An overnight backpacking trip up Little Stony Creek in Denali NP. This was originally envisioned as a loop continued up the north side of Mount Thorofare.
Unit 33 – Little Stony Creek
MAP: Trails Illustrated shows the entirety of the Park, but the scale is too small for field navigation. USGS topos for this hike are Denali B-1 NE and Denal B-1 NW (see below).
PERMITS: required for backpacking, but not day hiking
DESIGNATION: Denali National Park
BEST SEASONS: June through September
ELEVATION: trailhead ~3,800ft / confluence ~3,400ft / Mount Thorofare 5,629ft
WATER: plenty at Little Stony Creek
DIRECTIONS: Ride the Denali Camper Bus or Shuttle Bus into the Park for 4 hours to mile marker 63. Instruct the driver to drop you off at the first place the road crosses Little Stony Creek, after Stony Pass.
ROUTE: mixed tundra and brush, possible alpine ridges – no trails
GUIDEBOOK: Denali Guidebook has it all.
As with most hikes in Denali, there are endless possible variations for routes in the area.
This hike was originally envisioned as a loop that goes north up Stony Creek, west up the east side of Moose Creek, and then south – closing a loop up the ridges over Mount Thorofare to the Eielson Visitor Center. We were ultimately rained out, but this sounded like an attractive, unique trip that is not described in the guidebook.
More popular hikes in the area involve climbing Stony Hill and/or traversing its pass to the north.
These are cropped versions of the USGS topo maps that correspond to the hike as described above. The first map shows Little Stony Creek and Stony Hill, on the left.
The second map shows the ridges of Mount Thorofare and the Eielson Visitor Center. You can right-click on the maps to view larger versions or download them.
My Photos and Trip Report
Our intended hike was to go up the north side of Mount Thorofare via Little Stony Creek, camp near its summit, and then descend along a more common route to connect with the Eielson Alpine Trail.
I had some doubts about this trip because of the likelihood of nasty weather on Mount Thorofare. The summit is at 5,629 feet, so it was sure to be at least a little windy. The mountain seemed a lot more like a good day-hiking destination, but then we began to imagine the potential views of Mount McKinley at sunrise and sunset from the peak, and were sold on the possibility of camping up top.
The weather forecast for this overnight trip didn’t look very good, but the weather in Denali had been so unpredictable that the reports were even less reliable than elsewhere. So we figured with the weekend off of work that we may as well get the permit, go out there, and see what happens.
July 13th dawned as a crisp, clear morning. It was nearly a 4-hour bus ride to get to the beginning of our hike at Little Stony Creek.
One of the highlights of the ride was spotting some bears up near Polychrome Pass. It was the first female bear with cubs that we’d seen. The adult bear was simply relaxing in the grass while the cubs were scampering around her. One of them appeared to be eating something that may have been a squirrel.
A couple of backcountry rangers and some other “parkies” sat in front of us on the Camper Bus. I felt shy and sleepy but still enjoyed eavesdropping on their animated shop talk. The rangers were headed for Mount Galen tonight, just another unit or two beyond our own destination.
This is the classic view of Mount McKinley that I’d been dreaming about for some time… since long before I arrived in Alaska. I’d seen a similar image online or in a magazine once – this gigantic big rock candy mountain with an iconic Park Bus in front of it.
Our Camper Bus blew by the classic “Stony Overlook” stop and let us off at the bottom of a hill, at Little Stony Creek. Once off the bus, I immediately started setting up this photo of Denali, and got some buses in the foreground of the frame. Denali is truly that big to the naked eye from here. It’s the Great One.
The morning had been wonderful, but some clouds gradually began to roll in as we made our way up the creek.
One thing I liked about this hike is how we went into it a little blind – I hadn’t done much research on this trip beyond looking at the topo map.
We were able to follow the shore of the creek for most of the way. At one point it was necessary to take a high bypass on the right. Later we hugged the left shore at the bottom of a steep slope, and then climbed up onto the tundra to reach a wide area that looks upon the confluence with East Moose Creek and Stony Creek proper.
We were plowing through a brushy area and calling out “Hey bear!” when I almost stepped on this, the safety lock for a can of bear spray. These things don’t come off by accident, so it’s reasonable to come to the conclusion that somebody was charged by a bear here!
The creek opened up into this great green expanse of Alaska-ness. This north side of the road is devoid of the dramatic glaciers of the Alaska Range, crafting a different brand of scenic wilderness. I had the sense that the wilderness went on for hundreds of miles to the north and the west, much the same as it appears here.
The top of Mount Thorofare was socked in by an ominous looking cloud, unfortunately just as predicted by the weather forecast. We were indecisive about whether or not to stay put, and weighed several options. They ran the gamut, from waiting out our original plan to turning around and abandoning the trip altogether.
Our weekend-warrior lifestyle was catching up with us. We were honestly quite exhausted before this hike got fully underway. We decided that the best course of action would be to set up the tent, cook dinner, take a nap, and see what the weather had in store for us.
The mosquitoes were awful, too. We would have been much better off in fair weather, camped on a windswept mountain ridge.
It was pleasant to cook our dinner so early in the day from this place, with such a commanding view of the surrounding country. We observed a handful of caribou coming and going, and a pair of backpackers in the distance, but no wolves or bears.
It wasn’t long after we got into the tent that a cold, steady, soaking rain began to fall. It went on for hours and hours, and we ended up sleeping from late afternoon all through the night.
When we got up the next morning it was still raining, as though it would go on for 40 days and 40 nights. The temperature had dropped significantly, and it was windy and wet… pure textbook conditions for hypothermia.
We packed up camp and made a break for the road, back the way we came. My legs and feet were soaked within seconds, but they were about to get wet in a moment anyway. The pedestrian Little Stony Creek had transformed overnight into The Stony River. It was a torrent.
I’d been a little worried about this – what could happen to the creek after all this precipitation. It had swelled and the current was forceful, but we found a good place to cross amid the driving, icy rain.
We hustled to the road and soon boarded a heated bus among the clean, dry people.