Denali National Park Hikes

This is the second part to our Alaska adventure, read the first post! Here we take you through the land-locked hikes in the Denali National Wilderness.

Discovery hike

Discovery hikes are ranger-led, off-trail hikes through the park. These hikes range from moderate to strenuous and can start from anywhere on the park road at the ranger’s discretion. You’ll start with a bus ride ranging from 1-4 hours, hike for 2-3 hours, and then take a similar bus ride back. You have to sign up in person at the visitor’s center a day or two before the hike, and make sure that you have the appropriate gear outlined on their website.

Standing on the Denali wilderness on a gorgeous day

We opted for a strenuous hike with Ranger Emily that started around mile 30 on the park road. The bus dropped us off on the side of the road, we got a rundown of safety and how to hike off-trail, the ranger picked a point to meet, and we all took off on separate paths to meet there. One main takeaway about off-trail hiking is to not make new trails. Rangers encourage leave no trace practices including not stepping in another person’s tracks to avoid creating social trails and much more.

Ranger Emily had us climb to a peak on the Igloo Mountain range. We encountered various terrain including tundra and rocky scree. There were a couple of points where we ended up taking different routes after the original path appeared too steep…all part of the fun of off-trail hiking!

We were also able to enjoy the bounty of blueberries, cranberries, crow berries, and other tasty treats for our personal enjoyment and sustenance. In fact, we spent a good portion of the hike bent over filling our bellies. We saw plenty of recent evidence of bears doing the same…

During our hike we were able to stop to enjoy some of the gorgeous scenery. Every few hundred feet we climbed, we could enjoy more of the glory around us! We hiked to a peak where we stopped for about an hour to eat lunch and just enjoy the view – we even did a little coloring while we were there. The hike down took a different route with a lot less scree and a lot more brush. We found ourselves doing a bit of bushwhacking and creek crossing to make it back to the road.

Highly, highly recommend the Discovery Hike.

Savage Alpine Trail

The Savage Alpine Trail is a strenuous, 4.5 mile trail that connects the Savage River Campground to Savage River Day Use Area in Denali National Park. Take the free shuttle bus either from the visitor’s center or the bus depot to the trailhead. We hiked this on a cool, rainy morning and there were very few people on the trail.

The trail gains 1,400 feet of elevation culminating at a lookout point over the valley. We recommend starting at the Savage River Campground since the climb is much more gradual.

The trail winds its way through alpine fields before coming to a rocky tundra. Once you get to the top, the trail descends steeply via a series of stairs to the Savage River. While a bit more grueling than some of the other on-trail hikes in the park, we loved getting up high and looking over the wilderness.

After a strenuous hike, the only thing left to do is head towards the only road in the Wilderness and wait for a bus with available seats. The scenery, even on a cloudy day, makes it a quick wait.

Need a ride in Denali? Just catch a bus!

Horseshoe Lake Trail

The Horseshoe Lake Trail is an easy, 2 mile loop in Denali’s front country. We started from the bus depot, which added an additional 3/4 mile along a bike trail, but the bus can drop you off right at the trailhead. The trail descends roughly 400 feet from the trailhead and then it’s an easy jaunt around the lake.

The scenery of this hike was very different than the previous two hikes we did in Denali – it was through pine forest rather than alpine tundra. The coolest thing about this hike is the beaver activity along the trail. There are active beaver dams and we heard that you can often see those busy beavers at work. We did this in the afternoon after we hiked the Savage Alpine Trail and the weather couldn’t have been better.

The sun came out and we had bluebird skies. The lake was so still it was like glass, perfectly mirroring the landscape.

Horseshoe Lake in Denali

Finally…

What is an Alaska adventure without a moose??

Moose in Denali!

We have one more Alaska post coming at this. This time we take to the water in the Kenai Fjords!

Alaska, end of summer outdoor adventure – Part 1

Alaska offers an abundance of wilderness experiences and a chance for us to get away from the monotonous modern business life. It is a quick, cheap flight from Portland to Anchorage, directly up the Pacific coast.

From Portland into Anchorage

On a clear day looking East you are able to enjoy the splendor of the coastline, ancient volcanoes, islands, mountains, and once further north, glaciers. However, thick smoke hung over most our trip, caused mostly by the large Swan Lake Fire.

