Backpacking around Mount Eielson in Denali National Park

Moody Night 1 on the eve of Summer Solstice.

 

My buddy Jesse, who I met serendipitously when our road trips intersected in time and place at Mesa Verde National Park, is working for a flight-seeing operation called Denali Air. Similar to my shuttle gig last year for Wrangell Mountain Air, it’s his responsibility to transport visitors to and from the airport and engage them in repetitively prepared, single-serving conversations.

 

Backcountry hiking is made much safer by pairing up, and Jesse and I penciled in a backcountry trip into Denali National Park as soon as I knew I’d be back up here (Denali NP – WebsiteMap, Topo). Midday Tuesday (June 20th) we loaded up our packs and took the shuttle bus deep into the park to begin our hike south from Eielson Visitor Center. Our agenda had us encircling Mount Eielson over 3 days (15 miles) and concluding back at Eielson VC.

 

Polychrome Pass on the road out to Eielson VC.

 

Nursery herd of caribou (only mamas and their young). Fun fact: Caribou and Reindeer are the same species. Reindeer are domesticated; Caribou are wild.

 

Here’s our route around Mount Eielson. We moved counter-clockwise. Note: this map is facing south.

 

 

In general I cover about 3 miles per hour when hiking quickly, 2 mph when hiking slowly, and 1 mph when hiking off trail, also known as “cross-country”. As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, hiking off trail epitomizes the grander draw I feel towards Alaska, and I’d endorse it as a kind of primal pleasure, on tier with being transfixed before a campfire or enchanted by a waterfall. But it comes at the cost of speed.

 

I’ll detail our first few hours of hiking to give you an idea why cross-country hiking takes so long.

 


 

Day 1

 

Immediately down from Eielson VC we came to our first river crossing. I was able to bound through the calf-high waters with my hightop boots and gaiters. Jesse took off his boots before crossing to preserve his dry feet. Re-booted, we followed the river bed downstream, regularly stepping up or down the sandy embankments of dry creek threads, to where it intersected Thoroghfare River.

 

This time the water was deep and swift enough to be taken seriously. We both de-booted, removed our socks and boot soles, re-booted, and crossed with linked arms, the man upstream breaking the water’s force and the man downstream helping prop him up. After crossing, again we sat down and removed and then reconstructed our wet boots around our feet as they gradually re-sensitized from the cold.

 

Jesse crossing the first river. Eielson Visitor Center is pictured above and to the right of him.

 

Yes, our socks were soaked immediately, but if we went in with our socks on our feet would be sloshing around rather than just soggy. Great way to start a 3 day jaunt over open country, no?

 

Further downriver we exited the riverbed and made our way up the first ridge, trending towards the right-hand (western) foothills of Mount Eielson. Over that ridge was another, and between them a drainage filled with sweeps of chest-high alder bushes. We flowed between them and over a small stream, awkwardly bobbing and weaving with our oversized packs. On gaining the second ridge we found another drainage running parallel to the first, and again we descended, slapped through the bushes, stepped through a mossy stream, and gained the ridge. From there we began actually putting down miles. Our navigational decisions were governed by balancing our desire to wrap the mountain tightly to reduce the total distance hiked and our desire to avoid unnecessary elevation gain before being forced to descend around the “False Valley.”

 

To cross those two rivers and bushwhack through the two creek beds took about 4 hours, and we were no further than 2 or 3 miles in a straight line from Eielson Visitor Center.

 

Jesse shooting pictures over an alpine lake. Full disclosure: I had him move closer to the water so I could get his silhouette. 

 

There are two major valleys running up the backside of Mount Eielson, and they both run alongside each other, curling counter-clockwise, in the direction of our loop. The first looked like a fine route on our topographical map, but the backcountry office advised us that it was rougher travel than the second and deceptively steep. On rounding the first 25% of the mountain we came to the first valley, which we came to call the “False Valley.” We made camp on a chossy ridge halfway down into the mouth of False Valley,

 

Camp 1. I typically avoid camping on exposed ridges, but the weather was mild and the view was theatric.

