Key: 2011-08-07:     2011-08-08:     2011-08-09:    

Denali National Park

A snowy and wet trip mostly around Eielson Peak.

Begin Date:

End Date:

2011-08-07: 6.99 mi
2011-08-08: 2.27 mi
2011-08-09: 4 mi

Total: 13.26 mi

Maximum Elevation*:
4296.8ft (1310.753m)

Minimum Elevation*:
2958.56ft (902.901m)

Gallery for this adventure:
Click here

* This is derived from GPS data and can have major discrepancies due to poor GPS reception.

Trip Report:

08.06.11: Anchorage to Denali NP HQ:
We woke up in Anchorage to partly sunny skies and walked down from our hotel to catch our tour bus to Denali National Park. After a short time loading the bus with the other 11 tourists, away we went. Unfortunately, the closer we got to the park, the more the weather started to change as a dreary rain began to fall. This also meant that our chances of seeing Denali, would be greatly diminished. In fact every stop that the bus stops at, if the skies are clear, the mountain is beautiful, but we weren't so lucky.

In any event we arrived about 6 hours later at Denali NP. Our driver was kind enough to drop us off at the Wilderness Access Center so we could take care of the paperwork. After watching their mandatory bear movie and talking with the ranger, we decided to start in unit 18 and from there go to 13 followed by 12. We filled out our permits and then headed over to get our bus tickets for the camper shuttle (It is special shuttle that accommodates both people and their backpacks/camping gear). To our surprise the buses were pretty full and we would have to go standby if we wanted out on the 7:30 am bus which we really did as the next bus didn't leave until 11AM. We took our chances that we would get on and went and checked in at the Riley Creek Mercantile for our front country campsite (along with picking up a few cold beers for the evening). Luckily at this point the rain had stopped which made setting up camp much easier. After we were situated we took advantage of the break in the weather and took a short walk over to the park entrance to get the first of our Alaska National Park Signs.
National Park Sign Picture

08.07.11: Denali NP HQ to Eielson and Crystal Creek:
We woke up early to get a quick shower in before we had to get to the bus depot in hopes of getting on the early camper bus. As it turned out there was plenty of extra room on the early bus so we boarded without an issue. The morning bus ride started off with gorgeous blue skies and even our driver was optimistic we would see Denali. We picked up several more campers along the way and before long the bus was almost completely full.

Though not immediately apparent to the average visitor to Denali, the bus system being the only means of public transportation into the park (private vehicles aren't allowed past a certain point) serves multiple purposes. It obviously lets people into the interior of the park, but it also keeps the park roads very safe for wildlife and attempts to keep them unaccustomed to human presence. As an example, anytime there was wildlife anywhere, the drivers would pull over and let us take pictures and observe as long as we were quiet. Along the way, we saw several caribous, grizzly bears, and wolves along the way. We even got to watch a bear camped out on top of a caribou carcass and fend off other curious and hunger bears.

Unfortunately, the higher we climbed on the bus the more the weather seemed to change for the worse. First our blue sky disappeared behind gray clouds, then the rain started to fall, and before too long it turned to snow. By the time we reached Eilson Visitor Center there was even a few inches of wet snow on the ground and the temperature was slightly above freezing. Not exactly the best weather to begin a multiple day trip.

In hopes of waiting it out, we went into the visitor center and had lunch. After a little while of watching the snow only get deeper, we decided it was now or never and readied ourselves for the certain cold wet fun that awaited us.

The trail we took from the visitor center dropped straight down towards the glacial river bed below the visitor center. At first the trail was simply muddy, but as we descended it began to disappeared, and soon we were left to bushwhack through wet, snow covered brush. By the time we got down to the river bed we were soaked to the bone and just barely able to feel our legs. Luckily the rain had stopped and to our delight, the sun actually came out. We had a few crossing of some river braids but nothing serious or that required us to take off our already wet, though not soaked boots. Eventually the weather system all but cleared and we were treated with a view of the Alaska Range and Denali in all its glory. It was breath taking!

We slowly made our way over to river bed that we would take us up to Unit 18. We thought we would make it easier on ourselves and climb up onto what looked like a sparsely brush covered moraine, but that turned into fighting tundra, rocks and actually very heavy brush so we worked our way back down to the river bed. Sadly, by this time another weather system had moved back in and the rain had started to fall yet again. We scouted for a decent place to set up camp and finally found a spot that would do. Jason strung a line for a tarp between two bushes and we proceeded to get out of the weather and have some dinner as we set up camp.

