A favorite hike for seasonal employees – this is a strenuous day to a wonderful mountain peak near the entrance to Denali National Park.
Sugarloaf Mountain Trail Guide
MAP: Trails Illustrated shows the entirely of the National Park. Overall it’s best to get the old-fashioned 7.5 minute quad maps.
PERMITS: no permit needed
DESIGNATION: state of Alaska public land
BEST SEASONS: June through September
DISTANCE: 8 miles round trip
ELEVATION: trailhead ~1,900ft – summit 4,674ft – difference ~2,800ft
ACCESS: paved roads to the trailhead
DIRECTIONS: Near the entrance to Denali NP, the nondescript trailhead is located at the north end of the parking lot behind the Grande Denali Lodge. Looking at Google Maps, the trail begins at the end of Grande Drive behind the Alpenglow Restaurant. Look for a path that begins leading uphill. It may be marked with a cairn, but obscured by dumpsters and/or electrical boxes.
ROUTE: Clear footpath sometimes traverses steep, loose, exposed scree.
GUIDEBOOK: Denali Guidebook is wonderful for the National Park, but does not include this hike.
Though technically outside of the Denali National Park’s boundaries, this is one of the best hikes in the park’s entrance area. The trailhead is located behind the “Glitter Gulch” strip of development, across the road from the Princess Wilderness Lodge resort.
Its ease of access and immediate rewards make it a favorite excursion of the seasonal employees in the area. But be warned – you’ll have to work for it! This hike is about as steep as it gets without having to use your hands.
Gaining 3,000ft over the course of just 4 miles (one-way), the Sugarloaf Mountain Trail is a steep, loose climb that soars above the Nenana River valley and greater entrance of Denali. The trail and its namesake peak at the end were dubbed “Sugarloaf” by the area’s locals, as opposed to a designated name by the US Geological Survey. Some folks call this hike the Sugarloaf Ridge Trail.
The path begins unceremoniously at the end of a parking lot behind the Grande Denali Lodge. Clawing its way through brush that can be especially thick depending on the season, it soon climbs above treeline, culminating on a rocky, windswept ridge that’s composed of little more than loose scree.
The uppermost section of scree can make some people uncomfortable, so hiking poles are helpful. There’s also a couple of steep sections among the boulders that qualify as more of a “scramble” than a “hike.”
Hikers in mid-May have reported seeing some Dall sheep, so this may be a good place to look for them early in the season.
Finally, on a clear day it’s possible (but unlikely) to catch a glimpse of Mount McKinley in the distance.
The Sugarloaf Mountain Trail is not shown on the 7-minute USGS maps, and its area is split between two separate quads. These quads are AK Healy D4 SW, and AK Healy C-4 NW.
The map below shows the general location of the trail. The base map was made from stitching together the topos listed above, and unfortunately the original quads do not detail the developed “Glitter Gulch” area of the trailhead.
Regardless, here’s the general location of the trail. You can right-click on the image to view a larger version or download it.
My Trip Notes and Photos
I did this hike on three separate occasions throughout the summer of 2014, so these photos are from all of those different days.
I was alone on June 7th for my first outing – I had a very limited amount of time and didn’t get very far up the trail. The second time – on June 29th – I went farther up the trail with friends, but this was a hike where we took a while to relax and enjoy the scenery. The third and final time – on August 8th – I made it up to the very top of the trail.
The rewards of this trail are almost immediate. Here the first view looks down upon the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge and the Nenana River. On the far side of the river you can make out the clear strip of the Alaska Railroad tracks, backed by Mount Healy on the top-right.
This is a similar view, but south this time toward the Alaska Range.
The point pictured here in the center (above) is the highest part of the entire hike – it’s farther away than it looks. This is the only forgiving stretch of the trail as it follows the spine of this ridge.
Part of what made this hike so wonderful to me is that reminded me of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, particularly the Franconia Ridge along the Appalachian Trail. The only difference here is that maybe you’ll see one or two other people on this hike, and it just so happens to be in Alaska! ALASKA!
This is the final path to the top – you can see it doesn’t offer much in the way of traction.
At last, the summit of Sugarloaf… this shows the elusive view of the wilderness to the east.
I think this is the dominant, pyramid-shaped mountain that’s clearly visible from the town of Healy… Dora Peak.
This fun-looking spider kept me company during a snack break.
A light rain passes to the west.
Gazing upon the expanse of wilderness that lies to the east of Sugarloaf made this summit more amazing to me.
I just love how this hike begins in the most developed and commercialized area of Denali, a strip of restaurants, lodges, and gift shops called “Glitter Gulch” by the locals… you begin there, walk thirty minutes, and suddenly you not only get the feeling that you’re in the middle of a great Alaskan wilderness, but you truly are!