a spectacular day hike over a scenic mountain and down a glacial river in Denali National Park, Alaska
Cathedral Mountain Guide
MAP: Trails Illustrated shows the entirety of the Park, but the scale is too small for field navigation. The USGS topo for Unit 6 is Healy C-6 SE (see below)
PERMITS: required for backpacking, but not day hiking
DESIGNATION: Denali National Park
BEST SEASONS: June through September
DISTANCE: 8 miles
ELEVATION: trailhead ~3,500ft – summit 4,709ft
DIRECTIONS: Ride the Denali Camper Bus or Shuttle Bus into the Park at mile marker 38. Instruct the driver to drop you off 50 yards before the sign for the Sable Pass Closure, for access to Igloo Creek. The bus ride takes about 2 hours, one way.
ROUTE: off-trail travel on steep mountain ridges and down a glacial river
GUIDEBOOK: Denali Guidebook has it all.
This is a strenuous day hike, described with an extension down the Teklanika River. A key section of the route is commonly off-limits. Better options exist – see “Variations,” below.
This hike leads to Peak 4709. It’s a rewarding peak, but not the true summit of the mountain. Attempts at Cathedral’s other summits are likely to involve traverses on broken, rotten rock.
Watch your footing! The rock types on Cathedral Mountain tend to be especially unstable and brittle.
Across the Park Road to the southeast of Sable Mountain lies Cathedral Mountain, a similarly beautiful yet more rugged twin of its counterpart across the road. The headwaters of the Teklanika River are behind and to the south of the mountain, high in the Alaska Range.
There are several individual summits and broken ridges of Cathedral Mountain, securing this multi-faceted feature as a destination for ample exploration. There’s also the potential for varied and interesting backpacking trips that could begin or end in the area.
The USGS topo map shows no less than five high points on the mountain. Two of them are listed at 4,905 feet, and the others follow at 4,842, 4,821, and 4,709.
Here’s a cropped version of the USGS topo (Healy C-6 SE) that shows the described hike. You can right-click on it to view a larger version or download it.
The red line marking the route on here is drawn from memory and is highly suspect to error – trust your judgment and the landscape in front of you!
Tell the bus driver to drop you off about 50 yards before the sign that marks the Sable Mountain Wildlife Closure for access to Igloo Creek and Cathedral Mountain.
Immediately descend an embankment (there may be a social trail) and find a place to cross Igloo Creek. Climb up the bank on the far side of the creek, where you may find another social trail.
Continue south until you can access a main drainage that comes off the south end of the mountain, and ascend the right side of the drainage. As you approach a saddle at the top, cross back to the left side of drainage.
From this saddle, you’ll see another saddle at your elevation that’s composed of pale-colored stones and dirt. Contour to this brighter saddle, and from here you’ll see a route to summit 4709 that’s composed of grassy slopes.
Retracing you steps down from the summit, you’ll see where it’s possible to contour to access a major drainage that leads off the mountain to the southeast.
Find your way into the south side of this drainage to access the Teklanika River. Eventually it will be necessary to climb up and out of the canyon to walk down the easier, grassy slopes to the river’s gravel bars.
Follow the river downstream for about 6 miles to the Park Road, staying on its left shores with occasionally high bypasses.
The hike described here is a long, strenuous day over Cathedral Mountain and all the way down the Teklanika River to the park road, since this is the way the author did it in 2014. The route may be more comfortably, safely, (and sanely), as a backpacking trip.
There are many different ways to see this area – the described hike may be impossible, since there’s usually a wildlife closure immediately south of the Teklanika River Bridge.
Simpler ways to day hike Cathedral Mountain include:
- Going up the mountain as described, and returning the way you came (3 miles round trip)
- Going OVER the mountain as described, and returning to Igloo Creek and the Park Road via the pass to the south.
- Going over the mountain and down the Teklanika River as described, but cutting west on the north side of Cathedral Mountain to Igloo Creek Campground.
Backpacking options include exploring Calico Creek, or continuing to the upper basins of the Teklanika River. Sublime beauty awaits you in the Refuge Valley – a wonderful backpacking trip is to cross through here to the Sanctuary River.
My Trip Report and Photos
After an amazing hike up Cathedral Mountain’s counterpart across the Park Road (Sable Mountain), Cathedral was logically the next hike on my to-do list for the summer. We got to it on July 8th, 2014.
It’s a relatively short, steep hike up the mountainside. Like most hiking in Denali, the rewards were immediate – jaw dropping views with a sense of solitude in the wilderness.
Much of the climb was a steady slog up the tundra. It was especially wet and spongy – at times our feet would sink down above our ankles with each step.
The wind was fierce and increased as we gained elevation, but we were quickly learning that such gusts were simply par for the course in Denali.
We gained our “summit” and looked east toward the higher peaks of Cathedral Mountain. Any route to access these points looked sketchy and not particularly appealing today.
The views from here were spectacular. We got out of the wind as much as possible and enjoyed a nice break.
We caught some fleeting glimpses of Mount McKinley, Denali, The Great One. This is about as clear as the mountain would get today.
The headwaters of the Teklanika looked gorgeous and inviting.
We reached our summit of Cathedral so quickly that there was still much of the day ahead of us left to burn. Our eyes continued to be drawn toward the Teklanika River to the south of the mountain, so we decided to find our own route down to the river.
We figured we could follow its course downstream and circumnavigate Cathedral Mountain toward Igloo Creek Campground, or simply continue to follow the river to the point where it meets the road.
First we took in some more views from the heights of the mountain. Below you can see Sable Mountain to the north, and the Park Road as it stretches away to the west.
I was surprised to see a caribou here, so high on the mountain. It shot up over the crest of distant ridge and contoured to this small snowfield, trying perhaps to escape a cloud of biting flies.
We found our way off the far side of the mountain by following a canyon. Fortunately it went all the way through without any major obstacles.
At first it was easy enough to follow the expansive gravel bars down the Teklanika. The ground was moist and showed all manner of animal tracks, including what we think was a wolf print.
Here we walked along the more seldom seen side of Cathedral Mountain. It was surprisingly wooded up in there, and we mused about the possibility of seeing a black bear.
The river formed a single channel as it approached its confluence with Calico Creek, so we were soon forced higher and higher up its west bank. The riverside was cut off by some steep embankments, forcing us to bypass them high through the brush.
Eventually the Teklanika took on its familiar braided character again. We followed its course all the way to the place where it meets the Park Road, spanned by a bridge.
This was another amazing, varied day of hiking in Denali. Up until this time we’d always followed prescribed routes, so it was great to be spontaneous and choose our own adventure over the mountain and down the Teklanika.