Hiking & Paddling in Denali & the Interior

Introduction

If you're into grand, sweeping landscapes, vast tracts of boreal forest, and fields of alpine tundra, welcome to paradise. All of these hikes are for experienced trekkers only.

Hiking the Dixie Pass Route

  • Start Dixie Pass Trailhead
  • End Dixie Pass Trailhead
  • Duration/Distance 24 miles
  • Difficulty Medium to hard

Even by Alaskan standards, Wrangell-St Elias National Park is a large tract of wilderness. At 20,625 sq miles, it’s the largest US national park, contains the most peaks over 14,500ft in North America and has the greatest concentration of glaciers on the continent.

Within this huge, remote park, Dixie Pass provides the best wilderness adventure that doesn’t require a bush-plane charter. The trek from the trailhead up to Dixie Pass and back is 24 miles. Plan to camp there at least one or two additional days to take in the alpine beauty and investigate the nearby ridges. Such an itinerary requires three or four days and is moderately hard.

You reach the Dixie Pass trailhead by hiking 2.5 miles up Kotsina Rd from Strelna and then another 1.3 miles along Kotsina Rd after the Nugget Creek Trail splits off to the northeast. The trailhead is on the right-hand side of Kotsina Rd; look for a marker.

The route begins as a level path for 3 miles to Strelna Creek, and then continues along the west side of the creek for another 3 miles to the first major confluence. After fording the creek, it’s 5 to 6 miles to the pass; along the way you’ll cross two more confluences and hike through an interesting gorge. The ascent to Dixie Pass is fairly easy to spot, and once there you’ll find superb scenery and alpine ridges to explore.

For transportation into the park, there’s Kennicott Shuttle, which runs a daily bus from Glennallen to McCarthy. With a round-trip Glennallen-to-McCarthy ticket ($149), the company will also drop off and pick up hikers at the Dixie Pass trailhead. Stop at the park headquarters in Copper Center to complete a backcountry trip itinerary and pick up USGS quadrangle maps.

Hiking the Chena Dome Trail

  • Start Upper Chena Dome Trailhead
  • End Upper Chena Dome Trailhead
  • Duration/Distance 29.5 miles
  • Difficulty Hard

Fifty miles east of Fairbanks in the Chena River State Recreation Area, the 29.5-mile Chena Dome loop trail makes an ideal three- or four-day alpine romp. The trail circles the Angel Creek drainage area, with the vast majority of it along tundra ridgetops above the treeline. That includes climbing Chena Dome, a flat-topped peak near Mile 10, which, at 4421ft, is the highest point of the trail. The scramble to the top is a steep affair, so get ready for a serious huff.

An intriguing aspect of the trek is the remains of a military plane that crashed into the ridge in the 1950s. The trail winds past the site near Mile 8.5. Other highlights are views from Chena Dome and picking blueberries in August. In clear, calm weather you can even see Denali from spots along the trail.

From either end of the trail, you'll have to ascend for about 3 miles through pine forests before emerging past the treeline into open swathes of alpine tundra. From there, the trail follows the ridgelines – keep an eye out for cairns that mark the way.

Pack a stove (open fires aren’t permitted), and carry at least 3 quarts (3L) of water per person (refill bottles from small pools in the tundra). There’s a free-use shelter at Mile 17, while a 1.5-mile and 1900ft descent from the main trail will bring you to Upper Angel Creek Cabin, which can be used as a place to stay on the third night; reserve online with Alaska Division of Parks (http://dnr.alaska.gov/parks).

It’s easier to hike the loop by beginning at the northern trailhead at Mile 50.5, Chena Hot Springs Rd. The trailhead is 0.7 miles past Angel Creek Bridge. The southern trailhead is at Mile 49.

Kesugi Ridge Trail

  • Start Little Coal Creek Trailhead
  • End Byers Lake Campground
  • Duration/Distance 27 miles
  • Difficulty Medium to hard

With Denali National Park offering no marked long-distance trails, aspiring hikers in search of a three- or four-day backcountry adventure head south to smaller Denali State Park and the Kesugi Ridge/Troublesome Creek trail.

Established in 1970, 325,240-acre Denali State Park is more heavily forested than the national park and harbors Alaska’s largest concentration of black bears. Essentially a wilderness, the park is bisected north–south by the George Parks Hwy, making access to its various trailheads easy. The Kesugi Ridge trail forms the backbone of the park and is part of the Talkeetna Mountain Range. Averaging 3000ft to 4000ft above sea level, the ridge is situated above the treeline amid tundra landscapes speckled with small lakes; it offers what many claim to be the best views of Denali in the state.

