|Popular For||Day hiking or Backpacking|
|Difficulty||Moderate to difficult (but short)|
|Length||4.5 miles (7.2 km) roundtrip (shorter and further routes possible)|
|Minimum Elevation||1969 ft (600 m)|
|Maximum Elevation||4728 ft (1441 m)|
|Total Elevation Gain||3006 ft (916 m)|
|Season||Late May – Early October|
|Estimated Time||3-5 hours|
|Region||Denali Village (Glitter Gulch area)|
|Location||George Parks Highway – Grand Denali Lodge|
|Parking||Hotel parking lot|
Sugarloaf Ridge Trail Overview
This trail is steep! Right out of the gate, it hits hard. My quads were burning toward the end of the descent. But, in less than 5 miles round trip, you get some fantastic views of the Alaska Range, including possible views of Denali to the west and to the east, Mt. Deborah in the Hayes Range. The exposure near the summit is real, the “trail” very steep in soft soil and talus. There are a few spots where a slip could prove quite dangerous, which is why I give this trail a moderate to difficult rating.
A nice feature of this trail is that you don’t need to go all the way up to get a good view since the trail ascends above the treeline in just the first 2/3 of a mile (1 km). Of course, in that time, you will also ascend nearly 1,000 feet (304 meters)!
Access to this trail is easy, with the (unmarked) trailhead beside a maintenance shed at the end of the parking lot at the Grand Denali Lodge just north of the entrance to Denali National Park. Despite its proximity to the park, it’s likely to be a quiet trail (probably due to the steepness of the terrain). In my opinion, totally worth it, especially if you don’t mind a little pain. Great place for wildflowers in late spring and summer.
Come prepared for wind, rain, snow, and sleet, as anything can happen here, even in the summer. Remember, even though this is close to a town, this is still bear country. Be aware, and whatever you choose for defense, make sure you know how to use it well.
Current Weather and Forecast for Sugarloaf Mountain
The Grand Denali Lodge is at mile 238 on the Parks Highway (AK-3). It’s just north of the bridge across the Nenana River into the tourist town of Denali Village, or Glitter Gulch. A steep road with lots of switchbacks and amusing signage brings you to the hotel parking lot. Parking is limited but didn’t seem very full as most visitors arrive by tour bus. Still, it is private parking, so don’t take up too much space and be respectful so that hikers don’t get shut out from this access.
Trail Details – Sugarloaf Ridge
At the north (far) end of the parking lot is a large maintenance shed with a trail on the right side. Follow this path into the woods, and it immediately turns right. If you find yourself on a 1:1 slope, you’re on the right trail. There aren’t any switchbacks here; the trail goes straight up through the forest, passing to the right of a passive repeater (billboard-looking thing).
Be aware of some of the flora here. I was surprised to see many mountain death camas, larkspur, and monkshood in the forest. Monkshood and larkspur can cause skin irritation, although unlikely to cause the type of irritation that poison ivy or poison oak. All three are very poisonous and even deadly to ingest, even in small quantities. (Don’t go picking flowers and then put your fingers in your mouth 😛).
The trail remains very steep, with a few stretches of flatter terrain to catch your breath on. After about 2/3 of a mile (1 km), you emerge from the trees and set out over rocky alpine tundra for the remainder of the hike. In a few areas, the trail seems to split or disappear, but I found if you generally keep to the right, you’ll stay on the right path (not a pun).
The ridgeline is straightforward and easy to follow. The few spots the trail seems to disappear might lead to a bit of scrambling, but nothing severe. The day we hiked this, the wind was howling, probably close to 50 mph sustained. Wind is not uncommon in this area at all, so be prepared.
At the last stretch, there are a few different social trails. A couple goes straight to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain across soft and steep talus. Another traverses the side of the hill before topping a ridge on the back side of the mountain. From here, it’s a gradual and much safer path to the top. The view from the top is fantastic, with great views of the Alaska Range all around!
Return exactly the way you came.
Sidenote: there does seem to be a lot of variation in other guides as to the length of this hike. Some state it’s as short as 4 miles round-trip. One put it as high as 8 (definitely wrong; unless going further on the ridge, which is certainly possible, but not based on the description). My GPS clocked in at 4.7 miles total, roughly 2.35 miles one-way, but I did a little extra wandering for photos. When I shaved off some of my errant walking, it still clocked 4.5 miles. I think some of the disparity might come from the fact that this trail gains so much altitude so fast (elevation is the least reliable of GPS coordinates) that it might affect the final result. I think some people might also turn around before the top. There is a rock outcropping that overlooks the obviously less-traveled Sugarloaf Ridge at exactly when my GPS hit 2 miles. Regardless, it’s a tough steep trail, so I’m leaving my trail’s total length at 4.5 miles. Maybe it’s a bit less.