 

View from Camp 1 facing southeast up Crystal Creek. That dot of yellow color on the first ridge near the water is another tent. False Valley starts in front of that ridge, Wolverine Creek behind it.

 

We sat for hours eating dinner, snapping pictures, and talking shop about our favorite road trip destinations in Louisiana, the South, and Florida. The lower Muldrow Glacier was in view, along with Sunset Peak, Red Mountain and the Northern (Right-hand) flank of Denali.

 

View from Camp 1 Northwest down Crystal Creek. Same perspective as the cover photo of this post except two hours later (~11:45pm).

 

The ethereal lighting changed slowly thanks to the shallow angled track of the midnight sun. It was the day before Summer Solstice, and the sun finally set at 12:34 am.

 

The late sunlight is as bizarre feeling as it sounds bizarre.

 


 

Day 2

 

Having stayed up late, we slept in late. Breakfast was slow and after resupplying on water we got rolling around 11am. After crossing over False Valley we selected the correct valley which was cut by a stream called Wolverine Creek. Satisfied with our navigation skills, I put my head down and began moving up the cobblestone incline. Not 100 steps later Jesse alerted me to a lone male caribou prancing out of a rocky slot in the valley. We saw a good sized heard of caribou on the bus ride in, but as you’d expect, seeing one up close with wet nostrils flaring and its neck fur swinging below its throat was more impressive.

 

Wolverine Creek and the slotted canyon it cut. 

 

This picture is after he had already passed. He startled me, and I was still sizing up his intentions by the time he had pranced by, maybe within 30 feet or so.

 

We broke for lunch – peanut butter sandwiches with chocolate coated almonds stuffed inside and half an apple each – and then continued up the slippery stair-master of the now narrowing bottom of Wolverine Creek.

 

Shortly after lunch Jesse was again the first to spot an interesting dollop of wildlife. This time what we believe was a golden eagle began making tight circles above and to our left before landing on a spine of kraggy dark brown rock running perpendicular to the creek. I couldn’t get over how large it was. Its torso was about the size of an overinflated party balloon.

 

We continued..

 

Blue and turquoise color indicates copper. Red and orange indicate rusting iron.

 

Some time passed and we came to a solo hiker who was doing the same loop of Mount Eielson in the opposite direction. She smiled and answered our small talk questions concerning good camping spots and wildlife up ahead. She had no such questions for us and courteously closed our conversation to continue down river, her trekking poles and boots landing in short deliberate succession in a characteristically experienced way.

 

Up Up Up…

 

This is looking up Wolverine Creek near its various headwaters.

 

This is looking back down Wolverine Creek. The lines of perspective follow the snow laced drainages and create an enjoyable flow of focus for your eye.

 

By 3:00pm we could see the low point saddle over which we would cross between Mount Eielson and its major ridge leading south to Castle Rock. And after taking cover under my tarp from a quick rainstorm we had our tent set up and sleeping bags & pads deployed. Not wanting to take it easy just yet (4-5pm..?) we tucked our main backpacks into my tarp folded on the ground like a taco and loaded up our day packs with water before starting up the backside of Mount Eielson proper.

 

Camp 2 on the saddle between Mount Eielson (behind camera) and Castle Rock (barely pictured, distant center)

 

View down Contact Creek (other side of the saddle). The following morning we hiked down the ridge of vegetation to the left.

 

It takes a minute to recalibrate both your sense of balance and your sense of heft after wearing a 30lb pack for hours. It’s something like a baseball player swinging a weighted bat before stepping up to the plate, and the lofty physical sensation mixed with the psychological sense of accomplishment made for a bounding and jocular ascent.