08.08.11: Crystal Creek to the side of Mount Eielson:
We awoke to parting clouds and breaks blue sky giving us hope for the day. As we prepared some coffee and breakfast, the weather only continued to get better. The sun came out and before long we were back to viewing the mountain and the Alaska Range. We packed up quickly so that we could get some views as well as pictures from our ascent up the hill side on our way to Unit 13. We climbed around 400 vertical feet and before long we were to the top of the ridge above the Crystal and Glacier Creek junction. We took some time to enjoy the gorgeous view of Denali as we knew the weather likely wouldn't be any better for the rest of our stay in Denali.

The scene was breathtaking as well. Immediately below were the creeks that we had camped next to, followed by what seemed to be endless mounds of glacial leftovers covered the tongue of the Muldrow Glacier, and beyond that, the impenetrable wall of snowy mountains making up the Alaska Range with their king, Denali watching over it all. It was a sight that we will never forget, and also one that makes you realize just how big Alaska really is and how small we really are.
Left middle of the picture you can see part of a glacier.

Jason took several pictures while Tracy attemped to identify peaks using the map and a compass. It took some time, but after Jason was satisfied with his photography, we continued along. Our route would take us along the flanks of Mt Eielson as we worked our way back towards the visitor center only on the opposite side of the Thorofare river valley. We stayed high and hiked through some pretty easy tundra (relative to other tundra we would encounter later).

As we were continuing around the mountain, we spotted some Caribou and thought it would be fun to sneak up on them and see how close we could get to take some pictures. They entertained us for quite a while and afterwards we looked around and decided where we were would make an excellent camp for the night. The park rules are as long as we couldn't be seen from the road in the distance we could set up anywhere. We found a great spot slightly behind a grassy knob at the head of Grant Creek. From there we sat back, enjoyed our view, and watched our neighbors graze on the tundra until it was time for dinner and eventually bedtime.
Out on a mound just below Mt Eielson.

Sneaking up on some Caribou to get a close up.

08.09.11: The side of Mount Eielson to Eielson Visitor Center and Riley Creek Campground:
We were learning that Alaska's weather is a weather forecaster's nightmare as it never seems to make up its mind. On this day however, it would bring snow and wet.

Not wanting to be too cold and wet again, we quickly made breakfast and packed up. We still had the opportunity for one more night out in the backcountry, but the plans were up in the air as far as what we really wanted to do for the day. On our way in the previous day, we noticed a cabin that sat down at the bottom of the ridge so we thought we would hike down and check it out. As it turned out, it was a very old and almost collapsed cabin. Jason took some pictures as we thought how cool it would be to have such a cabin with the view of Denali.

We continued on toward the Thorofare River as it rained off and on. The rain at this point didn't really matter since we were so wet from the tundra over the last couple of miles. Did we mention Alaska is a very wet place?

It didn't take too much longer however and we had reached the Thorofare River and rather quickly made our way across it. The Eilson Visitor Center was in full view not far away on the opposite valley wall. It was looking rather inviting and since the thought of spending another wet night in the tundra did not sound fun to either of us, we decided to bag the last night in the wilderness. We also had weighing on our minds, the fact that we really would need to be on the first morning bus back to Riley Creek if we decided to stay. When finally reached The Eielson visitor center, we found we weren't the only ones in our boat. The inclement weather had also changed the plans of a several other campers hoping to get feeling in their limbs back. We were put on standby for the bus and hoped we would make it back before too long as a shower and some dryer clothes sounded might fine.

After an hour or so of warming up in the Visitor Center, we finally heard a call that all campers on standby needed to report the buses. The bus company sent another bus out to come get all of us wet campers since there were so many in our situation. We took advantage of the small bus heaters on the way while enjoying some more wild life viewing of griz, wolves, and caribou. Back at Riley Creek we we finally go to enjoy the warm showers we were looking forward to and quickly setup camp in the same spot we had two nights earlier. It would be a good and comfortable sleep for the both of us.

08.10.11: Riley Creek Campground to Anchorage:
We got up, showered yet again and did some shopping in the visitor centers that morning killing time until our bus would come to take us back to Anchorage. The bus ride home was only 4 us and it was rather uneventful except that the weather seemed to be improving. By the time we got back to Anchorage the weather was beautiful and dry. We returned to our motel and ventured out to Humpy’s for some beer and grub. Then it was back to the hotel for laundry and a repack for the next day to Lake Clark National Park.