Savage River to Mt. Margaret loop

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The view to the east from Mt. Margaret in Denali National Park
The view to the east from Mt. Margaret in Denali National Park | Purchase Print

Sunday, June 13, 2021, I finally hiked a route in Denali National Park that I have been trying to get to for a few years. Three different times I had to change my plans due to closures due to nearby bear kills. The closest I got was in 2018 when I got blocked by a Dall ram who refused to leave the narrow canyon that was the only way up. After a little over an hour, I gave up.

The route started on the Savage River Loop at mile-15 on the Park Road. Continuing for a stint beyond the footbridge, some social and animal trails continue up a wide (but narrowing) ridge on steep terrain toward a small rocky pass. The views continued to get better the higher I climbed. When I got to my previous ram stand-off location, I wasn’t quite sure how easy or safe the last climb to the top would be.

View of the Alaska Range over a ridge. The jagged peak right-center is Fang Mountain.
View of the Alaska Range over a ridge. The jagged peak right-center is Fang Mountain.

But, I was determined and kept going. The most difficult section of the hike was through a narrow gap between steep, broken rocks. I had to cross a fairly unstable talus slope. The soil underneath was saturated, and my first step went deep, and the talus slid. Up above, I could see there had been a recent slide that I wouldn’t have wanted to be a part of. Luckily, the section I had to cross was only about 5 feet wide and would get me to some more stable rock that I could use to finish the climb.

I sunk my trekking poles in as far as I could, took one step in the mucky talus, and stepped across to the rocky slope. From there, the tall rocks on my left acted as a perfect handrail to the top. Rounding the crest to the ridge, I was a bit shocked at the immediate change in landscape.

Rocky landscape on the last push to the ridge
Rocky landscape on the last push to the ridge
The view of Mt. Margaret after gaining the ridge
The view of Mt. Margaret after gaining the ridge

I went from steep, rocky, alpine terrain to totally wide-open, rolling, alpine tundra. Mt. Margaret came into view, and it wasn’t what I was expecting from what is seen from the road or trails below. It really isn’t much more than a tor-covered ridge.

Tors and storms along the tundra ridge to Mt. Margaret
Tors and storms along the tundra ridge to Mt. Margaret | Purchase Print
Tor ridge near Mt. Margaret
Tor ridge near Mt. Margaret | Purchase Print

Walking became substantially easier, if not a little wetter. Almost immediately after topping the ridge, I came across hundreds of Chuchki Primrose flowers, one of the main reasons I wanted to do this hike. The Chuchki primrose is a much rarer primrose flowers. The Primrose Ridge/Mt. Margaret area has a population of them, as well as the Bering straight area of Alaska and Russia. Other than that, there’s only a few spattering of areas they can be found in Alaska.

Chucki primrose flowers (Primula tschuktschorum) near the summit of Mt. Margaret
Chucki primrose flowers (Primula tschuktschorum) near the summit of Mt. Margaret
Boggy tundra and rain showers
Boggy tundra and rain showers

As I started hiking the last mile to the summit of Mt. Margaret, I thought once again I may have to cut the hike short. The sound of thunder was growing louder and closer, and I didn’t want to get caught on this wide open ridge in a lightning storm. I could see the storm to the northwest, and it seemed to be traveling mostly west-east and slightly south. I guessed that at most it would glance over the ridge, so I decided it was worth the risk.

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Nearing the last little climb to the summit, a face appeared over the ridge. Another Dall ram. He looked at me for a minute or so, before calmly continuing in my direction just a bit to the north. It was a much more casual encounter than the one a few years earlier. He was just grazing in the tundra and didn’t seem concerned with my presence at all.

Dall ram on Mt. Margaret in Denali National Park. It headbutted the bird a few seconds later.
Dall ram on Mt. Margaret in Denali National Park. It headbutted the bird a few seconds later.
Dall ram crossing my path to graze in the alpine tundra
Dall ram crossing my path to graze in the alpine tundra | Purchase Print

The views from the summit are incredible! Seemingly endless landscapes to the north and west and a great vantage of the Alaska Range to the south.

Northeast view from the summit with a tiny bit of rainbow
The tor dotted tundra from Mt. Margaret
The tor dotted tundra from Mt. Margaret | Purchase Print
Some rain showers to the west
Some rain showers to the west
Looking over the east-west Primrose Ridge from Mt. Margaret. Next time I'll take more time to explore the ridge!
Looking over the east-west Primrose Ridge from Mt. Margaret. Next time I’ll take more time to explore the ridge!

It was getting late, and time to descend. I really wanted to complete a loop, rather than return the same way. There are three ridges from Mt. Margaret and the east-west Primrose Ridge that lead back down to the road. I’m fairly certain any of them would have afforded a relatively easy hike back. There were definitely some social trails or animal trails leading down the middle one, that also ran straight into the Primrose rest area on the road, so I chose that one.

It started steep and rocky, but quickly became fairly flat and easy walking. It was clear that I was on a social trail, or older man-made trail, as it was fairly deeply rutted and there were boot prints in the mud. As I descended, Denali began to appear out of the clouds.

View of the Alaska Range on the descent from Mt. Margaret
View of the Alaska Range on the descent | Purchase Print
Denali coming out of the clouds
Denali coming out of the clouds | Purchase Print

The trail appeared, disappeared, and re-appeared again multiple times, but route-finding was easy in the open terrain. Luckily, the path became clearer as the foliage became thicker making for really easy travel through the tall willows and alder closer to the road.

The 2-mile walk back to the car on the Park Road was gorgeous. There was a breeze, helping keep the bugs away, light and shadows dotting the valley floor from the tall clouds, and intermittent rainbows appearing against the mountainsides. A perfect end to the afternoon!

View on the walk along the road back to the Savage River
View on the walk along the road back to the Savage River | Purchase Print

Sorry for the number of initial wildflower photos, they are for my wildflower guide!

I wanted to note that I am not posting route info for this hike in my trail guide because of its accessibility and proximity to a very heavily traveled and visited area at the Savage River (read Wild and Trailless – Denali National Park). Only experienced hikers should attempt this hike because of terrain dangers, rockfall potential, wildlife considerations (backcountry travel in bear country), and potential route-finding difficulty. Only a very short section of this hike is on trail. People have been killed from falls in this area. For those that are experienced and want to hike it, I believe the description here is sufficient to find the route. The total mileage was 8.1 miles with about 2,000 feet in elevation gain. Experienced hikers would have no problem doing this in a half-day. Expect more time to take in the scenery!

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