Denali diary III. Alpine

The final pinnacle before the descent from the Savage Alpine trail (jby)

Notes from a trip to Alaska.

We had allotted ourselves one full day in Denali, and given the alterations to our lodging plans and the persistently rainy weather, it seemed best to spend the time on the longest stretch of established trail offered in the park, the Savage Alpine trail and the adjoining Savage River trail. These were as deep into the park as we could go without paying for guided tours, and they covered what looked like a pretty good sample of the available terrain.

We shuttled to the park visitor center to catch a park-managed bus — an actual school bus, painted NPS green — to the trailhead. The previous night’s sun break was truly over, with misty rain and clouds hiding the ridge lines to north and south as we left the visitor center campus and followed the park road west. There was, still, no sign of the big mountain. The park road climbs from the visitor center through boreal forest, which got patchier as we went higher. After a stop at park headquarters, we disembarked at a joint trailhead for a short loop, Mountain Vista, and the longer climb into the hills, Savage Alpine.


The Mountain Vista loop took us through forest shading into shrub scrub, with spruce in clumps separated by waist-high dwarf birch and wild rose. In places, even the shrubs gave way to a carpeting of club moss or horsetails growing thick enough to create a sort of ground-level green haze. The trail connected viewpoints looking east and west over rolling hills covered with this patchy vegetation, as well as south, across the river valley to mountains that disappeared into the low clouds. Chickadees, and sparrows, and the odd yellow-rumped warbler scolded us from the shrubbery, or chattered amongst themselves; we didn’t see any larger fauna. Finishing the loop, we crossed the road to start climbing the Savage Alpine trail.

A yellow-rumped warbler in a spruce (Flickr, jby)

Savage Alpine climbs beside a stream, then switchbacks up to a buttressing ridge before descending to a trailhead where the park road crosses the Savage River. As we climbed the switchbacks, the trees fell away and we reached nearly alpine territory: saxifrages and lichens and low shrubs. Deep blue delphiniums abundant at Mountain Vista were replaced by deep blue monkshood by the time we were halfway up. Fireweed, though, remained a constant of the landscape, from the lowest point to the highest.

Eventually we gained enough elevation that we were not so much under the clouds as in them, and the rain coalesced from misty drizzle to pattering drops. We followed switchback after switchback, thinking each one was surely the last, until the trail rounded a fold in the mountainside and leveled off across rocky meadows marked by patches of bright-pink fireweed. A hundred feed upslope, a ground squirrel leapt out of the grass and watched us as we passed.

C below the pinnacle of Savage Alpine (Flickr, jby)

From the trail’s high point, we can see some distant ridgelines and peaks across the Savage River valley. The trail left the sloping meadow and descended on the spine of another ridge, though uplifted slabs of lichen-flecked granite, towards a Gothic spire of standing stones. The trail wound through and around the piled rocks, where ferns bloomed from cracks and a perfectly spherical gray pika hopped between boulders.

The trail descended from the piled granite pinnacles to the banks of the Savage River. The clouds were breaking up on the horizon now, and we got good views up the canyon toward distant sunlit valleys and peaks, farther away than we could possibly go in the time we had but still tantalizingly close through a camera lens. We followed a riverside trail north through shrubs and jumbled rock, shaded by scattered spruces; about a mile in it crossed on a yellow pine bridge, and returned along the opposite bank. At the other end was a bus stop, and we boarded there to return to the visitor center.

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