a spectacular day hike to the top of wonderful mountain in Denali National Park, Alaska
Guide to Climbing Sable Mountain
MAP: Trails Illustrated shows the entirety of the Park, but the scale is too small for field navigation. The USGS topo for Unit 29 is Healy C-6 SW (see below)
PERMITS: required for backpacking, but not day hiking
DESIGNATION: Denali National Park
BEST SEASONS: June through September
DISTANCE: 5 miles
ELEVATION: trailhead ~3,300ft – summit 5,923ft
DIRECTIONS: Ride the Denali Camper Bus or Shuttle Bus into the Park at mile marker 38. Instruct the driver to drop you off at Tattler Creek for Unit 29. The bus ride takes about 2 hours, one way.
ROUTE: off-trail travel up a creek and steep mountain ridges
GUIDEBOOK: Denali Guidebook has it all.
Tattler Creek was named for a bird called the Wandering Tattler.
Have the driver let you off at Tattler Creek. You’ll know you’re getting close when the road begins to parallel the the drainage of Igloo Creek, after leaving Igloo Creek Campground.
Simply follow the drainage of Tattler Creek upstream. The immediate section of the creek is brushy, so be sure to make noise to warn bears of your presence.
Shortly you’ll encounter a significant canyon that’s cut into the creek, which you can bypass on the right (creek-left).
You can access the ridge route (marked in red below) about 2 miles from the park road. Leave Tattler Creek on the nose of this ridge to the left (west). As you’re heading up the creek and watching for this ridge, it will be the first one that has gray-colored rock at creek level.
The way to the summit will be largely intuitive as you climb up the ridge, with a faint social trail showing much of the way.
To take the more gradual and slightly longer route (marked in green) simply continue following the creek upstream. Bear left at the head of the drainage to climb up and out, accessing a saddle with views to the north. Go west from here up the ridge to the summit.
As you get near the top and “summit fever” begins to take hold, be sure to get your bearings and take careful note of your surroundings. It could be disastrous to descend an incorrect ridge!
Here’s a map I made, cropped from the USGS topo Healy C-6 SW that shows the applicable routes up Sable Mountain from Tattler Creek.
The red line shows the more common route (described here), whereas the green line takes a more gradual approach from a saddle.
You can right-click on the image to view a larger version or download it.
My Trip Report and Photos
I day hiked Sable Mountain on June 23, 2014.
It was truly was a great hike – a perfect mix of challenge and simplicity. The peak of Sable Mountain is almost 6,000 feet above sea level, and it’s considered a walk-up without much scrambling required.
June 23rd dawned as a beautifully crisp, clear day. Such outstanding weather would soon become a rare commodity during this especially rainy summer season in Denali. We boarded the 7am Eielson shuttle, and spirits were high as Mount McKinley was out in all her glory.
I told our bus driver early in the trip that we’d like to get off at Tattler Creek, but failed to remind him later on down the road. We were still unfamiliar with the details of the Park, so I admit that I didn’t know the exact location of the creek.
I soon realized that the driver had gone right past our stop! He stopped the bus a few miles later, so we rushed off to catch another bus going eastbound toward Tattler Creek.
Lesson learned: Don’t be shy about reminding the bus drivers where you’d like to get off the bus!
We lost a few hours because of the mistake, but on the positive side, we got to spend some time admiring the scenery with this extra, idle time in the wilderness.
This section of the road was in the midst of the largest wildlife closure area in Denali. Apparently this is a “sensitive wildlife area” because of a high concentration of bears and potentially wolves. At one point we heard a distinct series of dog-like barks and howls in the distance. I’d like to think it was wolves, though it may have been coyotes.
We would have simply walked the three miles back toward Tattler Creek, but from the bus we’d seen a few bears along the applicable stretch of road.
Eventually we caught a bus back to where we wanted to be, and our hike was underway as we followed the right bank of the creek.
I’d later learn that there are some distinct dinosaur footprints in this area along the creek, but we never saw them. I was focused on finding the way up Sable Mountain, and had no idea at the time that such fossils were supposed to be here.
Soon we found the ridge on the left side of the creek that gives access to the summit, and we began making our way up it.
It wasn’t long before the views took our breath away.
…or maybe it was the steep, sudden accumulation of altitude that took our breath away!
Alas, this was the single, fleeting view of Mount McKinley that we had on foot today.
From a distance it looked as though walking these ridgelines could be sketchy because of all the snow, but it was only an illusion. The ridges themselves were perfectly clear.
It was windy and cold up on top, but we lingered for as long possible before making our way back down the mountain.
This here ptarmgian is the only wildlife we’d see while on foot today, save for some elusive marmots and squirrels.