Unit 9 offers a stunning hike up the East Branch of the Toklat River, commonly recommended as a first backpacking trip in Denali National Park.
Unit 9 – East Branch Toklat River
MAP: Trails Illustrated shows the entirety of the Park, but the scale is too small for field navigation. USGS topos for Unit 9 are Healy B-6 and Healy C-6 (see below)
PERMITS: required for backpacking, but not day hiking
DESIGNATION: Denali National Park
BEST SEASONS: May through September
DISTANCE: up to 10 miles one-way to west glacier
ELEVATION: trailhead ~3,500ft – west glacier ~4,200ft
WATER: The east branch of the Toklat River is often silty, but clear tributaries are numerous, especially once you’re beyond three miles from park road.
DIRECTIONS: Ride the Denali Camper Bus or Shuttle Bus into the Park at mile marker 51. Instruct the driver to drop you off at “I Scream Gulch” or Unit 9. The bus ride takes almost 3 hours, one way.
ROUTE: open gravel bars along a glacial river – no trails
GUIDEBOOK: Denali Guidebook has it all.
Unit 9 Topo Maps
The USGS topo maps for this section are Healy B-6 and Healy C-6. It’s recommended to purchase these maps at the Backcountry Center immediately prior to your hike.
The majority of Unit 9 is located on the B-6 map. The approach down “I Scream Gulch” encompasses just a small corner of the C-6 map – the rest of C-6 doesn’t especially apply to this Unit.
A version of the C-6 map is shown in in image below. You can right-click on it to view a larger version or download it. I cropped the map to show its only applicable area at the trailhead.
The B-6 map can be seen here on usgs.gov – it’s a large JPG file – 7,603 pixels wide.
This is an amazing hike for first-timers in Denali National Park. For this reason Unit 9 often fills up quickly, so don’t get your heart too set on it. Navigation is simple and the entire hike is above treeline, offering immediate rewards with wondrous scenery.
There are numerous versions of the Toklat River in Denali – this “East Branch” hike is NOT to be confused with the similarly named “East Fork.”
The approach drainage is called “I Scream Gulch” because of a dog mushing incident, and is sometimes misinterpreted as Ice Cream Gulch. This entry cuts off a few extra miles of the East Branch from the bridge farther on the park road. The bypassed section also happens to be prime bear habitat, where they like to feed on the roots of pea vines.
You’ll likely find a social use-trail from the road into the gulch. Follow the drainage for about half a mile to access the main East Branch of the Toklat.
You can hike upstream on the gravel bar along the east side of the water for a solid distance before you’re forced to cross the river. One of the reasons this is such a good hike for first-timers is that its crossings are relatively tame, intuitive, and consistent throughout the season.
After 7 miles you’ll come to a place where the river forks into two distinct branches that lead to its headwater glaciers in the Alaska Range. Each offer scenic opportunities for exploration.
A round trip to one of the glaciers from the road is about 20 miles, so at least a single night of camping is recommended. The upper basins of the East Branch can be especially windy.
Possibilities for longer trips involve an approach from the west through the pass south of Divide Mountain, or cutting to the east for explorations in Polychrome Basin.
My Trip Report and Photos
I backpacked this trip as described on June 15, 2014.
Before coming to Alaska, my friend Kevin had given me a list of the best hikes to do in Denali. He was considerate to list them in chronological order, depending on the difficulty and time of season. One of the first hikes he listed was the East Branch of the Toklat River, in Backcountry Unit 9.
The prescribed trip was an overnight backpacking trip to a fork in the river, where we’d follow the west fork up to an unnamed glacier.
Fortunately he named this specific unit, because there are several different versions of the Toklat River in Denali – they each offer completely different trips, not to mention the question of beginning on the north or the south side of the Park Road. There’s this East Branch of the Toklat, and there’s also the East Fork of the Toklat, not to mention the main Toklat River.
For most backpacking trips in Denali, it’s necessary to buy a ticket for the “Camper Bus” that goes deep into the Park, on a gravel road that’s legally inaccessible to private vehicles. The procedure for backpackers is to simply tell the bus driver where you’d like to get off the bus – they’ll let you off virtually anywhere to begin a hike. At the end of your hike, you simply flag down a returning bus and they will pick you up.
At this time I was still unfamiliar with Denali, so it made me a little uneasy when other backpackers boarded the bus and named different variations of the Toklat as their destinations. Did I have the right one? It especially made me second-guess myself when some hikers got off before us at the East Fork of the Toklat.
Fortunately our driver knew his stuff and dropped us off in the exact, correct place.
Soon the bus disappeared, and we were on our way down the steep, brushy, unofficial trail into the gulch. There was a small stream that led us to the river in no time.
