Alaska Guide – Interior Hiking
|Popular For||Day hiking|
|Season||Late February – September|
|Difficulty||Easy to Moderate (Steep sections and rocky)|
|Length||4.7 miles [7.25 miles with extension]|
|Elevation Gain||1800 ft (549 m) – [3464 ft (1056 m) with extension]|
|Estimated Time||3-4 hours|
|Location||Denali National Park & Preserve (Park Road)|
Main Visitor Center
The Healy Overlook Trail (red) and unmaintained extension (yellow)- map disclaimer
The Healy Overlook Trail is the most extensive trail in the park entrance area. I rate this hike as easy because it is a well-maintained, easy-to-follow, and relatively short hike at less than 5 miles. However, please note that it is steep in sections and gains nearly 1800 feet in elevation over 2.35 miles.
Although short, the Healy Overlook Trail affords gorgeous vistas of the mountains near the park entrance. It’s a very fun trail to run if you are into trail running (STEEP!). It’s also a fun snowshoe or hike in winter. The road is almost always open to the trailhead, and the weather typically starts getting a little nicer in February. It’s possible to continue on to the Mt. Healy summit, another 1.5 miles. Use caution though, this trail is very steep, rocky, with sheer cliffs on either side at times. I do not recommend continuing unless you are a very experienced hiker (guide coming this summer). In winter there are occasionally Ranger-led snowshoe walks on the entrance area trails.
The Bad (It’s not that bad)
Starting at the main Visitor Center campus at the National Park entrance, the trail tends to be very crowded in the summer. If you are looking for a relaxing hike to get away June-August, this is not the trail. Every few minutes I had to step aside to let oncoming traffic through, most are not hikers and have no idea about trail etiquette. I would frequently get stuck behind slow hikers and families and have to speak up to get them to step aside to let me by. I’ve ducked out of the way when I saw a guy rounding a switchback had his bear spray drawn and finger on the trigger (there were no bears around)! Once, on a busy weekend, I encountered multiple groups hiking with music blaring on speakers (don’t do that). During those peak months, the earlier or later in the day you leave the better. A 5 am start may give you the trail to yourself!
This proximity to the visitor center and high traffic makes it a good trail for beginners. It would be hard to get lost, and there’s often plenty of people that could help you out if there is a problem. Last time I did this hike I had 4G reception the whole way. I hope I didn’t talk anyone out of this hike, It really is fun and pretty!
Healy Overlook Trail Description
The easiest place to park for hiking the Healy Overlook Trail is the main Visitor Center just past the roundabout on the Park Road. Starting on the Taiga Trail, follow the signs that say “Healy Overlook Trail”. The trail winds through a boreal forest with some gorgeous stunted aspen and spruce trees. The forests here are absolutely spectacular in late August and early September when the foliage changes. A large footbridge takes you across a stream and the trail starts to steepen.
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About 1.25 miles in there are a couple of benches on the left side of the trail. This resting spot provides one of the first nice views of the valley. If you are new to hiking, this is a good spot to gauge if you want to continue the hike. The trail gets quite a bit steeper with many switchbacks and the terrain gets rockier. If you’ve had a tough time to get here, you might want to turn around. Otherwise, you are at about the half-way point and have done about 1/3 of the climbing.
Into the Alpine
The switchbacks eventually lead you out of the trees and into the rocky alpine zone. There are often gorgeous flowers and berries up here. While I’m used to seeing grizzlies in Denali, this is the only place in the park I have seen a black bear. Although bears aren’t frequently spotted along this trail it’s still good to be prepared, they are here! Make sure you know how to avoid encounters and know what to do in the event of an encounter. You will most likely encounter arctic ground squirrels, please don’t feed them.
A few more switchbacks take you to the top of a large outcropping. Watch your footing if you wander around, there are definitely a few places you don’t want to slip. A National Park sign marks the end of the trail, but an obvious trail continues toward Mt. Healy. This becomes a much more hazardous and steep trail, I do not recommend it if you are new to hiking. The trail eventually disappears and you are left to navigate on your own. (I’ll be posting a guide to Mt. Healy and Bison Gulch as soon as I finish mapping this summer). The return route is the same way you came.
Healy Overlook Extension
After arriving at the overlook, you may notice a visible trail going beyond the “End of Maintained Trail” sign. If your legs aren’t burning too bad, it’s worth it to walk a little further along this popular social trail. Portions are quite steep, so be very cautious if continuing to and through some of the rock outcroppings about a mile out. The footing there is very loose and there is real potential for a bad fall.
The trail disappears completely at the last outcropping before a saddle between this ridge and Mt. Healy. If continuing on to Mt. Healy, you will want to stay well below this last rock outcropping as there are large cliffs and very loose rock on the other side. Do not attempt to summit Mt. Healy from this side unless you are prepared and experienced in backcountry travel, people have died on this hike! Additionally, this mountain has its own weather system. Storms and whiteouts frequently occur when surrounding areas have blue skies.
The Trail in Winter
This trail gets a fair amount of travel at the lower reaches in winter and is frequently packed enough to hike in just boots. However, as you climb the packed trail often peters out or becomes incredibly windblown. It’s a good idea to have snowshoes or skis with skins on you if your destination is the top of the overlook, and almost definitely for Mt. Healy. The overlook trail is certainly not prone to avalanches, but it’s not impossible either. Always stay aware of snow conditions! You may need a bit more navigation skill, as the trail is not always obvious under the snow.