Unit 10: West Branch Upper Toklat River
Description: This unit contains the West Branch of the Toklat River and is similar to Unit 9, but everything is on a slightly larger scale. On this side of the Toklat divide, the glaciers, mountains and the Toklat River itself are bigger. A wide gravel bar and expansive alpine terrain define the landscape, access and experiences that are available. The north face of Scott Peak (8,828 ft) dominates the headwaters.
Tips/Special Features: This area is known for its classic mountain scenery and quick access to large expanses of alpine tundra deep in the Alaska Range. You are surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Alaska Range, but views of Denali are only possible from the highest ridges. This is a popular unit with a single primary access corridor and very open terrain. Expect to see other hiking parties at some point during your trip. Wear appropriate footwear because long walks on the gravel bar can be hard on your feet and ankles.
The extensive glaciers at the headwaters make a popular destination, but use extreme caution when on the glacial moraines or ice. Traveling on glaciers should be avoided unless hikers are properly trained and equipped.
Access: The best access point from the Park Road is the west end of the Toklat River Bridge (Mile 53). It is usually possible from this point to hike south along the western side of the river for about 5-6 miles. Another way to access this unit is to begin your hike on the eastern end of the Toklat River Bridge (Unit 9). A crossing of the East Branch of the Toklat is required and while it can be difficult, it is generally easier than crossing the West Branch. It is a 3 hour bus ride to the Toklat River Bridge.
Routes/Hiking Corridors: The river corridor of the West Branch of the Toklat and the various valleys of the headwaters provide the main hiking opportunities in this unit. A river crossing will be required to explore the eastern side of the unit or to explore the different branches in the headwaters. Several days can easily be spent exploring this one unit and there are plenty of challenges and rewards to be found here. For those who only have one night, the large canyon on the east side of the river about 4 miles south of the Park Road is an interesting area to explore.
Access to any of the backcountry units to the west is technically possible, but only by making long climbs over steep scree, rock, and/or glacial moraine. One pass leads into the upper Sunrise Glacier valley (Unit 12), but this route requires good map and compass skills due to the hidden nature of the pass and the natural hazards that surround it. Getting to Sunrise Glacier also involves navigating several miles of glacial moraine on both sides of the pass and crossing steep snowfields. Other passes lead to Upper Stony Creek (Unit 11) and Gorge Creek (Unit 12) on the north side of Green Dome. Both of these routes usually contain steep snow until July. Watch out for hidden waterfalls in the drainages that are difficult to navigate around – this unit has many surprises. Access to the east into Unit 9 is covered in the description for that unit. Scott Peak at the head of this unit is only attempted by experienced mountaineers and is very rarely climbed from the Toklat side.
Additional Notes and/or Hazards: The West Branch of the Toklat is a major glacial river and it may be impossible to cross on foot without being swept downstream. Plan your river crossings carefully and to the abilities of everyone in your group. Every year the river changes its course; ask at the Backcountry Information Center (BIC) about the current conditions when you get a permit for this area. There are frequently grizzly bears traveling or hunting along the edge of the river and sometimes you must actively avoid them. The Toklat River area can have high winds coming from the south, so place your tent in a protected area if possible.
The Park Road is less frequently visible from the upper portions of the river when compared with Unit 9, but the large Toklat Rest Stop tent is visible even up to the headwaters, 7 miles away. You do not need to camp out of sight of the tent, just out of sight of the Park Road – but aesthetically speaking, you will likely want to camp where you cannot see the tent.
Did You Know?
Warmer average temperatures over several decades have resulted in expansion of woody vegetation. If this warming trend continues, it will change Alaska's ecosystems and drastically alter the physical appearance of Denali's landscape, as treeline marches higher up the mountains.