Unit 15: McKinley Bar West

Quota: 4
USGS Quad Maps: Mt McKinley B2

The rounded ridges to the west of Wonder Lake are covered with wet and dry tundra interspersed with large patches of tall willow and alder. The southern section of the unit is along the McKinley River, a large gravel bar and it has a sizable spruce forest near its banks.

a wide, brushy plain, mountains in the distance shrouded in clouds
McKinley River Bar West

NPS Photo


Tips and Special Features
This is a unit that is best suited for a low mileage, one or two night trip. There are some of the best views in the park of Denali and the high peaks of the Alaska Range, making this area popular with photographers. Blueberries are everywhere on the high ridges by mid August. Hiking in this unit can be slow due to the uneven, wet ground and the need to constantly navigate around brushy patches. From mid-June to mid-August you can expect lots of mosquitoes.

To camp in the southern section of the unit, take the 2.5 mile McKinley Bar Trail outside of Wonder Lake Campground to the McKinley River and travel west along the gravel bar. Access to the middle section of the unit is via a service road that leaves from the back of Wonder Lake Campground. The road ends at a water tank, and you must travel another half-mile cross country to enter Unit 15. The north end of the unit can be reached from the Park Road at the north end of Wonder Lake, or from surrounding backcountry units. It is a 5 hour bus ride to Wonder Lake Campground.

Common Routes and Hiking Corridors
For amazing views of the Alaska Range, most hikers do an out and back hike from the Wonder Lake Campground to the hilltop at the eastern end of this unit. For a longer trip, this long, broad ridge connects with the Kantishna Hills (Unit 43) to the north. If you make it to the Kantishna Hills, you will have to cross Moose Creek to get back to the Park Road. Only a few buses travel to Kantishna each day, so make sure you have an accurate bus schedule.

If you take the McKinley Bar Trail to the McKinley River, you need to camp at least a half mile from the trail. There is plenty of easy walking along the open river bar with many places to camp in full view of Denali. Usually you will need to cross one or more braids of the McKinley River if you want to hike more than a mile downstream. There is a heavily vegetated bank about 3 miles downstream that can be difficult to get around because the river often runs along its base.

Crossing the McKinley River to the south (Units 20 and 21) should only be attempted by backpackers with previous major river crossing experience. This is a large, glacier-fed river and it is extremely difficult to cross for most of the summer, even in sections where it is heavily braided. It is best to cross the river early in the morning, meaning it is ideal to spend your first night in Unit 15 and cross the next day.

Additional Notes and Hazards
There is a “day use only” area surrounding Wonder Lake and the Campground so mark off the boundaries on your USGS map before hiking here. You also must camp out of sight of the campground, Park Road and Kantishna Lodges. You may see many day hikers in this area due to the proximity of Wonder Lake Campground.

thick brush around a small pond
Small ponds and dense, low vegetation are common in the middle portion of this unit

nps photo

Last updated: August 30, 2015

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Denali Park, AK 99755


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