 

Thinking about it more carefully, I experienced on this trip, and have experienced on others, what I’ll describe here as “trail silliness.” I don’t mean to undermine the seriousness of backcountry camping in the Alaskan wilderness, but in most such outings a lighthearted and typically absurdist sense of humor manifests. Egged on by exhaustion and coaxed out by nature personified in every precarious tower or rocks, inexplicable patch of colorful flowers, and every frenetic rodent or droll moose. When they’re all you have to study, these things are very interesting, so much so that it becomes a comedy of sorts. I’m grasping to explain it in any more relatable terms.

 

It feels like being given a gift.

 

 

Two specific instances of trail silliness come to mind:

 

– Jesse forgot to pack a spoon so he had to improvise and selected a slice of dried mango as his scooping utensil. We laughed at how well it worked, and went on to pitch each other on starting up a mango-slice-spoon business – enumerating the advantages of having a tasty disposable spoon – for your avid trail hiker on the go.

 

– The other instance of trail silliness relates to the permissibility of referring to a ground squirrel as a marmot so long as you take due pleasure in grumbling some variation of “ya dang/crafty/little mar-mut” in a mock-scolding tone.

 

Tricksters! Every last one of ’em!

 

We made it to the top of Eielson in about 3 hours, and I’ll forego the ridge-traversing details to spare my mother a few unnecessary pitter-patters of her patient heart. The only hitch in the vista was that Denali was completely hidden by belt-line clouds that hung high above our heads and well below his.

 

Vertical panorama from the summit of Mount Eielson, elevation 5,802-feet, a little less than 3,000-feet above the Throroghfare River (pictured from right to left).

 

The view was excellent, and we could see most of our trip laid out below us. Eielson Visitor Center was in view to the north, The upper reaches of False Valley to our left, Wolverine Creek behind us and the valley and lower river bed that we would hike out the next day lay to our rear-right and swept out in front of us.

 

 

We captured a few more potential facebook profile pics and scampered back down the way we came. It drizzled. We ate. It rained. We slept.

 

View from Camp 2

 

Our Summer Solstice consisted of a few swigs of whisky, a puff of the peace pipe, and bed by 10:15pm. Party hard.

 


 

Day 3

 

Our last day was by far the easiest. It presented the easiest navigation, and easiest terrain once we got down into the Thoroghfare River bed.

 

 

We followed a ridge covered with vegetation instead of taking the creeks route down. When the vegetation stopped at the top of a scree slope we clambered down. The only two dangers with descending rock slopes like this are loosing your balance and falling downhill (obviously), and being struck by a cartwheeling rock from above. So lean up slope and don’t hike in a line, and you should be fine.

 

Morning stop to pump some freshwater. The park service tells you to purify all your water, but a lot of these small streams are about as good as water gets. This area however had a lot of fingernail-sized sheep poop strewn about so purification was necessary. You can see the ridge and rock slope (previous pic) we came down in this picture.

 

Down in valley but facing south up an early tributary of Thoroughfare River.

 

The sun came out of our last afternoon of hiking, and we had just a few river crossings and a large bushy meadow to cross to get back to Eielson Visitor Center.

 

 

We were slightly disappointed that over the whole outing the only big animal we saw was that caribou trotting down valley. They say you shouldn’t ever expect seeing the animals because this isn’t a zoo, each day is different, etc. etc.

 

But Denali had one more surprise in store for us not more than 200 yards from the end of our hike…

 

 

And on a final fun little note, Jesse and I sat next to the nicest folks on the drive out of the park. He recalled our adventures to the middle-aged couple sitting behind us, and I helped a sprightly elderly couple ahead of us locate the animals we could see from the road.

 

They both had super trick binoculars, and after the initial thrill of spotting each grouping of the fuzzy blond rocks browsing in the grass, they insisted on passing the binocs off to Jesse and I so we could share in the visual bounty. It was a simple honest inter-generational effort, each of us lending what we had to make the others experience all the more memorable.

 

 

No matter your age, we all appear to be susceptible to the kind of giddy excitement and trail silliness I seek.

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