Most hikers start at Little Coal Creek trailhead on the George Parks Hwy and proceed north to south. The initial 2.5-mile climb to the ridge on the Little Coal Creek trail is steep, but views of Denali will inspire you to dig deep. Once up on the ridge beware of sudden changes in weather. Most of the path is marked by intermittent cairns. After passing Eight-Mile Divide and Stonehenge Hill, you’ll encounter the intersection with the Ermine Hill trail, a handy escape hatch if you’re tired or weather-beaten.

Soon after this the path descends briefly below the treeline before ascending again to open tundra. Many hikers come off the ridge at the Cascade trail intersection, descending 3.4 miles through forest to the Byers Lake campground on the George Parks Hwy (27.4 miles total hike). If you wish to continue, descend on the Troublesome Creek trail, aptly named due to its regular wash-outs and large bear population. The final 6 miles are in forest. Check ahead for current trail status, and bring bear spray and mosquito repellent.

The four trailheads that give access to the Kesugi Ridge trail are all conveniently located on the arterial George Parks Hwy that runs between Anchorage and Fairbanks. They are Little Coal Creek (Mile 163.9), Ermine Hill (Mile 156.5), Byers Lake (Mile 147) and Upper Troublesome Creek (Mile 137.6). All have parking facilities. Alaska/Yukon Trails runs a regular shuttle bus along the George Parks Hwy and may be able to help out with transport if you can coordinate times beforehand.

Paddling Beaver Creek

  • Start Ophir Creek Campground
  • End Victoria Creek
  • Duration/Distance 111 miles
  • Difficulty Medium, Class I water

Beaver Creek is the adventure for budget travelers with time and a yearning to paddle through a roadless wilderness. The moderately swift stream, with long clear pools and frequent rapids, is rated Class I and can be handled by canoeists with expedition experience. The 111-mile creek flows past hills forested with white spruce and paper birch below the jagged peaks of the White Mountains.

A day’s paddle beyond Nome Creek, Beaver Creek spills into Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, where it meanders through a marshy area. There are portions of river width here that are so large, paddlers may not see their opposite shores (the land you do spot may well be literal islands in the stream). Eventually the water flows north into the Yukon River, where, after two or three days, you’ll pass under the Yukon River Bridge on the Dalton Hwy and can be picked up there. This is a 399-mile paddle and a three-week expedition – the stuff great Alaskan adventures are made of.

The scenery is spectacular, the chances of seeing another party remote and you’ll catch so much grayling you’ll never want to eat another one. You can also spend a night in the Borealis-Le Fevre Cabin, a BLM cabin on the banks of Beaver Creek, but on many a night, you'll be utterly surrounded by pure wilderness.

To get there, at Mile 57 of Steese Hwy go north on US Creek Rd for 6 miles, then northwest on Nome Creek Rd to the Ophir Creek Campground. You can put in at Nome Creek and paddle to its confluence with Beaver Creek. Most paddlers plan on six to nine days to reach Victoria Creek, a 127-mile trip, where gravel bars are used by bush planes to land and pick up paddlers.

Having the proper equipment on hand to tackle the float is half the battle. Consider renting an inflatable craft with Alaska Outdoor Rentals & Guide if you're feeling independent, or booking a trip via Arctic Wild if you wouldn't mind some group company and/or direction from trained professionals.

Wickersham Dome Trail

  • Start Elliot Hwy, Mile 28
  • End Elliot Hwy, Mile 28
  • Duration/Distance 7 miles
  • Difficulty Medium

Hiking in Alaska's interior generally demands time and can be immensely challenging to novices, but the Wickersham Dome Trail is an excellent intermediate-difficulty track that you can tackle as an easy day trip from Fairbanks. On good days, this 7-mile out-and-back cops you great views of the region once you reach the eponymous dome. On any day, you'll get a good taste of the boreal hinterland of interior Alaska.

The hike is located within the White Mountains, north of Fairbanks. Drive out to Mile 28 on the Elliot Hwy, where it splits from the Steese Hwy outside Fox, and look for the trailhead, which is marked by a signed parking area. The trail is pretty straightforward, and is part of the larger Summit Trail; going to Wickersham Dome makes for a solid day-trip option.

Relative to other hikes in the Interior, this trek is rewarding for the more casual hiker, but it still helps to be in decent shape before heading out. Wickersham Dome has an elevation of 1007ft (306m), and to get there, you'll first have to undergo gradual but steady elevation gain. Along the way you'll be surrounded by alpine vegetation, including gorgeous wildflowers and berry bushes. On that note, berry pickers often come here during the summer.

Eventually the trail coils around the crest of Wickersham Dome. This is the steepest huff, but once you make the top, you'll have an uninterrupted view of the Interior rolling all the way to the Brooks Range (assuming it's a clear day). Kick back, relax and remember the walk back to the parking area is downhill. Or continue along the Summit Trail, which crests similar ridges and has its own slate of sweet views.