Wolverine Creek (Unit 13) to Eielson Summit and Exit (Unit 13)
Mileage- 9.2 miles
Elevation Gain- 3750 feet
Elevation Loss- 2700 feet
Day seven backpacking in Denali National Park was one of the most unbelievable and memorable experiences in all of my backpacking experience. We spent the previous night at Wolverine Creek with the plan of summiting Mt. Eielson and then camping near the Thoroughfare River with a short exit to the Eielson Visitor Center on the morning of day eight. As it turned out, we ended up exiting the evening of day seven… but more on that later.
We knew that day seven would be a marathon of a day… so we started off early. As soon as we popped our heads out of our tents we could see that it was going to be the best day of the week. Prior to this day we had not had a clear view of Mt. McKinley. Either the clouds covered it or we were not within view, but this day would be remarkably different.
We followed Crystal Creek and headed toward Castle Rock. Had it been overcast that day, Castle Rock would have looked ominous as we headed toward it. Nonetheless, our plan was to hook just left of Castle Rock and pass over a saddle where we would empty the heavy contents of our packs (bear canisters, tents, sleeping bags and pads) and then summit Mt. Eielson. Of course we would have to backtrack just a bit when coming down Eielson to pick up our gear, but it was significantly less effort doing that than climbing Eielson with full packs.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, backpacking in Denali is challenging because there are not any trails in the backcountry. I suppose there could be some recommended routes in certain units, but the trail-less nature of Denali evokes a wild and primal instinct- You are free to roam. And while that creates more of a challenge going from point A to point B… it is completely worth it. Ascending Eielson evoked that sense for sure. After dropping the heavy gear and standing face to face with Eielson, we studied the contours and textures, the obstacles, and the grades… and then we went for it.
One of the greatest and most unexpected surprises appeared to our left as we climbed with heavy breath. The first time Mt. McKinley caught my eye was when I stopped to catch my breath. When I caught sight of the great Denali… everything stopped. It was glorious, even from 35-miles away. The blue skies and the Cirrus clouds painted a backdrop that I will never forget. We could not get to the top of Eielson quick enough. We knew our best view would be at the very top, but the grade was becoming increasingly steep and the softball to volleyball sized rocks were becoming increasingly unstable. With each step we had to be certain that the rocks were stable. Our trekking poles were invaluable, except for Josh who accidentally left his poles with the heavy gear.
At the top of Eielson we separated along the ridge line and spent close to an hour alone, in solitude. Obviously we wanted some time to ourselves to simply take in and appreciate views which others could only imagine. But more than that, we spent time giving thanks to God for such profound beauty and freedom in the world and in our lives, thanks for the gracious and loving family members who support us and let us use our vacation time for wild and mind-blowing trips, and thanks for the physical ability and outdoor knowledge we have that enables us to go into the wild. When we came back together we took some pictures and then each one of us took turns standing on Eielson’s peak yelling to the top of our lungs “ALASKA!” That was the exclamation mark on one epic and memorable Alaskan adventure.
As we descended along the ridge line we could see storm clouds brewing. On our last day Alaska would not allow for an easy exit… and that certainly became our running joke for the last four hours that day. It was a rough descent down the mountain and it seemed as if we would never reach the river bed. It began to rain so we dropped the packs and rain geared up. It stopped raining so we dropped our gear and took off the rain coats because they were getting too hot. We got ever closer to the river bed and decided to stop for our last blueberry break. We dropped the packs again and devoured pounds of blueberries. Once we hit the river bed it was going to be a long haul to our final destination… and around each bend… there were more bends and more bends. We finally climbed a twenty foot hill to the west of us to get on top of the land mass we were trying to circumvent. Once on top we hit a straight line and probably cut out a mile’s worth of river bed hiking. We descended and finally approached the Thoroughfare River. It was our last crossing and we sized it up. Again Alaska was laughing. Although we all had dry boots and wished to finish with dry boots… there was no way to cross without going at least knee deep. Like three banshees we ran through the Thoroughfare like runners crossing the finish line.
We finally reached our destination for the night, which was only one mile from Eielson Visitor Center. As we dropped our packs and began to shape up the area the rain began to fall again and we just looked at each other. We were each thinking the same thing- we are only one mile from a bus out of the park, a cozy bed, and a warm meal at a restaurant! We were outta there. Sure we would have liked to brag about 8 days in the Alaskan wilderness, but 7 sounded just fine. The rainy and muddy hike up to the visitor’s center was a cruel joke and one last way Alaska would put the screws on us. This was NOT a leisure trail. It was near vertical and four inches of mud to step through on the horizontals. The weeds were head high and so we bush whacked. By the time we reached the top we were informed by a ranger that they had just spotted a grizzly in the immediate area in which we were hiking. Of course. We waited 15 minutes for a green bus to pick us up. I am sure the people we sat near did not appreciate our looks or smells.
Would I recommend someone backpack in Denali National Park for a week? Absolutely. But only if you have your head straight. While this was the most labor intensive backpacking I have ever done, it was more of a mental challenge than anything. Despite how difficult it was, it was one of the most beautiful and rewarding accomplishments in my life.
An edited, day-by-day version of my adventure in Denali National Park appeared in the fourth issue of Sidewalk – a hiking and backpacking magazine.