a rewarding day hike featuring amazing views, deep in Denali National Park
Thorofare Ridge Trail Guide – Unit 34
MAP: Trails Illustrated shows the entirety of the Park, but the scale is too small for field navigation. The USGS topo for this area is Denali B-1 NW (see below).
PERMITS: required for backpacking, but not day hiking
DESIGNATION: Denali National Park
BEST SEASONS: June through September
DISTANCE: 1.7-mile round trip trail, ~5m round trip to summit
ELEVATION: trailhead ~3,750ft – end of trail ~4,725ft – summit 5,629ft
DIRECTIONS: Ride the Denali Camper Bus or Shuttle Bus into the Park to Eielson Visitor Center. The bus ride takes about 4 hours, one way.
ROUTE: steep switchbacks on a well traveled trail, switching over to off-trail ridge walking
GUIDEBOOK: Denali Guidebook has it all.
The Eielson Visitor Center is one of the busiest places along the Denali Park Road. The surrounding scenery, however, is utterly beautiful. You don’t have to walk far from the parking to immerse yourself in the full rewards typical of hiking in Denali National Park.
This notion is best exemplified on the Thorofare Ridge Trail – formerly called the Eielson Alpine Trail. It climbs steep switchbacks above the Eielson Visitor Center for less than a mile, offering jaw-dropping views of the Alaska Range to the south. Your perspective is improved with each step.
The trail ends at the crest of a ridge with views in all directions. Experienced hikers may consider this a jumping-off point, where your adventure truly begins.
The ridge may be traversed in either direction – west and downhill toward the Park Road, or northeast to the summit of Mount Thorofare. From here it’s certainly possible to drop into Moose Creek toward Mount Galen, or northeast toward Little Stony Creek, and beyond.
For backpackers, the area is designated as Unit 34.
The USGS topo Denali B-1 NW shows this area, though the summit of Mount Thorofare (sometimes called Mount Thoro) is left unmarked.
Here I’ve cropped out the applicable area from the larger topo, featuring the day hike as described to the peak. The gray line shows the Thorofare Ridge Trail, marked with its old name here. I’ve drawn in the green line, marking the route to the summit.
You can right-click on the image to view a larger version or download it.
My Trip Notes and Photos
After some bad weather thwarted our plans to climb Thorofare Mountain as a backpacking trip, I decided that it would best be done as a day hike on July 29th via the popular Eielson Alpine Trail.
The first highlight of this trip would be to check out the Eielson Visitor Center for the first time.
Rainy days were par for the course for this season in Denali, so today’s chance of rain was, as always, about 50/50. By now we’d learned that we couldn’t ask for anything better than that in the forecast.
It had rained for the previous few days, but the clouds seemed to be breaking up in the early morning as we made our way to the Wilderness Access Center.
We didn’t own a vehicle in Alaska, so all of our early-morning trips into the Park were a journey of their own. We’d begin with a company bus ride from Healy to the Princess Wilderness Lodge. From there we’d walk over the Nenana River to the W.A.C. via the Jonesville Trail.
It was always a chilly, sleepy, and silent walk over the river, and we always remarked at the drastically changing force and volume of all that water. The Nenana River forms the eastern boundary of the National Park.
The final part of the routine was to board the Camper Bus or Shuttle bus that would drop us off at our desired destination.
We saw a few bears from the bus today, but they were all brown lumps of sloth in the tundra.
Upon arriving at Eielson, it was disappointing to see that Mount McKinley was hidden behind its usual veil of clouds. Most of the other surrounding landscape was still visible, and we knew exactly where the mountain was supposed to be, so we had no choice but to envision it only with our imaginations.
The Visitor Center itself was a unique facility, built into the hillside and extremely eco-friendly to reduce its impact on the wilderness. We’d slept a little on the bus (As usual), so we lingered for a little while in Eielson, trying to gather up the energy and motivation to begin our hike. It was fun to browse over all of the interpretive features, and we rested for some time and admired this beautiful quilt on display.
At last we began our hike up the popular Thorofare Ridge Trail. The trail is listed as a strenuous, 2-mile round trip with 1,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. From the top of the trail we planned to follow an unmaintained route to the summit of Mount Thoro, listed on my topo map as 5,629 feet.
That’s one of the typical shuttle buses of Denali, seen below us on the Park Road from the trail.
The trail itself was a series of no-nonsense switchbacks that took a direct route up to the crest of a ridge. We saw plenty of other hikers, and the ground squirrels ran rampant.
The skies remained moody and threatening, but we’d come all the way out here – so there was nothing to do but go on with our hike as planned.
The views south toward the Alaska Range were stunning.
Upon reaching the top of the ridge, we were greeted with this wonderful view to the north (below), featuring the valley of Moose Creek. Mount Galen could also be seen to the northwest.
We turned east along the ridge, toward the summit of Mount Thoro.
There was a good path to follow in the beginning, but it would eventually disappear.
Soon we came upon this huge bowl of green tundra, where the trail vanished. It was a nice spot for a break, and the only place that offered any degree of protection from the wind.
We ended up turning around before reaching the summit. A dark, threatening cloud began rushing over the peak, originating from the far side of the mountain that was invisible to us. The peak had actually been socked in by fog when we first topped out on the ridge, so we opted to turn around now… for fear that the weather would envelope us and leave us disoriented in a thick cloud.
We observed a couple of caribou, seen here at a distance.
We didn’t make it to the summit of Thorofare Mountain, but we’d still done the full length of the trail, plus quite a bit more… just another great day in Denali!