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|Popular For||Day hiking|
|Season||Late February – September|
|Type||Point-to-point or loop walking the road back|
|Difficulty||Moderate (Steep sections and rocky)|
|Elevation Gain||1450 ft (442 m)|
|Estimated Time||3-8 hours|
|Location||Denali National Park & Preserve (Park Road)|
Mountain Vista Rest Area: mile 12
Savage River Parking: mile 15
Savage Alpine Trail (Green), Park Road (Blue) – map disclaimer and information
Mile 15 on the Park Road in Denali National Park marks the end of the publically driveable stretch. Beyond this, you must have a special permit, be on foot or bike, or ride one of the shuttle or tour buses. But, at this road-stop located before the Savage River bridge, there are a plethora of trails in an otherwise (mostly) trailless park. Most are leisurely strolls along the river, but one, the Savage Alpine Trail, climbs up steep terrain on a well-maintained path nearly 1,500 ft in elevation gain and then back down over 4.18 miles.
Wildlife is frequently spotted along the trail. I’ve personally seen spruce grouse, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, and arctic ground squirrels. Bears and wolves are occasionally spotted in the area, so it’s a good idea to carry bear spray and know how to stay safe in bear country.
Technically, this is a point-to-point trail, starting or ending at the Savage River (mile-15) or Mountain Vista (mile-13) parking areas. Yet, the 2.25-mile, relatively flat walk back along the road is pleasant with some beautiful scenery. This makes for a 6.45-mile loop. Alternatively, during the summer season, when the buses are running, a free shuttle can be taken to return to your parking area.
Many guides suggest hiking this trail clockwise (Savage River to Mountain Vista), but I highly recommend hiking the trail counterclockwise (Mountain Vista to Savage River). Hiking counterclockwise, you face west and Denali and over the Savage River valley through the entire upper elevation of this hike. It’s a stunning sight to walk toward. The descent will be steeper, but a good pair of trekking poles will lighten the load on your knees. In my opinion, it’s worth the view.
The Park Road typically is plowed to the Mountain Vista (mile-13) parking area by mid-February, making the hike accessible. Although, you will have to walk the road stretch to complete the loop to/from the Savage River. Check the status of the Park Road here. The lower elevations near Mountain Vista and Savage River often have deep snow, so I recommend snowshoes. In my experience, there’s usually not enough snow to warrant bringing skis. Often the top of the trail is very windswept and even completely free of snow, as this area tends to be very windy year-round. However, there are frequently stretches of very slick and steep ice (sometimes snow-covered). Microspikes are perfect for dealing with this and have been necessary for me some years.
The steepest section is the descent/climb to/from the Savage River. One year the trail was covered in water-ice, and I needed technical crampons to climb it. I managed with crampons and an ice ax, but it was a bit scary by myself. Often I can find a snowy descent off the trail and get by with snowshoes. It is essential to understand your abilities and be ready to turn back the way you came if the conditions are beyond them.
Late Spring – Early Fall
Between late April and early May, the snow begins to melt, and the trail becomes more traveled. Although, be prepared, as winter conditions can persist into June and it can snow any month of the year. During the summer season, the trail is excellent, easy to follow, and gorgeous on a clear day! I’ve used it to train for trail-running while camping at the nearby Savage River Campground. It’s an incredibly steep 10k!
Be prepared for more of a crowd once the buses stop running, especially near the Savage River. Many people begin the hike up when they see the trail. Yet, most only climb high enough to gain a bit of a view, or up to the first rock outcropping. I’ve never had to fight a crowd on the whole loop. Once the buses stop running in September, the snow will fall soon, and the road will close once again.
During late August through mid-September, the fall foliage is stunning! Peak foliage can land anywhere in that time and only lasts a few days, but it’s worth a lengthy stay to see it. In my opinion, there is nothing more beautiful or photogenic than Denali National Park in Autumn.
Mountain Vista – Savage Alpine Trail
This description begins at Mountain Vista going counterclockwise. Beginning at the Mountain Vista Rest Area, walk north along a trail just west of the parking area, or just walk the parking lot toward the road. You’ll cross the park road and immediately see trails entering the woods. Stay heading north, the trail should be well-marked with a Savage Alpine Trail sign. This section takes you through gorgeous cottonwood and spruce forest. I frequently encounter grouse and ptarmigan here.
The path parallels a braided stream for approximately 1.5 miles on a gradual up-hill. In winter there may be some icy overflow on the trail. Slowly climbing out of the valley you begin to get some great views of the Savage Valley behind you and the mountain range immediately to the northeast. At this point, switchbacks begin heading west and slightly north. In winter the trail may be difficult to follow if not packed down. If you are comfortable with navigation off-trail, you will be headed toward a ridge below some small rock outcroppings to the west-northwest. In the summer, the trail is obvious with some sections on boardwalks.
The Bowl and Descent
The trail then turns back east on the opposite side of this ridge for about 500 ft before turning north and looping around a large bowl. Usually, even in winter, the trail is obvious. Follow this bowl north and then back west heading toward the rock outcroppings visible over the Savage River. In winter you may encounter a lot of ice here and will want to adorn microspikes or another traction device. The ice might be covered in light snow and not be visible. I have hit the ground hard here, more than once. The view of Mt. Margaret and the Primrose Ridge on the other side of the river is incredible.
After walking past some big schist blocks, the descent begins down tight switchbacks. In winter this can be icy, so look for a possible snowy descent and put on some snowshoes. Don’t be afraid to backtrack if the conditions are nasty. Head toward the left (south) side of the large schist outcrop below over the parking lot. In summer, the trail is obvious and marked.
At this point, you are at the Savage River Parking Area. Head back via the road, take the shuttle (summer only), or explore the Savage Canyon Trail heading north at the parking area.