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This summer I went hiking on the Thoro Ridge in Denali National Park with my wife, Kate, and Jenn, a friend in town from New Hampshire. The trail is accessed from the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66 on the Park Road so we had to take the shuttle in. The mountain didn’t come out for us, but wildlife was abundant. We saw countless caribou on the ride in, so many that our bus driver stopped stopping for them. We also saw four grizzlies, a few sheep, and a glancing sight of a moose as it ran into the willows.
I’ve always felt the Eielson Visitor Center seems out of place. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very nicely done and fits into the surrounding landscape beautifully, it’s just unexpected after a 4 hour drive away from civilization. There are a few rest stops on the way and an Alaska Geographic Bookstore in a fancy tent at the Toklat River, but not much else. The Eilson Visitor Center is a large, shiny, modern facility in a gorgeous location packed full of people during the tourist season. There are numerous short hiking trails surrounding it, including one steep trail heading straight up the hill to the north, the Alpine Trail. This was the start of our hike.
The Alpine Trail is a popular one. It’s steep, well maintained, and gains about 1,100 ft. of elevation above the Visitor Center. The views from the top are remarkable – both to the north and to the south. The top of the ridge is wide open, no bushes, no tussocks, incredibly easy walking. The Thoro Ridge, our intended route takes us west on a gradual descent full of ups and downs on rolling, rocky hills. And arctic ground squirrels. They are everywhere. It’s not long before we come across about 5 or 6 caribou; they are much cooler to watch up close than from the bus.
I’m amazed at how easy it is to lose the crowds in Denali National Park. With few established trails, most of the hiking is backcountry and off-trail. That’s intimidating for a lot of people, especially in a park the size of the state of Massachusetts with only a single road running 90 miles in. Any travel by foot requires at least some knowledge and experience with navigation and how to behave around wildlife.
Unlike the Alpine Trail, the Thoro Ridge is not an official, established, or maintained trail. It sort of meanders the ridge, slowly descending until you need to find a drainage that will take you back down to the road. While we saw many people on and at the top of the Alpine Trail, we shared the Ridge with only two (that we could see – walking the other way).
It wasn’t long into our descent into the narrow drainage when I noticed some brown blobs bumbling in front of us. It suddenly dawned on me why the other two hikers were headed in the other direction. A sow with two older cubs were digging up roots right in the middle of our route. I didn’t hang out for long since they were close. We slowly backed up the hill to a safe distance deciding it would be best to head back the way we came rather than wait them out since we had no idea how long they would be there. There was no other easy way to descend from where we were.
After making our way back to the visitor center we put our names in at dispatch to catch an outgoing shuttle. Luckily we barely missed the next bus and were first to board an overflow shuttle – the views are almost always better to the south so it’s nice to be able to choose which side to sit on. We saw a few more caribou and had a very nice grizzly encounter for the ride back to finish off an already awesome day.
The trail description is in Denali National Park, Alaska: Guide to Hiking, Photography and Camping. I keep hearing rumors that there is a new edition coming out, which is why it seems to be out of print. Occasionally it’s hard to find a copy – but I really like it.
The full photo set is posted here: https://photos.lwpetersen.com/Date/2014/July/2014-07-21/