We were immediately stunned by the dramatic glacial scenery of the Alaska Range. This was amazing! It felt as though we were cheating in a way, to be dropped off here in the heart of such a spectacular wilderness. Under normal circumstances it takes a lot of walking and toil and sweat to achieve such scenic rewards.
There are no official trails in the Denali backcountry, so our mission was simply to follow the river upstream. There was a stiff wind that consistently blew in our faces.
The river valley was so wide, flat and open that it was surreal, flanked by dramatic peaks that rose abruptly from its sides. The walking was easy over the broad expanse of gravel, if slightly uphill and into the wind.
Most major rivers in Denali are fed by melting glaciers, so they often take on the character of splitting into separate braids. This is good for hikers because there are no bridges in the wilderness, meaning that the only way across these rivers is to wade through them (Unless you bring a packraft).
The separate braids aid hikers because we can ford each separate channel, rather than having to deal with the full force and depth of a river at once. Crossing these freezing, silty rivers still causes problems for hikers and is the #1 most dangerous aspect of hiking in Denali National Park.
We followed the left side of the river for as long as possible, until the water came sharply up against a steep bank. We climbed up the hillside to bypass this channel of the river to avoid getting our feet wet so soon.
A classically shaped, pyramid-sort of peak appeared to the left.
Eventually we had to get our feet wet and crossed the river. The water was freezing, but the crossing itself was technically easy after our experience crossing the Teklanika River to the “magic” bus from Into The Wild, just a couple of weeks prior to this.
This cascade of presumed snow-melt came from the right (west) side of valley. We’d have to keep our eyes open for smaller water sources such as this one, because the main river had so much silt and sediment that it could clog a pump filter in no time. Just to be sure, I tried to filter the main river using my pump with a bandana wrapped around the end of the hose, and it refused to pull any water at all.
The mountain scenery just got better and better as we came closer to the split in the river.
There was this huge field of grassy, spongy tundra as we approached the fork. We came around a corner to be greeted with the following view, up the west fork to the glacier at its source.
This scruffy young caribou awkwardly shuffled along the hillside above us. It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that caribou are awfully silly creatures.
We were also lucky to catch a fleeting glimpse of some Dall Sheep, high along the crest of a ridge above us. They were far away, but I’m sure that I saw two males charging each other and butting heads! Alaska is wild!
The weather began to turn sour as we stepped onto the crumbly moraine of the lower glacier. A friend told us that there’s sometimes ice caves here, but we didn’t see anything particularly worthy of exploration. It was late in the day, and the wind was cold and harsh.
At last the weather took a final turn and forced us to retreat down the valley. The wind, rain, and hail blew us back downstream. We were forced to cross the icy cold waters one last time to reach the first ideal place to camp – a grassy patch tucked away in a corner, somewhat out of the wind.
The conditions were so wildly unpleasant that we hid in the tent and skipped dinner.
The following morning revealed a bright, sunny, beautiful day.
We shook off the dust and moisture of the previous night and gazed at fresh ice along the upper ridges.
A handful of caribou had seemingly spent the night grazing in a nearby patch of tundra.
We packed up camp and hiked about a half-mile downstream, to a place where clear water tumbled down from the upper peaks. We gloriously relaxed here in the grass for a long time, enjoying our morning coffee and sunshine. It’s always such a pleasure to hold a water bottle underneath a cascading mountain stream.
The fissure in the mountainside to the left held a high, vertical series of waterfalls. The uppermost section of this waterfall was frozen in the early morning.
Just around the corner, the fork was marked by this expansive stretch of green tundra.
This view, taken with my 140mm zoom lense, made the snow appear to be so soft and fluffy, like a pillow or ripples of ice cream.
It was such a welcome relief to feel the wind on our backs, pushing us down the valley toward the road
We took ample time to cook and enjoy our lunch – last night’s uncooked dinner. We sat in the middle of this great expanse and scanned the surroundings for wildlife, only spotting the occasional caribou. During the break we wandered toward the edge of a gravel bar and found some fresh grizzly tracks.
one last river crossing
This is a last, all-encompassing view of the area, taken just a few steps off the road at the end of the hike. Most trips into Unit 9 begin here, through the brush in the foreground to the immediate lateral ravine. A right turn into this gulch leads to the wide gravel bars of the East Branch of the Toklat, where you’re free to follow it to the horizon!
This was such a simple, yet phenomenal trip. Unit 9 is a great choice for your first backpacking trip in Denali, given enough experience elsewhere that you’re comfortable with river crossings and rapidly changing weather conditions. The navigation is simple.
If this is what all the hiking in Denali would be like, then it was going to be a great summer!
…and it’s a grizzly bear! This is the first clear photo of a bear that I got… throughout the season, we’d end up seeing at two dozen grizzlies from within the safety of the park buses.
We were lucky to see this moose near the road on the return trip! This is the best photo I’d get of a bull moose all season long.
More photos from the hike: