Hiking Alaska: The Canyon Between Healy and Denali National Park

Hiking Alaska: The Canyon Between Healy and Denali National Park

We live about 15 minutes from the entrance of Denali National Park, which means we are lucky to have endless acres of a playground for hiking. I did a roundup about the “front country” hikes a few years ago in this blog post and we love all of them! But there are SO many awesome trails that are outside of the park, and way less known. Even though we are not dealing with the kinds of trailhead crowds that other states are experiencing, we generally always gravitate to the less-traveled paths, and even more so during a pandemic.

Basically, when you drive south from Healy to the park entrance, you drive through a canyon on the Parks Highway. On either side of the road, there are mountains. We didn’t know until recently through friends that there’s also pretty defined trails!

Warning, all of these hikes involve a great bit of incline, but the views are worth the effort. Here are trip reports from most difficult to least difficult.

SUGAR LOAF RIDGE

Out and back mileage: 6 miles (this is from where we were able to park our car, about 1/2 mile away from the trailhead)

Elevation Gain: 2,995 feet

Trailhead: The tricky part is that there is no signed trailhead for Sugar Loaf. The trail is accessed from the north side of the Grande Denali Lodge parking lot. I am not sure if you can park in hotel lot under normal circumstances, but they are closed for 2020, so we parked partway up the road at one of the pull offs. Actually, there was a barrier on the road and a sign that said “hikers park here and walk,” so we did that, which added about a mile to our trek.

Summary: This hike is a butt-kicker. I think we climbed 500 feet in the first 1/4 mile! In fact, I believe the 2-mile hike to the summit is at a 45% grade the majority of the time. No rest for the weary! It took us 3 hours to get from our car to the summit at 4,674 feet. Of course, it was half the time for the downhill (although there was one section I remember scrambling down on my butt).

See that line going up, up, up?

The good news is, the views were definitely worth the effort. Not only do you get up high enough to see Denali to your west on a clear day, but the rest of the Alaska Range lies to your east at Sugar Loaf’s summit.

Oh hey Denali.
The Alaska Range is hard not to love.
Can you spot the choo choo train?
That’s Healy in the distance!

You definitely want a clear day for the views, but also because you’re exposed pretty much the whole hike, and the wind can be wicked! We had a perfect day with no rain and temps in the 60s, but the wind was still whipping at the top.

BISON GULCH

Out and back mileage: 7 miles

Elevation Gain: 3,868 feet

Mount Healy under angry skies from Otto Lake!

Trailhead: There’s a fairly large parking area at Mile Marker 243.5 off the Parks Highway that allows you to access the Bison Gulch trail. You cross the highway and head west onto the well-worn path. It takes you through the bushes and trees at first (watch for moose & bear!), but then you pretty much go uphill for 4,000 feet in 3 miles!

Summary: Another butt kicker. We have not done this one yet this year. It’s a bigger time commitment for a day hike, and you really do want good weather because you’re traveling the windy ridgeline most of the way. I remember the day we attempted it last year, it was so gusty, and we only made it a few miles. We definitely want to do the whole thing someday. You can get up to the top of Mount Healy (5,400 feet) and even to the cluster of rock spires called the Castle, but the higher parts of the trail are less distinct and more technical. I’ll report back once we make it to the top (if we do!).

ANTLER CREEK

Out and back mileage: 3.2 miles (you can go further than we did)

Elevation Gain: 1600 feet

Trailhead: At Mile Marker 245.1 on the Parks Highway, there’s a tiny parking lot on the west side, just to the south of Denali RV Park and Motel. Do not park at the RV park, just look for the parking lot offshoot from the RV parking lot. There’s actually a small trail sign too.

Summary: This is not as brutal as Bison Gulch, but still an unrelenting uphill for most of the miles and very windy. You start out on a nice flat path through some spruce trees, then you climb the ridgeline the rest of the trek. Our turnaround point was one of the overlooks (fantastic views of Healy from them), but you can make it to the top of Mount Healy, or connect with ATV trails to get back down into Healy. Our 3.2-mile roundtrip reflects the overlook turnaround.

That’s the RV park from the trail.
Hi Healy! We couldn’t quite see our home from up there, but we could mostly pinpoint where it was!

DRAGON FLY CREEK

Out and back mileage: 1.5 miles (again, you can keep going further; the trail just disappears)

Elevation Gain: 988 feet

Trailhead: At Mile Marker 242.5, park on the west side of the highway in a large pull off. Don’t cross the highway, just look for a path leading under the highway. There’s a very popular waterfall to the west, just about .25 mile from the parking area. But if you want to go up and get the views, turn east. Follow the creek and there will be a few distinct trails leading up on the left side within the first .25 miles. There’s no wrong trail, whatever gets you up above the creek will eventually lead you to the exposed trail that you’ll follow for the rest of the trek.

Summary: This is probably my favorite of all of them, so much that I’ve done it twice this summer. Not only is it the shortest, so feels most accessible for a quick day hike, but I love the changing landscape of it. It’s definitely a gentle grade (still uphill), and you go through a bit of forest. But even the exposed parts of the trail have a lot of vegetation.

The hills are covered in cranberries & blueberries in August! And the fall colors are starting! And there’s Healy in the distance again!
Doesn’t this lichen look like carpeting???
Here’s the waterfall that is accessed on the west side of the Parks Highway. It’s a short hike, and worthwhile.
The west side also gives awesome views of the Nenana River!

There are actually quite a few more hikes in the Healy area that we hope to get out on. Maybe not this summer … free time feels at a premium these days. But someday!

2 responses to “Hiking Alaska: The Canyon Between Healy and Denali National Park”

  1. Jamie says:

    Great pictures!

  2. misti says:

    Amazing hikes! Y’all truly live in a spectacular place!

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