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Denali National Park consists of 6.6 million square acres. A truly staggering number, that makes it roughly the size of Massachusetts! So, when I say that getting to see it all is more than challenging for most, I mean it. The reality is that both inside the park and outside of it there are so many things tucked away into corners you can’t see from the road and would never find in visitor’s guidebooks. But having lived in Denali for the past 8 summers, I’ve had the chance to get off the beaten path and explore some of the areas less traveled. If you are like me and want to find the spots that the normal tourist travel doesn’t include, consider seeking out some of these hidden gems.
The Savage River Waterfall
The first item on our list starts off in a very popular, and well tread area of the park. The Savage River trail is one of Denali’s only maintained pathways. It consists of 2 main sections, the first is a loop which runs in a big 2-mile loop, with its halfway point marked by a river crossing over a bridge. The other is an Alpine section that starts close the loops main trail head and crosses over a mountain pass and down into the Savage River campground. Now for the secret: When taking the loop and coming to the bridge crossing, you’ll find a sign that says, “End of Maintained Trail.” It’s true, this is where the park stops maintaining the trail, but that’s not to say there isn’t one at all. What looks at first like a game trail winds its way up a short hillside, and around the bend. For most people the sign saying that the trail is no longer maintained is often enough to get them to continue the loop without exploring further. But for anyone that does venture down will find themselves eventually coming to a massive section of the river that cascades over fallen rock from the surrounding mountainside. When taking this trip, be ready for a section of scrambling down a steep hillside covered in loose rock (and by extension, the journey back up it). Keep your eyes peeled on the other side of the river for ice caves in the early spring after a heavy snow winter, and as always be looking for wildlife of all types. I’d categorize this hike as moderate and would suggest letting people you are traveling with know where you are going in case of an emergency as this section is not always patrolled by the rangers, as well as the fact that you will not have cell phone service. For those that do make it to the waterfall, enjoy your time lounging by the crux on a massive slab of stone near the water’s edge.
8 Mile Lake
Everyone traveling into Denali National Park has likely heard of Wonder Lake, the Park’s famous body of water that sits close to the mountain itself. But most people have never heard of 8-mile lake, a body of water off the infamous Stampede Road, that is accessible to everyone without the need of a park pass. This area is home to several appealing features, including massive fields of wild berries, accessible to the public, an opportunity to see Denali’s peak on clear days (which is also about the only place you can see any of the Mountain from Healy itself), as well as being a great place to view the Northern Lights at the end of the summer when it starts to get dark again. This is a great spot to get out to when you want a break from the crowds of the peak summer, is an easy area to find a camping spot for tent campers, and car/ RV campers alike, and is not that far from town itself. It got its name simply for being 8 miles down Stampede Road off the George Parks Highway (Highway 3) on the northern edge of Healy’s town line.
Dragonfly Creek Waterfall
Dragonfly Creek is a unlike most of the hike in Alaska in that it starts as a descent instead of going up a mountain. Around mile marker 242 on the western side of the George Parks Highway there is a pull off that you can park in.Keep your eyes peeled for a sign that bears the rivers name. After parking, hop the guard rail walking North until you find a small trail leading into the woods. In just a few hundred yards you’ll find yourself at the creek itself. Follow it downstream, sometimes requiring bushwhacking and sometimes just a matter of picking the best path along the shoreline. If you follow it along far enough, you’ll eventually find yourself at the head of the waterfall. Exercise caution! It is a long way down to the ground, and rock in Alaska is notoriously loose. A trail picks up on the north side of the creek that will lead you down to the base of the waterfall, exhibiting some stops along the way that will give you elevated views of the waterfall, as well as the mountain range on the other side of the Nenana River. There is a place to have a fire for a day picnic, or to set up your hammock for some time in the shade. There are anchors on the head wall of Dragonfly Creek as well that will allow for repelling and top rope climbing, though the rock here isn’t ideal for climbing. If you follow the creek along for another half a mile, you’ll come to the shoreline of the powerful Nenana River. Catch it at the right time and you’ll see local white water rafting trips pass by. Either way you are in for a spectacular view of the water, and the titanic mountains towering above it.
While interior Alaska is known for its hiking and mountaineering, it is nor particularly known for its sport climbing or bouldering. Hotel Rock is the most accessible and reliable area to climb. This spot has a great area for setting up crash pads if you are hoping to do a boulder traverse, and an easily accessible summit for setting up a top rope anchor. There are no bolts in the wall and isn’t a wall size appropriate for trad climbing. For most climbers passing through Denali, this would be a good spot to bring your shoes for a quick couple hour session and to check Denali off on your list of places you have climbed. Take a picnic out for a quick day trip or set up your hammock to lounge in the shade with a good book for a while. The best part about this spot is it’s only about a 10-minute walk from the visitor’s center. All you need to do is take the Roadside Trail southwest from the visitor’s center parking lot, until it intersects with an unmarked game trail on the right-hand side. Follow that up about 50 yards to come to the base of the rock wall and start climbing!
Fox Creek Waterfall
Located nearby Dragonfly Creek, this creek gorge offers a unique technical hike that is different from a lot of the normal hikes you would do on trail. Locate the Fox Creek sign off the George Parks Highway, and park in the pull off close by. When you hike down into the creek you will want to hike away from the Nenana River, up into the mountain. Right out of the gate you will likely have to do some minor creek crossings, as well as a chute that has been carved by the water into the rock. After passing through this section, you will find another steep section of loose rock that you will have to pass through to get to the waterfall. Don’t let this part fool you into thinking it is what you are looking for! The waterfall you are after doesn’t look like it can be traversed in hiking shoes. After passing through this hike along a bit further, never leaving the creek, and you will eventually find yourself at a 35-foot waterfall. Take a quick breather and enjoy the sights before taking the trip back down to your car. This is an easy hike to do when you just want to squeeze something into some downtime you want to fill in your trip. Likely it shouldn’t take you more than an hour beginning to end. Wear some waterproof shoes for this one too, because you will be forced to walk in the water to get to the waterfall.
All these spots will be far outside your itinerary most likely, especially if you’re going to be traveling with a company that is building your trip for you. On the other hand, for the independent traveler coming to the Denali area that is looking for some things to do that are off the beaten path. Remember to always exercise caution in any of these locations, have an adventure buddy with you, and let people know where you are going and when you plan on being back. And most importantly enjoy it! Who knows the next time you’ll find yourself back in Alaska.
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