Hiking to the Top of the World: Savage Alpine Trail

To read my Alaska journal from the beginning, click here.

Bonus poem: My Nice Dry Cabin.

We had arrived at the Mountain Vista Trailhead near the end of Denali National Park’s one paved road. Our plan was to hike the Savage Alpine Trail up and over the ridge, a total of four miles, ending at the Savage River parking lot on the other side. From there, we would catch the free shuttle bus back to this parking lot, and collect the truck.

As we started up the trail, some plants were in heady fall color, others were becoming bare. We would eventually enter unequivocally wintery conditions. But down here it was still fall, the air cool but not freezing, the shrubs and trees colorful and only starting to shed their leaves.

Starting up Savage Alpine Trail
Denali National Park, AK

We hiked up a gradual incline, climbing higher, with stunning snowy mountain ranges all around us. Plant life started petering out. We ate lunch – the last of our crackers, cheese, and that age-old turkey – overlooking magnificent views. We kept climbing, stopping frequently to get videos of us clomping along a wooden boardwalk, or photos of us hiking up the path. Or we’d stop simply to ooh and ahh at the scenery, and breathe the fresh air.

Tromping through the snow. Where’s the trail?
Savage Alpine Trail, Denali National Park

The trail went up and up. Patches of snow appeared and grew. Soon snow covered the trail and we tromped right over it. Huh, didn’t expect this! After a time, it became clear we were off the true trail, and were just following footsteps through the snow made by previous hikers. The footsteps led the right direction, though, up towards a rocky outcropping that we guessed was the saddle, the top of the ridge where we would start down the other side.

Footprints started breaking off from the “trail” as people decided to make their own way to the saddle. Eventually we left it too, clambering up the hillside through the snow to get to the rocky crest.

It was bitterly cold with an icy wind whipping over the rocks. Amazing and beautiful, yes, like being on top of the world – but unbelievably cold. This was surely what it was like to stand on top of Mt Everest. (With sincere apologies to anyone who has ever actually climbed Mt Everest.) I tried to take some pictures, but my fingers were frozen, red and stiff, barely able to function. Martin wanted photos of me walking back and forth along the ridge, like I was enjoying a nice little stroll.

Seriously? Dude, it’s freezing cold!

But I did it. That’s called true love.

Martin, on top of the world
Back and forth, pretending it’s a lovely day for a stroll. (It’s cold up here!)
Martin in his element

I was relieved when it was time to start down the other side, but a little worried, too. There was no trail to follow, just some lone tracks through the snow, leading down and away, surely off the trail but seemingly in the right direction. We couldn’t see our destination, the Savage River parking lot, from here. Apparently we had to cross another ridge. Did the person who made these tracks know where they were going? Were they going where we’re going?

But we didn’t want to go back the way we came. We felt confident that if we went down, we’d eventually get out of the snow and locate the actual trail, which we could then follow. One thing was for sure: the parking lot wasn’t up here. So we just blundered our way down through the snow.

As we descended, the snow began to thin out. Bits of rock and low-growing plants started peeking up through the snow; the snow patches became smaller, the rock and scrub patches grew larger. We started getting glimpses of the trail far below. We finally stumbled out of the snow and onto the dirt path. It led us along an exposed ridge to another outcropping with large rocky spires. And finally, we could see the Savage River parking lot, looking very small, way down there.

There were more people on this side, people who had clearly hiked up from the more-popular Savage River trailhead. We had planned on catching the 3:30 PM shuttle back, but were late, as usual. At this point, we would be lucky to get down in time to catch the 5:30 PM bus. There was always the 7:30 one!

A young couple with a baby approached; they were wearing canvas tennis shoes and light summer jackets. “Can we make it over that ridge?” they asked brightly.

We eyed their thin shoes, lightweight jackets and lack of hats or gloves. We considered the gurgling baby strapped to their chest. We noted the time.

“No way,” we said with conviction.

We strolled along the trail, letting people pass as they hurried down to catch the 5:30 bus. We took our time, exploring the trail, stopping frequently. 7:30 crept closer. It was time to make our way to the shuttle stop.

And so down, down, down, one rock stair at a time. The air warmed from freezing to cool. Colorful leaves reappeared on shrubs and trees; now and then a leaf would let go and flutter softly to the ground. We had left winter and the top of the world behind, and hiked back down into autumn.

This is one wonderful and crazy summer vacation.

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