Denali / McKinley shows its full glory – whilst its meltwater river bar unleashes its fury (on me)

Just came back from a spectacular 6 days in Denali National Park that included a rather scary river crossing ordeal. Overall it was a truly phenomenal experience; a park with exceptional beauty and some of the best hiking in the world. Combine that with hundreds of grizzlies and some fairly hazardous terrain it was exciting to get out there. On one of the hikes I had a bit of a ‘situation’ on the McKinley River Bar…


My new tent looking out to Mt Denali /McKinley (N. American’s highest peak)


I asked the park ranger if I could get that tree cut down but he wouldn’t. Selfish.

One particular day I set out on a day hike suggested by one of the park workers. It started off nice and easy down a track through a forest with signs of wildlife everywhere: moose, caribou, wolves, bears. Awesome.

The forest track ended upon reaching the McKinley River Bar; a lot of Mount McKinley’s glacier meltwater ends up flowing through here and it can vary significantly in height and speed depending on the time of day. The later it is, the higher and faster it tends to be, particularly on a warm day like this day.

It’s about a mile wide and has a series of 10 or so river crossings; I crossed heading towards McKinley wanting to get as close as possible to the magnificent mountain without developing altitude sickness. The time was 11am already and it was an arduous crossing. At back of my mind I knew it would be worse on the way back but I was so intrigued to check out the other side.

It took an hour to cross and I began my hike up the hill on the other side. When I got to the top, after another hour, I was rewarded with the most incredible view I’ve ever seen; I’m not sure the picture does it justice, but:


McKinley river bar all but forgotten I headed back four and a half hours after starting the hike. The descent was fairly easy but covered in tundra and dense shrub; the path often disappeared through a series of creeks.

I reached the river bar at 3 pm knowing it was going to be challenging to cross but hadn’t really appreciated how hard it’d be…



Met with this river crossing ordeal on the way back:

Retrieving the long stick I’d used before to test the water depth before each step (the rivers were filled with silt and very difficult to gauge), I set off nervously wondering whether I should wait out the night on the river bank. I didn’t want to get stuck halfway across with the ever rising meltwater runoff.

In summary it took 2 hours to cross approximately 10 fast flowing icy cold river sections; some sections looked like high grade rapids, (you’d have a good time on a kayak). For each crossing, I had to keep hiking upstream until reaching a point under thigh /waist deep or I risked  being washed away.

I had ended up hiking almost 4 miles up the river bar by the time I reached the other side. My feet and legs were freezing, my feet were cut from the stones in my shoes, I was thirsty with no water and I had a three hour hike ahead of me but I was so happy to be on the other side I didn’t care.

The hike back was somewhat arduous through dense shrub down the river bar’s north bank; no way was I going to cross back over any of that bar no matter how much easier it would have been. Shortly after I saw some grizzly bear paw prints, so started yodelling and had my bear spray handy:


The rest of the hike was uneventful but I was delighted when I got back to camp and on a surprising high from my adventure. Now back at the park entrance heading to Cantwell and then east on the Denali Highway (another gravel road that I’m told is spectacular), south on the Richardson and then northeast to Tok.  I will take a week and there’s no reception where I’m heading…

More photos:


Camping at Igloo Creek


Top of Igloo Mountain on another day hike


Wonder Lake


Near the top of Turtle Hill & the top of McKinley


Mt McKinley in ‘Reflection Pond’

14 thoughts on “Denali / McKinley shows its full glory – whilst its meltwater river bar unleashes its fury (on me)

  1. So you spent 2 hours in a pristine moutain river and became extremely thirsty. (ummmm… shall I tell him anyone??!) Seriously though what magnificent views. The Igloo Creek view particularly stunning as a photograph. I hope you’ve managed to stock up your supplies for the Denali Highway – is there anywhere there to actually buy suitable food or will you be living off berries and wild salmon? 🙂 xxxx

    • Ah no, the river was filled with sediment and not possible to drink; also there’s a risk of giardia. I asked a park ranger earlier & he specifically said he wouldn’t drink it. The sediment / silt also meant it was impossible to see how deep it was, which made it harder to cross. There’s a highly expensive grocery store that I’ve bought some basic food from for the next week. Speak soon, N x

  2. Climb Denali whilst you’re there? Rude not to, non? BTW about to undertake a 3 day 300k bike tour next week. Not expecting bears but kangaroos and possums are apparently a serious hazard risk….. Wish me luck 🙂

    • Ha ha yeah it crossed my mind. 🙂 what if i just kept going? I was considering a multiday hike up one of its glaciers but winter is fast approaching so got to move on unfortunately. I could stay here hiking for months, it really is that good. I’ve felt a bit torn leaving.
      Good luck on the ride! Email me more details, where is it? who are you going with? Etc

  3. That escapade of getting cut off by the rising melt water is rather reminiscent of ‘Into the Wild’! The large grizzly footprints must have been somewhat unnerving – Jurassic Park, no longer top of the food chain…

    • He was also out in Denali National Park I’m told; 40 or so miles away. I can see why he chose this place…

      Yeah nearly all the grizzlies I saw were on or around river bars so I was hyper aware hiking on them

  4. I just visited Mount McKinley and it was spectacular. I avoided the scary river and bears crossing by traveling with Google Earth. Keep an eye out for me on the Denali Highway I might go there next, I’ll have to check my fridge supplies.

  5. I’m loving your blog, Nick. We have just moved and don’t have wi-fi up and running yet, so it’s been hard for me to post comments, but have been following it and loving the stories – although the one about the bear sounds terrifying!! Chris is turning green literally. Mt McKinley has been a dream of his for as long as I can remember! We are thinking of you and sending you lots and lots of love. X

  6. Hey dude, happy to see this has been a hell of a trip so far. Also happy to hear you didn’t become bear chow. I’m currently flying above Arizona en route to Pennsylvania. While it’s a total damn shame I won’t get to see ya, it’s good being in the same country again. Cheers Brah. – Disco

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