Sarah and I have been eager to see this stretch of the Alaska Range, the eastern limit. For me, it was a gap in my coverage connecting Juneau to Denali. We wanted to go in the fall, inspired by the photos that Gabriel Gersch had posted on Google Earth (trip report). Mid-September still felt like late summer in Anchorage, so we were caught off guard by dropping temperatures and accumulating snow at the trailhead.
This section of the Alaska Range is easily accessible and offers many bailout and mining road “Plan B” options. The glacier crossings (without snow) were safe. I recommend this area for budding off-trail visitors. We spent a week to comfortably cover the 90 miles. We floated the last 15 miles, but it could be walked.
We parked at Summit Lake, north of Paxson, where satellite imagery revealed an ATV trail that would bring us above the brush. We camped next to the car and woke to find snow blowing horizontally. It was an easy decision to stay in the sleeping bag until late morning, and we ate breakfast in the car to avoid the wind. We talked about canceling the trip. Our route had at least two glacier crossings, and we were counting on bare ice to navigate crevasses safely. We decided to go out for the day regardless, with the easy option of turning around the next day if the snow didn’t melt off.
We saw one grizzly bear and four caribou on the way to Gakona Glacier. Much of the snow had melted during the day, so we stopped at a high perch to discuss a route across the glacier. We picked landmarks to help us connect lobes of ice, the fastest travel. We camped on a bench in mature moraine on the other side of the glacier and were surprised to discover a strong enough cell signal to get a weather forecast. Blue skies and warming temperatures through the week, so we went to bed confident about the trip.
The temperature plummeted overnight, likely reaching the teens. We hadn’t anticipated such low temperatures and were cold, even with our puffy layers in the sleeping bags as extra insulation.
The next day we worked our way east to the Chistochina River. We walked out of granite into slate and found some petrified wood.
In the morning, we followed fresh bear and wolverine tracks up over a rocky pass. I was confident we would see a wolverine, a rare treat, but no luck. The pass consisted of rock piles, like a moraine, but in a setting where a moraine doesn’t make sense. I think this was the first of many landslides we crossed. Our route followed the Denali fault, which had a magnitude 7.9 earthquake in 2002 and numerous quakes before that.
I enjoyed crossing Chistochina Glacier, which flows from the north and then splits into east and west lobes along the Denali fault. We climbed over benign medial moraines to access smooth ice and then flanked the ice’s edge to its terminus. The glacier ends in an ice tunnel. A stream has eroded into the ice and carved a tunnel that extends to the toe. The stream and glacial melt then flow into a lake. We set up camp on a bench above the lake’s outflow, with a framed view of 16,000 ft Mt. Sanford to the south.
We woke to a snort. I popped my head out of the tent and watched five caribou browsing a hundred feet from our tent. We packed camp and continued east, soon joining the trail network that connects gold mines to the south. We could have walked a mining road instead of crossing Chistochina Glacier, but we wanted to be traveling off-trail.
We ran into a few hunters on ATVs and were surprised to hear that they weren’t seeing many animals. We would end up seeing four grizzly bears, 40+ caribou, nine moose, a few sheep, and tons of fresh tracks. The hunters were friendly, but it was hard not to think, “You should get off those machines if you want to see more animals.”
Sarah and I both noticed that our brains snapped back into ‘city-mode’ as soon as we started walking on the mining road. Being on the road meant that we didn’t need to do any route-finding, so our gaze settled onto the road in front of us, and our minds went to chores and politics. This realization fascinates me and makes me a more dedicated advocate of off-trail travel.
We camped at a decision point. Gabriel Gersch turned north from this point to cross an alpine pass and hike the Robertson River. We decided to continue east over Gillett Pass to Dry Tok Creek and the Tok River. I was most interested in this route because it would allow us to travel to the end of the Alaska Range and bring us near where Sarah and I had finished Winter Wilderness Classics (2013, 2015).
The trail was more rustic over Gillett Pass, and we spent more time with our gaze on the mountains. We were surprised to discover that the path got better on the Dry Tok, where we passed a hunting camp every half mile. The hunters had used army surplus trucks or beefed-up 4×4 pickups to drive 30 miles up the Tok and Dry Tok drainages. The army trucks towed trailers with ATVs or side-by-side vehicles. Our interactions with the hunters were friendly, to the point where we felt guilty for turning down offers of food, cocoa, and lollipops. The hunters were amazed that we wanted to walk 90 miles, and we were surprised that they were able to drive trucks up these rivers. One camp had used a truck’s winch to tow a moose carcass from the shooting site and hoist the meat in a tree at camp. Driving would not be an option if the Tok River had a salmon run. I want to learn more about this.
We inflated our two-person Alpacka Raft canoe at the confluence of Dry Tok Creek and Tok River. Sarah and I don’t use this boat often enough to be very confident in it, so the first few miles were a little tense. But we quickly got in the groove, with Sarah steering and telling me when to ‘power-up.’ This is a fun dynamic for us, and the miles flew by with only one mandatory strainer portage.
We were ahead of schedule and spent a lot of time reading our Kindles on gravel bars. We used the inReach to schedule a pickup at Tok Bridge from Sarah’s mom, spent the night at a friend’s house near Tok, and then picked up our car and drove home the next day.
I have two takeaways from this trip. One is the difference between on and off-trail hiking, as discussed above. The other is that I think it is especially important to interact with people in real life rather than online. I expect that I have different political views from the hunters we saw, but we had healthy, friendly conversations with all of them. Media, especially social media, makes it easy to feel that the country is irreparably polarized. These real-life interactions gave me renewed hope.
Excellent trip report, thank you for sharing! I walked this route with some friends in the opposite direction a few months ago, late July. Truly a beautiful area. Looks like (except for that first day) you got some clear weather and nice fall views!
Were the glaciers clear of snow in July? I liked the fall colors but seemed like the glaciers were low enough that the snow probably melts off pretty early in the season.
Yes, they were clear of snow! My guess is the lowest snow on them was near 6000 feet, well above us. We actually opted for the mining road instead of the Chistochina glacier, but crossing the Gakona was no problem in tennis shoes. We found the Slana and Chistochina rivers to be tricky crossings with high water– I’m not sure what those were like on your trip.
We never got our knees wet!
Both great observations: 1. Off-trail is a dynamic, be-here-now way to live. 2. Those reliant on spark plugs are the same creatures as you and me.
Awesome write up, super awesome trip! Thanks for sharing✌️
what a beautiful time of year in Alaska !!
Good story, we were the hunters you came across in the pass, FYI we utilize our ATVs to get where we start walking LOL (our base camp is 13 mi away) and we make this annual trip many times to the pass to enjoy its beauty, so please don’t lump all into a group of atv’rs who ride around until they stumble upon something, we utilize them as tool to harvest meat for our family’s, after hunting this area for 30+ years the amount of animals were down considerably mainly due to the abundant amount of bear and wolves I’m glad you guys had a great & safe trip, safe travels
Hi John- Thank you for commenting here! I appreciate the reminder not to lump people into generalized statements. I grew up in McGrath where all the hunting was by boat, so I certainly understand the role of motorized hunting and access. In this case, the timing was just comical. Each time we were asked if we’d seen animals, we had, very recently. We woke up one morning due to a caribou snorting near the tent. Of course, we wouldn’t have been able to haul those animals out.
It is a beautiful area and I envy your 30-year history there.
Hi Luc and Sarah. I liked the pictures of the animals you found.
Hi Greer! We really like seeing animals (and I like finding cool rocks!) on these trips. Say hi to your parents for me!
I’ve been following your website for a few years now but I realized I never saw you carry bear spray and/or bear can/ursack once! Do you use those or does it really depend?
We always have bear spray and have used the ursacks on a handful of trips too. Sometimes we have flares for bears as well, and rarely a pistol.