Savage Alpine Trail
Despite being a massive park, there are only a few marked hiking trails to choose from in Denali. Many people take the shuttle bus deep into the park, find a nice looking place to hop off, and then hike out into the vast Denali backcountry with no real path to follow. If the idea of hiking aimlessly into bear-infested terrain sounds a bit daunting, then hiking along a well-marked trail across bear-infested terrain might be a preferable option for you. One of the best choices for a half-day hike in the park is the Savage Alpine Trail. It is a four mile one-way hike that gains a total of 1,500 feet and provides spectacular views of Denali on clear days.
Finding the Trail Head
The trail starts and ends on Park Road and both access points are accessible by private vehicles. This is of particular convenience because private vehicles are not permitted on the Park Road beyond mile 15. You have the option of beginning the hike directly across the street from Savage River Campground or from the bridge at mile 15. There are places to park at both ends of the trail and both trail heads are designated stops for the shuttle bus. We would highly recommend starting at the campground at mile 13 because the ascent is much more gradual from this approach.
Beginning from Savage River Campground, the first thing you see is a sign warning you that this area is frequented by grizzly bears (and black bears…but they’re lightweights by comparison). Then the trail passes through a thick wooded area for about the first 10 minutes, while the only thing you can imagine is being ambushed by a hungry grizzly lurking in the trees just out of sight. Once you emerge from the woods, however, the visibility increases substantially, and you’d be able to see any large carnivores coming from a mile away. At this point, you can look back to catch a glimpse of the peak of Denali which remains in clear view for the remainder of the hike (again, assuming it’s a clear day…which it probably won’t be). Before gaining any serious elevation, you pass over a series of boardwalks where one of the park rangers told us she had seen a moose just a few days prior. Following the boardwalks, the trail ascends gradually, switching back several times before reaching the top of one of the ridges where you’re greeted with sweeping views across the Savage River and surrounding area.
The next stretch of the trail is fairly flat, and winds across the mountainside before beginning the descent. This segment of the hike was extremely windy since you were totally exposed on one side as you hiked across the mountain. Apparently this is a good place to see Dall sheep, but we had no such luck. I suppose we used up all our good fortune on having clear weather.
The descent is steep, but it’s definitely better to be going down than up. The people we passed on the way down all looked miserable. Everyone would slow down to catch their breath and ask us how much farther they had to go, and we couldn’t even lie to them and tell them they were getting close because they had basically just started. It’s not that it’s an abnormally difficult hike, but there is no warm-up if you come from that direction. The trail immediately goes straight up and doesn’t relent for over a mile.
The Savage Alpine trail was the perfect day hike in the park. It only took a few hours to complete, giving us the rest of the day to relax down by the river. You also have the option of hiking the Savage River Loop Trail which starts and ends at the bridge at mile 15. This is a much easier, 1.7 mile scenic loop which can be done in less than hour.