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Classic Hikes of the World: McGonagall Pass

An excerpt from Peter Potterfield's new book on the world's best hiking routes
By Peter Potterfield - September 2nd, 2005

  • McGonagall Pass
  • Denali National Park, Alaska
  • 38 miles, 5-6 days, moderate with potentially difficult river crossings

So much of the backcountry in Alaska remains in a pristine state that hiking through it resets your threshold for what constitutes wilderness. And no place in the state is more spectacularly beautiful than the Alaska Range, 600 miles of glacier covered mountains, rolling taiga and expansive tundra. Mount McKinley--the locals prefer its Athabascan moniker, Denali--rules here. At 20,320 feet, the peak is the highest point in North America, and from Wonder Lake one of the most transforming views on the continent.

But even from Wonder Lake, Mount McKinley is almost 30 miles away. The hike to McGonagall Pass covers that final, wild divide, as it takes you across the tundra wilderness right to the very ice and rock of the mountain. Physically, the route is not demanding: less than 20 miles of moderate tundra each way and 3,800-feet of elevation gain. But there are two elements that change the nature of this excursion.

First, you've got to cross the mile-wide braided channels of the McKinley River, a potentially dangerous enterprise if you don't have the skill and judgment to do it safely. Crossing the McKinley is the crux of the route, so practice crossing wilderness rivers is a pre-requisite for this hike. Secondly, you've got to come to terms with the fact you're sharing the tundra with grizzly bears. There has never been a fatal bear attack in the park (Editor's Note: That changed in August 2012 when a backpacker was mauled to death to mark the first fatal attack in the park), but the mere presence of thousand-pound carnivores is a reminder that out here, you are not at the top of the food chain.

The route starts at Wonder Lake Campground, near the end of the Denali park road, crosses the braided channels of the McKinley, ascends Turtle Hill, then crosses the Clearwater before following Cache Creek (crossing it three times) up to McGonagall Pass. There's a pretty good trail all the way. The hike takes a couple of days each way. McGonagall Pass is so wild and scenic you may wish to spend a full day there, giving you two opportunities for sunset and sunrise on the mountain from extremely close range.

The journey starts at the airport in Anchorage, and the rental car garage. Midway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, the park entrance is a half-day drive from the Anchorage airport. The visitor center in the funky town of Denali Park, known by the locals as Glitter Gulch, is where the rangers give you a mandatory briefing before issuing you a hiking permit. The campground at Wonder Lake, reachable only by park service busses, is another half day on the legendary Denali Road from the park entrance. Plan on spending a couple of days here, acclimating to the wild, before setting off on the hike via the recently improved McKinley Bar trail.

 For more, visit: www.classichikes.com


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