We spent the rest of our day and evening in Anchorage which was still under some gorgeous low-70 degree F weather at this time. Save the smoke in the air, it was a perfect time to walk around the city and enjoy the last bit summer. We moseyed over to a highly rated pizza joint, Moose’s Tooth Pub & Pizzeria. It definitely did the trick–good stuff!

Alaska Railroad 8-hours North from Anchorage to Denali

First thing the next morning we headed to the Alaska Railroad station to catch the 8am train. Driving a vehicle the 5+-hours to Denali is another viable option–in fact the railroad runs parallel to the highway for nearly the entire trip; however, the train does offer a hands-free and scenic perspective to the landscape that we did enjoy. A vehicle does not give you any extra capabilities in Denali anyway since the town is small and shuttles are provided to and from the hotels to the Denali Visitor Center and National Park buses inside the Wilderness area.

There are two different options when booking the train: the Goldstar Service or Adventure Class. We actually rode in both classes and would definitely recommend upgrading to Goldstar if your budget allows. The Adventure Class ticket includes spacious seats, food for purchase, and second floor open seating with domed windows. You are free to move about the train and explore other cars. The Goldstar Class is more expensive but includes amenities that were worth the upgrade for us. The ticket includes larger seats with footrests, glass domed ceilings, open air deck, two meals, two alcoholic drinks, and upgraded facilities. Either way, you can’t go wrong; riding the train was such a great experience.

Along the route we got our first view of the great Mt. Denali peak. The mountain range is over 60 miles away and from this distance it is a rare site (visible less than 20% of the time). However, on this day it was visible in all its glory standing at over 20,000 ft above sea level, which is about 16,000 ft above surrounding base! Also visible on the left are the lower peaks of Mt. Russel and Mt. Foraker.

Mt. Denali from the Alaska Railroad, peak over 60 miles away

The smoke from the Alaska wildfires followed us everywhere. We got a very up-close experience with the 3,000 acre McKinley Fire (50 times smaller than the 160,000 acre Swan Lake Fire mentioned earlier) that ran along the Alaska Railroad for several miles. The train slowed to a crawl to give way for the forest firefighters who were containing the still-smoldering areas that we captured.

Burn area from the McKinley fire along the Alaska Railroad

As we approached Denali National Park we come to Hurricane Gulch which spans 914 ft and stands 296 feet above the valley floor. This bridge is among the oldest in the area, built in 1921.

Hurricane Gulch from the Alaska Railroad, 300 ft above the valley floor

Denali National Park

We spent a little time near the hotels, getting to know our surroundings. There are plenty of hotel options near Denali National Park. Be aware that you may pay a bit more, especially during the summer season. We booked a hotel as part of a package with the railroad. It was a good deal, but we wouldn’t recommend that particular hotel. If you have a large budget, there are also lodges in Kantishna – the center of the park.

Getting around

If you choose to take the train, chances are you’ll need some way to get around. Luckily there are plenty of free shuttles that run to and from the park and town. “Downtown” is really just a short strip of road with a few restaurants and shops – it’s a very short walk to many hotels from there.

Even if you have a car, you’ll need to ride a bus in the park. There is one road that runs 92 miles through the park. In order to keep the land as wild as possible, vehicles have been limited on park roads since the 1970s. Personal vehicles are allowed in the first 16 miles of the National Park Road, but if you want to go further you have to purchase a ticket. There are also free shuttle buses that will go to mile 16 (Savage River) if you don’t have a car.

There are two types of buses running through the park: green Denali park buses and white tour buses. The green buses are non-narrated while the white busses are narrated. The price of a ticket varies based on whether or not you choose a narrated bus as well as the distance you want to go into the park. These trips usually range from 5.5-12 hours round-trip if you don’t get off the bus. The buses make stops every hour or two for bathroom breaks, but be sure to take your own food and water.

Visitors are encouraged to get off the buses and explore the park. Be aware of wildlife and follow the safety precautions. When you’re done hiking and ready to go back, simply flag down a green bus and hop on.

For the Ranger Discovery Hike we took the disco bus to nowhere

Denali National Park offers a boundless many activities, but most of them are centered around very wilderness-oriented activities. We opted for the Ranger-led Discovery Hike as our first introduction into the Denali Wilderness. It gave us the confidence to explore the back country with an experienced guide, so we could get our bearings.

Sightseeing on the disco bus before the hike

We started the trip on the disco bus, 1.5-hours (about 30 miles) into the park early in the morning. On that early trip, we were able to catch some wildlife along the way. There are over 150 species of birds in the park as well as plenty of mammals and even one amphibian (it literally freezes solid in the winter!). These caribou are a common site, but these large males had particularly impressive racks. We were also able to spot some brown bears (grizzly bears), from a safe distance. They were digging for roots along a river bed. It was moose rutting season while we were there, and we got to see quite a few moose.

Further up the road we were able to get some fantastic shots of Mt. Denali. This for the second time in 2 days–a rare treat!! Even near the end of summer those peaks are completely snow-covered and frigid. So many people visit Denali and never get off the bus. The scenery and wildlife is so amazing that you don’t have to, but we highly recommend hopping off the bus for some hiking.

There is so much to do in Denali and Alaska; this was just the start of our adventure. Our favorite part in Denali had to be the off-trail hike we did – stay tuned for a recap of that! And in Part 2 (?) we venture south to Seward and the Kenai Fjords.

August 2019 Hikes

Most of our August hikes happened while we were in Alaska. Stay tuned for updates on that trip.

Hamilton Mountain

Hamilton Mountain trail is a 5.5 mile hike located in Stevenson, Washington. It’s a moderately trafficked trail and the parking lot can fill up fast. We went in the afternoon around 3pm when crowds had died down. The trail is mostly uphill for the first mile when it comes across a waterfall. There were plenty of people playing in the water to cool off on the hot, August afternoon. From that point, the trail levels off for the next 0.5-1 mile and meanders through the forest with a few gorgeous vistas of the Gorge. Around mile 2 you come to a lookout point where most people stop. If you’ve got it in you, I highly recommend gutting it out for the last mile to the top. The trail is a bit unrelenting as it climbs ~1k feet through countless switchbacks but the reward is worth the pain. At the top there are sweeping views of the Gorge, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Hood. Be sure to take plenty of water; most of the trail is shaded, but the last mile has a lot of exposure and can get very hot.

July 2019 Hikes

The biggest “hike” for July was the Mt. Hood 50M 🙂

Horsetail and Ponytail Falls

Horsetail and Ponytail Falls are located in the Columbia River Gorge. We ended up hiking this short trail when the parking lot for Multnomah Falls was overflowing and we didn’t want to wait. Horsetail Falls is the lower falls, right off the parking area. Taking a short 0.5 mile hike up the trail will get you to Ponytail Falls, which is a smaller waterfall feeding Horsetail below. The trail is at an incline, but it’s not a very difficult climb and is an overall easy hike. The trail winds behind the waterfall at Ponytail Falls and the pool at the base is cool and refreshing. Due to the Eagle Creek Fire of 2017, the trail is closed after Ponytail Falls.

Summit Springs Trail

Another Plan B trail – we hiked the Summit Springs Trail when we couldn’t make it up the road to Silver Star Mountain. This is a lightly trafficked trail (we didn’t see a single other person) that winds 6 miles through dense forest. It is a moderate trail that climbs 1,700 feet all in the first half. We took the shortcut halfway up and it was incredibly steep. So much so that we were crawling on hands and knees to get up the climb; probably didn’t save us much time in the end and wouldn’t recommend it. The top opens up to a vista of the hills – no mountain views, but still pretty – with a rock slide area to scramble up. The trail turns into a jeep trail at this point and leads to campsites up the mountain.

Mt. Hood 50M

The second weekend in July I ran my first 50 mile race and lived to tell the tale! The Mt. Hood 50M is put on by Go Beyond Racing and I can’t say enough good things about Todd, Renee, and the rest of the team. The course is a double out-and-back course run entirely on the Pacific Crest Trail near Timothy Lake. While we didn’t get the sweeping views of Mt. Hood due to cloud cover, the weather couldn’t have been more perfect.

The race had a 6am start time, so Matt and I stayed at a hotel in Mt. Hood Village the night before. We rolled into the Clackamas Ranger Station at 5:40, I pinned on my bib, and got ready to go. I had run the first half of the course before and knew what to expect, but I was still equal parts nervous and excited.

Miles 1-6: We wound along Timothy Lake for 6 miles before hitting the first aid station at Little Crater Lake. I took this section slow – falling in pace with whatever group was ahead of me – to preserve my legs for later. I cruised through the first aid station and started my first climb.

Miles 7-14: It was 3 miles of uphill to the next aid station and to the rolling ridge line. I didn’t need to stop for aid after climbing the hill so I kept on going the final 5 miles to the turn around. I was keeping pace with a group of people and started chatting with a guy from Cincinnati, of all places. At this point I was able to count the super speedy ladies ahead of me and knew a top 10 female finish was within reach.

Miles 15-19: I reached the turn around and kept moving forward. The photographer was along the ridge line to hopefully get some shots of runners with the mountain, but the clouds were not in our favor. I still pulled out a big smile and headed downhill.

Miles 20-28: I filled my water at the next aid station and let my legs loose. Downhill felt so good after all the climbing and I was finally ready to bust out some fast miles. I ran into Matt and Snickers around mile 21 – Snickers went crazy! After a quick hello I kept on trucking. Since it was only 3 miles between aid stations, I went right through it, but the Wy’east crew was looking dapper in their suits. The next 6 miles were rolling hills at a slight incline; I took them in my usual manner – run when you can, walk when you can’t – and got to the halfway point in 4 hours and 40 minutes.

Halfway: I stopped briefly here to catch up with Matt and Snickers. We refilled my water, loaded up on food (GUs, potatoes, Nuun), slathered on the sunscreen and Body Glide, and I was ready to go again. I felt really good at this point. The Go Beyond Racing team puts on such good races and there was so much energy at the halfway point. My legs felt good and I was excited to hit the back half of the course.

Miles 29-33: The second half of the course was HARD! Not only was I running on tired legs, but there was a lot of uphill and fewer aid stations. While the first half I ran with people, I didn’t see a single person for the first 4 miles of the second half. It was a 6 mile climb to the first aid station and I was moving pretty slowly. I always hike the uphill sections to save my energy, and 6 miles of uphill felt like an eternity. There was also a bit less tree coverage, so I was thankful for the clouds. I made it to the aid station and took full advantage of the water sprayer they had to cool down.

Miles 34-44: It was 5 miles to the final turn around point with a blissful 3 miles of descent right off the bat. I immediately saw the first place male finisher – he was 11 miles ahead of me! Talk about speedy; he finished in 6 hours, 23 minutes!! I sped down the hill and finished the last 2 mile climb to the aid station. The volunteers filled my bladder with ice and water and it was amazing to finally drink cold water. I was out of there in no time and had 11 miles to the finish! I zipped down the 2 mile stretch and power hiked up to the last aid station. After grabbing a GU and another water spray down, I was in the home stretch!

Miles 45-50: Going into the last aid station, I was still holding 9th place female. I saw a woman who had been ahead of me all day talking to a medic; I felt for her – you truly never know what can go wrong in a race – but I couldn’t help smile as I took hold of 8th place. I took the last 6 miles downhill as fast as I could, which isn’t easy when you’re already 44 miles into the day. I was starting to feel the aches in my joints, but felt pretty good overall. With a half mile left I came upon another lady. I gave it everything I had and pulled ahead of her hoping I could push it to the finish.

Coming into the finish line was amazing! I could hear the cheering as soon as I hit the road crossing and it powered me to push my legs with energy I didn’t realize I still had.

Going into any race I usually set three goals for myself: 1. finish; 2. a realistic goal I share with everyone; 3. a secret goal that I can maybe hit if the stars align. For the Mt. Hood 50M my goals were:

  1. Finish standing up
  2. Finish in 10.5-12 hours. This seemed like a long time, but given that this was a new distance and my 45 mile training run didn’t go as planned I wanted to include a large buffer for bonking.
  3. Finish in 10 hours and place in the top 10 women

I not only met all of my goals, but I completely knocked the last one out of the park! I finished an HOUR under my anticipated time in 9 hours, 13 minutes. Out of the 144 racers that toed the line, I finished 25th overall, 7th place female, and 3rd in my age group!! I am still shocked at how good I felt at the end of the race.

As always, I have to give a huge shoutout to the Go Beyond Racing team for putting on another amazing event. To all of the volunteers continuing to bring the smiles and support to the aid stations. To Paul Nelson for always capturing stellar race photos. And to my personal crew – Matt and Snickers – for not only putting up with my crazy antics but supporting me at every step along the way….even if that means getting up at 4am and hanging out in the woods for 9 hours.

Momofuku Milk Bar Carrot Cake

We love carrot cake. Matt regularly requests it for his birthday and we even served it at our wedding. I have a no-fail recipe, but this time I decided to change it up and try the Momofuku Milk Bar version. I’ve made a handful of Milk Bar cakes before, and, while often time consuming, they’re always fun and combine a variety of flavors and textures.

This cake starts with a spiced carrot cake base made without walnuts, pineapple, or coconut. It’s layered with liquid cheesecake, milk crumbs, and a graham cracker buttercream. Stacked three layers high it’s truly a beautiful cake. Overall, we’d rate it a 6 out of 10 for taste. Each bite is an experience – creamy cheesecake, crunchy milk crumb, and moist, spongy cake. While this cake is a sensory explosion, we prefer the simplicity of a regular carrot cake. You just can’t go wrong with cream cheese frosting!

I own the book and followed the recipe directly from the pages, but if you’d like to give it a try Cake by Courtney has the recipe on her blog. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time since there are a lot of components. I typically make these cakes over two days. And if you’re just looking for a solid carrot cake recipe without all the frills, here are my favorites: carrot cake recipe, buttermilk glaze recipe, and cream cheese frosting recipe.

Bon appetit!

June 2019 Hikes

Some more hikes we’ve enjoyed this spring.

Salmon Butte Trail – Mt. Hood National Forest

Technically we did this in late May, but I’m rolling it into the June hike category

The Salmon Butte Trail is 11-12 miles through the Salmon-Huckleberry Wilderness on the southern side of Mt. Hood. We went on a cool, overcast day and had the trail practically to ourselves. It is a moderate trail with a slow, steady climb. The trail meanders along a stream and old growth forests before reaching the summit where you get sweeping views of the valley and Mt. Hood (on a clear day). There were still a few patches of snow when we went in late May, but nothing covering the trail. It’s well worth a visit if you’re not looking to go too far outside of Portland and want a relatively secluded hike. 

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Hebo Lake to South Lake – Pacific City, OR

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Where to begin with the Hebo Lake Trail? This trail starts at Hebo Lake and is an 8 mile point to point to South Lake. When we hiked this, the plan was to run it twice out and back for a total of 32 miles. The first 5 miles of the hike gains 1,500 ft in a steady, unrelenting climb. There’s a steep descent after the Hebo Mountain Peak, but the brush was so overgrown by mile 6.5 that I turned around and didn’t make it to South Lake. The lookout point at the top is spectacular offering views of the valley and the Pacific Ocean and well worth the climb. If you’re in Pacific City and looking for a hike, it’s worth it to do at least the first 4 miles to the lookout. Be aware that it is probably ~75% exposed so make sure to wear sunscreen and carry plenty of water.

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Wilson River Trail

The Wilson River Trail runs for just shy of 20 miles through the Tillamook State Forest. It’s a gorgeous, shaded trail with plenty of on and off points so you can do as much or little as you want. Matt and Snickers hiked 8 miles of the trail starting at the King’s Mountain Trailhead (another great hike if you’re looking for some serious climbing), while I ran 20 as a couple of out and back loops from the Jones Creek day use area. The portion of the trail along the river is very beautiful, but does incur a lot of noise from Highway 26. Depending on which section you do, it’s an easy to moderate hike and well worth spending a day in the forest.

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PCT, Timothy Lake, and Little Crater Lake

In mid-June I set out for a training run on a portion of the PCT that my upcoming race will traverse. Starting at the Frog Lake Trailhead, I went south for 8 miles, looped around Timothy Lake, and ended at Little Crater Lake. This trail was gorgeous! The first few miles on the PCT were mostly downhill with vistas of Mt. Hood the entire way. There were a few downed trees, but they were easy enough to hop over. The trail around Timothy Lake is a 13 mile loop that is mostly flat. The day I went, there were very few people aside from a 1 mile section near a day use area. The lake itself was serene and glassy and there were amazing views of the mountain from the south. There were plenty of campsites and it would be an idyllic place to spend a summer night. I finished the day with a short jaunt to Little Crater Lake. The trail is flat and short, and the lake is worth the walk to see. While small, it is 45ft deep, crystal clear, and nestled in a wildflower meadow. If you’re looking to get out of the city for a while and don’t mind the 2 hour drive, Timothy Lake is a great destination.

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Pacific Crest Trail from Mt. Hood to Columbia River Gorge

Read a full recap here. Suffice to say, it’s not for the faint of heart. Definitely not a day trip for most, but would be a fun weekend backpacking trip.