for the big mammals to maintain their natural patterns.
I didn’t realize this before coming up here, but as a seasoned traveler of the lower National Parks, there’s still a subconscious sense of man’s influence in those places – you may be in a wilderness area without a man-made thing in sight, but the place where you stand has tangible borders, and beyond those borders you know there’s civilization and development, and the McDonald’s that you passed in your car before paying the fee at the gate.
Denali feels truly empty and natural and free without hindrance, and I think that’s the magic of Alaska as a whole, the intangible call of the wild that draws people to this place. A pristine sense of wilderness is still intact here that has no equal in any other state.
Throughout the season I increasingly had the desire to re-watch the old film Dances With Wolves… because when I was here, I couldn’t help but imagine those scenes where thousands of bison are free to trample the open spaces over as many horizons as their legs would carry them. When exploring Alaska, I sometimes recalled reading that once upon a time a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River without touching the ground.
Less than a decade ago, the East Fork River was known to be the primary stomping grounds of a thriving wolf pack. It wasn’t uncommon for park visitors like us to see wolves, but now in 2014 a wolf sighting had become a rare thing to behold. Apparently the alpha-female from the largest pack was trapped and killed by a local hunter along the Stampede Trail.
With her loss the pack was disbanded and fell apart, so the remaining lone wolves failed to breed or survive on their own. Park scientists estimate that there’s only about 50 wolves now in all of Denali (An area as big as the state of Massachusetts), but they’re optimistic that they’ll make a comeback.
The long rest worked its wonders. The weather seemed to improve, or maybe it was just my attitude that came around. Jackie had been patient with my hesitation and was ready to go.
The rolling tundra was difficult for a little while longer. We made quick work of it and headed back down to the river level where the first sensible opportunity presented itself.
We would leave the East Fork River at a point seen here in the distance (above), turning left in front of the ridge seen on the horizon. It looks farther away than it is.
We had to make a couple last fords of the river, but they weren’t a big deal. We were excited to identify our change in course, away from the East Fork River. It was cause for a break, and our spirits were high.
The valley of cabin creek was delightfully intimate and serene – more homely than any other place we’d been in Denali. The stream was more of a babbling brook in contrast to the dramatic glacial waters we’d become accustomed to. Moose tracks were everywhere and we expected that one could pop out of the brush at any moment.
We gained elevation while staying parallel to the watercourse(s) as best we could. The brush was thick through much of the area, but we were in a relatively narrow valley – so navigation was simple.
Eventually we drew closer to our destination for the the night, the pass to the north of Cabin Peak. The trees opened up, but we were met with brush that was waist-high and taller. The uphill grade and soaked terrain underfoot made the rest of the climb quite unpleasant… but above all the mosquitoes were awful!
Another caribou came running by – we saw so many caribou on this hike! Most of them moved nonsensically, darting to and fro to avoid the clouds of bugs that plagued them.
At last we made it to the crest of the pass and ultimately decided to camp here for the night. It took a little searching to find a flat, brush-free spot for the tent.
We retreated into the tent for a little while to escape the mosquitoes. There was a lot of them and they were especially annoying, but the legends of their gargantuan size and dominance never completely held true for me in Denali. This was our worst experience with them during the entire season, and the mosquitoes were no worse than a few experiences I had in the mid-Atlantic states on the Appalachian Trail.
Granted, it was a cooler and rainier summer than normal in Denali, and mosquitoes like hot weather. In fact we didn’t have to hide in the tent for long before it was cool enough to venture out and cook dinner in relatively pleasant conditions.
We saw some bear scat in the area, but chose this as our camp anyway. We caught up on a lot of sleep this night (As we often did while backpacking), because it was quite an exhausting summer in Alaska trying to do and see as much as possible.
Jackie had a dream about a bear, and in the morning after our deep sleep we had a sixth-sense sort of feeling that a bear ambled by our location in the night.
The morning was glorious as we took ample time to enjoy our tea and coffee. The mosquitoes weren’t very bad when we first woke, but steadily increased in number as the day grew warm.
We hadn’t seen any other hikers after the first five minutes of our trip, and felt as though we had the place all to ourselves. The scenery here reminded me of parts of Colorado – I could have convinced myself that we were on the Colorado Trail up here, if it weren’t for the evidence of caribou and grizzly bears.
Sheldon Peak dominated most of the views along Cabin Creek, named for Charles Sheldon. He was one of the primary advocates behind establishing Denali as a National Park, living for a full year in a cabin he built in this area to study the wildlife. I didn’t know many details of this history before our hike, and in retrospect maybe that’s why this trip was originally recommended to us – I see how it could appeal to a true aficionado of Denali.
The descent to the Toklat River was so much more easy and fun than we expected. We found a great trail through the brush that basically went all the way down to the river. It was muddy in spots and dominated by animal tracks, feeling primarily like a game trail.
Cabin Creek formed a rich, deeply forested gully. We’d become so used to the open tundra and dramatic mountain scenery that this was a delightful relief.
Forests are magic.
This was our first view of the main Toklat River, looking south toward the road. The mouth of the creek poured into the river at a narrow place, cliffed-out by an otherwise high embankment that guarded the river. A deep, strong channel of the river hugged the near shore, so as I feared it would be virtually impossible to access the river bar without first fording the near barrier.
Fortunately the river crossing wasn’t too high or dangerous, so we were then free to stroll down the open river valley.
looking back toward the mouth of Cabin Creek
Just like the East Fork, the Toklat River proved to be a caribou superhighway. A prudent backpacker in Denali is always scanning the horizon for bears, so there was often a small shot of excitement upon the first sight of a large brown mammal in the distance.
We didn’t carry binoculars, so it was often necessary for me to grab a photo of the suspicious brown dot with my 140mm zoom lense and then use the digital zoom on my camera’s screen to identify a ferocious caribou with big pointy teeth.
The remainder of our hike was a fun, easy walk along the open river bars. We were already feeling nostalgic for the hike to have ended so soon, and victorious in completing it in the first place… after my low motivation yesterday morning.
The spotted cloud-cover enhanced the already-gorgeous scenery.
Most of our hikes in Denali had spacious views of the dominant Alaska Range, so this was one of our most unique trips of the entire summer. Following the north-side river bars and traversing the enclosed Cabin Creek drainage made us appreciate the smaller things, like the abundant wildlife, secluded forests, and solitude.