Early August came around, and the end of Denali’s summer season was just around the corner.
Going big (amid a standard 5-day work schedule) simply meant something that was longer than a weekend trip!
It also meant going deep into Denali National Park – going closer to Mount McKinley than we’d ever been – to the crest of the Alaska Range on Anderson Pass.
I’d set up a trip for 4 days and 3 nights, beginning on August 10th.
This hike would be my most outstanding experience in Alaska.
Day One dawned with promise as we made our way to the Wilderness Access Center (Called the WAC for short), the central hub of most adventures in Denali National Park. We would board the 7am “Camper Bus” to ride to the beginning of our hike at the Eielson Visitor Center – a four-hour trip.
Catching the 7am bus had become a routine that marked the beginning of all our overnight adventures. This morning was especially exciting, because we had an extra-long weekend ahead… four full days of blissful isolation from work, and the world as we knew it.
The bus took its usual course along the Park Road, and I tried to catch a little extra sleep during the early miles.
Things got interesting near Cathedral Mountain. The driver told us a grizzly bear had recently killed (and eaten) a young bear cub near the road… a new “kill site.” Just yesterday, a busload of tourists was lucky to see the whole episode play out. It’s not uncommon for park visitors to see this sort of display, just like the nature documentaries seen on TV!
A moment later, we saw a live bear for ourselves. It was only 100 yards beyond the kill site.
Bears are often seen along the road, especially when going as far as Eielson.
At Stony Pass we were excited to see that Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in all of North America, was out in its full glory. It’s said that only 30 to 40 percent of park visitors get to see the mountain, because it’s usually hidden behind a curtain of clouds.
Eielson Visitor Center was just around the corner. From just outside its front door, you could see the base and foreground of the mountain in a single sweeping view of grandeur.
We didn’t have a lot of miles to hike today, so we took almost a full hour to enjoy the sunny scene at the Visitor Center.
The first steps of our hike began on the Tundra Loop Trail, from which we quickly dropped down to Gorge Creek.
As if to welcome us to the backcountry, we were almost immediately greeted by a silly caribou!
We had to get our feet wet to get across the creek, but it was a simple, easy ford. On the other side we went up a short, steep bluff that gave access to a wide expanse of gently rolling tundra.
We soon came upon some ripe blueberries – our first of the season!
The day grew to be quite warm, and I think that’s why we didn’t encounter any bears feasting here on the berries… I don’t think that the Alaskan wildlife is very fond of hot weather!
We hiked through the green fields for a couple hours, making our way to the Thorofare River. We’d hoped to locate a faint trail through here, but never found one. The terrain was a little brushy at times, but never too thick or frustrating.
Eventually we descended to the gravel bars of the Thorofare River. We easily spotted a distinct canyon ahead to the right – Contact Creek. It would serve as the continuation of our route.
We’d made good time so far, so a snack break evolved into almost two hours of virtual napping and basking in the sun. This is the life!
A dark cloud shaded the area, just in time for us to pack up and begin fording the multiple braids of the river. The water was ice cold, but the crossing was easy. At this point in the season, we were beginning to feel like old pros on the river crossings.
The scenery was increasingly beautiful with every step, justifying the big draw for this unit of the backcountry – Unit 12, home of Sunrise Glacier and Sunset Glacier.
Suddenly we saw a small, brown, fox-sized sort of badger-creature running perpendicularly across the gravel bars in front of us.”Running” is a generous term, as it was more of gradual, loping motion.
It was a wolverine! We saw a wolverine!
We turned up Contact Creek. The landscape was suddenly intimate, as sloping tundra gave way to a gorge with a babbling, twisting stream.
We came upon a solo hiker who had already set up camp here for the night. He was going in the opposite direction as us, and had made it all the way up to Anderson Pass. I asked if he had any tips about what lay ahead for us.
“Keep going!” he said, “it’s farther than you’ll think.”
We went on up Contact Creek. It grew steeper with each step.
The slopes of Mount Eielson consist of a bright sort of rock, and the area strongly felt like the John Muir Trail and Sierra Nevada Range. We were truly “in the mountains.” The mountains called and we went.
Reaching the crest of the pass was a bit of work, and quite a grunt with our heavy backpacks on Day One… but the place was magnificent!
Castle Rock’s craggy spurs cut into the sky immediately to the south, and the bright slopes of Mt Eielson dominated the north.
And then… and then there was Mount McKinley… along with the other highest peaks of the Alaska Range!
We explored the immediate area and found a spot for the tent, along with a separate area to cook dinner.
It’s worth noting the proper procedure to set up camp and cook in grizzly country – you should do your cooking 100 yards away from your tent, and then you should store your food 100 yards away from both of the former locations in a triangle formation, ideally keeping your tent upwind of the other spots.
We easily found water without having to backtrack at all. It was less than a quarter mile down the west side of the pass, at the headwaters of Wolverine Creek.
A lone backpacker reached the crest of the pass as we enjoyed our dinner – a young man from Canada. He’d be going in the same direction as us in the morning, until reaching Glacier Creek on the west side of the pass. From there we were going to turn south toward Anderson Pass. He’d be going north toward the road. He said that he was going to try to climb Mount Eielson the next day. We’d looked at that option, but decided against it in order to save our energy for Anderson Pass.
Soon he left us to go about his nightly chores, and found a private campsite, out of sight of our own.
The pass was a truly blissful place to spend the night. The ground squirrels chirped and scurried about our homely alpine perch, tucked among the peaks and within view of The Great Mountain.
We were extremely fortunate to have pleasant weather up here.
I had a hunch before this hike that it would be an especially memorable trip, and the truth in that notion began to unfold as the incessant clouds of the season receded, like a reward for our persistence.
We tried to stay up until 11pm (sunset) to see if there’d be some pink alpenglow shining on the slopes of Mount McKinley, but I just couldn’t stay awake long enough to find out. Our summer had been exhausting!
See additional photos from Day One: