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The World’s 10 Best Hikes: McGonagall Pass

Potterfield's Picks: The tundra of Alaska, framed by Denali

Peter Potterfield

Trek: McGonagall Pass
Destination: Denali National Park, Alaska
Distance: 38 miles, 5-6 days
Difficulty: Moderate with potentially difficult river crossings

So much of the backcountry in Alaska remains in a pristine state that hiking through it resets your threshold for what constitutes wilderness. And no place in the state is more spectacularly beautiful than the Alaska Range, 600 miles of glacier covered mountains, rolling taiga and expansive tundra. Mount McKinley—the locals prefer its Athabascan moniker, Denali—rules here. At 20,320 feet, the peak is the highest point in North America, and from Wonder Lake one of the most transforming views on the continent.

But even from Wonder Lake, Mount McKinley is almost 30 miles away. The hike to McGonagall Pass covers that final, wild divide, as it takes you across the tundra wilderness right to the very ice and rock of the mountain. The hike is not strenuous, with less than 20 miles of moderate tundra and only 3,800-feet of elevation gain. But two elements change the nature of this excursion.

 First, you’ve got to cross the mile-wide braided channels of the McKinley River, a potentially dangerous enterprise. Crossing the McKinley is the crux of the route, so learn how to do it safely before going. And then, you’ve got to come to terms with the fact you’re sharing the tundra with grizzly bears. You will see bears on this hike, and you are not on top of the food chain out here. You’ll start from Wonder Lake Campground, near the end of the Denali  park road, cross the braided channels of the McKinley, ascend Turtle Hill, then cross the Clearwater before following Cache Creek (crossing it three times) up to McGonagall Pass. There's a pretty good trail all the way, and the hike takes a couple of days each way.

Logistics: The journey starts at the airport in Anchorage, and the rental car garage. It’s possible to make the journey to Denali National Park by train, or by bus, but the gear you need makes for an awkward amount of baggage. The park entrance—the funky town of Denali Park known by the locals as Glitter Gulch—is where the rangers give you a mandatory briefing before issuing you a hiking permit. The campground at Wonder Lake, reachable only by park service school busses, is another half day on the legendary Denali Road from the park entrance. 

Logistics: The journey starts at the airport in Anchorage, and the rental car garage. It’s possible to make the journey to Denali National Park by train, or by bus, but the gear you need makes for an awkward amount of baggage. The park entrance--the funky town of Denali Park known by the locals as Glitter Gulch--is where the rangers give you a mandatory briefing before issuing you a hiking permit. The campground at Wonder Lake, reachable only by park service school busses, is another half day on the legendary Denali Road from the park entrance.

Adventure journalist Peter Potterfield has hiked more than 10,000 miles in search of the greatest backcountry routes on the planet. As he researches his iconic hiking books, such as Classic Hikes of the World, Potterfield is always on the lookout for the best hikes on all seven continents. Here, just months before the release of his next book, Classic Hikes of North America, Potterfield offers up his current list of favorite hikes. 

Click here for the full list of The World's Ten Best Hikes.

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