Eielson Alpine Trail – Denali National Park Hiking

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Rating: 4 out of 5.

Alaska Guide | Interior Hiking

Popular ForDay hike
TypeOut-and-back
DifficultyEasy – Although steep, but well-maintained
Length1.6 Miles Round-trip
Elevation Gain950 ft./290m
RegionDenali – At Eielson Visitor Center
LocationMile 66 Park Road
TransportationShuttle or Road Permit only

Alpine Trail described here in red. Also shown are routes to Mt. Thoro summit and the Thoro Ridge (both off-trail). Map Disclaimer

Overview – Eielson Alpine Trail

The Eielson Alpine Trail is a short, very steep hike at the Eielson Visitor Center in Denali National Park. Located at mile-66 on the Park Road, hikers need to use one of the park shuttles for access to the trail. Information on transportation can be found at the Park Website. The hike climbs nearly 1000 ft. in less than a mile. From the top, it is possible to hike the Thoro Ridge or Mt. Thoro, although both are off-trail and require navigation skills (guides forthcoming).

I often see wildlife in this area. There are more Arctic Ground Squirrels here than I have seen anywhere else in the park. Frequently there are caribou, Dall sheep, and grizzly bears. It’s always good to keep in mind that this is bear country and you need to know what to do in case of a bear encounter. One nice thing about this trail is that, because of proximity to the visitor center, rangers will typically put out notices or even close the trail if bears are known to be in the area.

Denali rising above the clouds from the Thorofare Ridge near the Eielson Alpine Trail
Denali rising above the clouds about 1/4 mile west of the Alpine Trail on the Thoro Ridge | Purchase Print
Caribou prancing at the top of the Eielson Alpine Trail
Caribou at the top of the Eielson Alpine Trail | Purchase Print

On a clear day, the views are spectacular, especially of Denali rising over the Muldrow Glacier and Thoro/McKinley Rivers. Early in the season (June), there might still be some snow at the top, and there’s a good chance of snow late August or early September. Access is not very reasonable when the shuttles are not running. Although it is possible to bike in to mile 66 in May, likely the snow will still be deep and likely unstable.

The Hike

Sunlight punches through low clouds illuminating rivers and kettle ponds in the Eielson area of Denali National Park. Taken from the Eielson Alpine Trail.
View of the mountains and valley in the Eielson area from the Alpine Trail | Purchase Print

From the center of the Eielson Visitor Center parking lot, the trail begins at a marked sign on the north side of the road. There’s usually a social trail that cuts across. This is a pretty easy trail to follow because it is well maintained, well-marked, and since there are no trees, it is easy to see the trail heading up the alpine tundra.

The beginning of the Eielson Alpine Trail
Start of the trail through alpine meadows

It starts at a reasonably low grade through grassy alpine meadows, slowly getting steeper and rockier the higher you go. Nearing the top, the switchbacks get tighter through very rocky terrain. It looks much more daunting than it is. I’m always a little surprised when I’m suddenly standing on the ridge. The end of the maintained trail is marked, and you return the exact way you came.

Even if you don’t have time to or want to try to do the full Thoro Ridge or Mt. Thoro, I’d encourage anyone to spend a bit of time exploring the ridge. It’s a beautiful spot with lots of Arctic Ground Squirrels scurrying around. If you aren’t a very experienced hiker, stay aware of where you are in relation to the trail and of wildlife. There are some steep rock outcroppings and cliffs to stay away from, but the majority of the ridge is rolling rocky hills.

Notes on the Shuttle

I recommend an early shuttle to ensure you have time to hike and explore. The shuttles only stay at the rest stop for a short while, so if you do this hike you will most likely have to take a different shuttle back. When you return you just leave your name and party size with the bus dispatch and they’ll call you on the next available bus with space.

If you have recently hiked the Eielson Alpine Trail, feel free to leave trail conditions in the comments below! Thanks for reading!

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