Are you going backpacking in Denali National Park? We backpacked in Denali backcountry units 12 and 13 (Sunrise and Sunset Glacier + Mount Eielson). Here’s how it went!
by Jesse Smith
Welcome to the Last Frontier, Alaska!
There is no better place to explore this preserved wilderness than by planning a trip to go backpacking in Denali National Park and Preserve.
There is a lot that goes into planning a backpacking trip to a place that is considered a trail-free park. Don’t worry, because I’m here to help you learn how to backpack this rugged and wild park.
In my last post, I described the first part of our trek through Denali backcountry units 31 and 32.
Those couple of days were amazing, but they ended poorly when we forded a river and were completely soaked through. Fortunately, we recovered, dried out, ate some ice cream and continued our journey!
Denali Backcountry Units 12 + 13
We got back on the bus the next day, and then headed towards the most popular units on our permit– Denali backcountry units 12 and 13.
To get there, we took the bus to our drop off point at the Mt. Eielson Visitor Center.
The Mt. Eielson Visitor Center is a great place to use a real restroom and fill up your water bottles, but there are no other facilities here (besides a museum).
Denali Backcountry Unit 12: Sunrise and Sunset Glaciers
Unit 12 is one of the most sought-after units in the park.
It features the Sunrise and Sunset Glaciers, as well as gorgeous views of Scotts Peak.
So if you have the opportunity, definitely check out unit 12. Put it on the top of your list when you go to get your backpacking permit, and hope that it’s still available.
We had planned on packing though unit 12 and into 13, but since we had to sleep outside the park one night, we missed our day in unit 12. It hurt our hearts to miss it, but unit 13 (the Mount Eielson area) is equally wonderful.
Unit 13: Mount Eielson
From the visitor center, we made our way down the steep ridge and crossed the wide McKinley river bar.
This is a half-mile wide braided rocky river bed. On the other side of the river reside the foothills of Mt. Denali itself.
At its worst, this river is only about two feet deep. If you choose the proper places to cross, it will be a relatively easy trek.
However, since there are about 10-15 braids of the river to cross, it calls for a lot of decisions on where to actually cross.
I hiked the river bar in my sandals, but I can’t recommend that.
I stubbed my toes a lot, but it was better than having wet boots or taking them on and off that many times. Having good water shoes (like these Keen Clearwater sandals) would be much better.
You can wear the water shoes while crossing streams, and they’re also great for wearing at the end of the day. They let you take your boots off at camp and let your feet air out.
This unit continues on the other side of the river and has heavy brush.
The thick and heavy brush makes it a very slow hike. You will have yelled “BEAR!” about a hundred times before you come out of the brush and on to the tundra hillsides.
We went straight up the ridge, getting as high up as we could before total exhaustion hit.
The weather had been cloudy with rain on and off for our entire trip so far, but tonight there was a small chance that the clouds would clear and give us the view everyone wants!
The mountain only shows itself about 100 days a year, but on that night, high up on the ridge overlooking the McKinley glacier, the clouds started to roll out just around midnight.
Since it was July, we had about a 2-hour sunset that started around 1 am.
At 2am, Denali showed its face, dazzling us with a pink and orange sunset immediately followed by a two-hour sunrise.
This was what I had dreamed about since I was a ten-year-old boy.
Watching the sunrise over mount Denali is awe-inspiring.
It makes you feel close to the designer of all of this beauty, and is something you can only experience for yourself.
Other Routes Through Unit 13
If (when) I go back to Denali, my next route will be in this same area.
I will go one of two ways.
Starting from the rest stop along the road, I’d make my way south through unit 10 (West Branch Upper Toklat) following the Toklat River. This would be a rocky area, but I think it would be worth not having to fight any brush.
I would follow the river up into the mountains, and then look for a good spot to bear west and go up over the ridge into unit 12 then into unit 13 again.
The other route I would also like to try is heading straight into unit 13 like we did before, but continue hiking completely though it by following glacier creek until I get to unit 18 (Upper Glacier Creek).
This would take you back deep into the mountains next to Denali. It would be a difficult trip, but likely worth every bit of energy.
I really hope all these posts about my personal experiences here with the park has helped you out in some way.