Unit 20: McGonagall Pass

Quota: 4
USGS Quad Map: Mt McKinley B2, McKinley A2

At the center of this skinny unit is Cache Creek, which flows down from the high ridges that overlook the Muldrow Glacier at the southern boundary of the unit. Much of the higher terrain around Cache Creek is covered with alpine tundra. The northern boundary of the unit is the McKinley River and the rest of the unit between river drainages is a mixture of wet and dry tundra with many ponds and thick stands of brush. Numerous small hills and mounds make travel strenuous.

backpacker walking through waist high bushes toward distant mountains
Hikers heading to McGonagall Pass, with Mount Brooks looming in the distance

NPS Photo

Tips and Special Features

This unit follows the historic trail used by the pioneer climbers of Denali, including the first expeditions to reach both the North and South Summits. The end of the "trail" is McGonagall Pass with great views of Denali, the Muldrow Glacier and the Alaska Range. The best time to cross the McKinley River is very early or late in the summer season so it can be difficult to get a permit for this area during those times. If Unit 20 is full, similar terrain can be found in Units 19 and 21 and you are unlikely to run into any other parties or signs of people. Another option, if you have the proper equipment and training, is to float over the McKinley River during the summer using pack rafts.

There is no road access to this unit. The most common access starts by leaving the Park Road about 0.25 miles east of the Wonder Lake Campground and hiking down the McKinley Bar Trail to the McKinley River (Unit 14). There is no established route or bridge to the south side of the McKinley River where Unit 20 starts. The river changes course each year and you must plan on finding your own way across it. In a typical year, a good crossing strategy is to hike up stream for about half a mile and then begin to angle your way across toward the western end of the spruce patch on the south bank.

Common Routes and Hiking Corridors

The main route to McGonagall Pass along the informal climbers' trail is the most commonly used part of the unit. Plan on spending at least four nights in this area if you want to reach McGonagall Pass, and plan to hike strenuously for most of those days. A more pleasant trip is to plan on 5 to 7 nights to enjoy the scenery and wait out foul weather.

Crossing the McKinley River 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 14 or 15 and crossing the next day.

The unmaintained 'climber's trail' is very difficult to find on the north side of the McKinley River Bar and is not maintained. Hikers should travel from Wonder Lake Campground via the established McKinley Bar Trail. The start of the unmaintained 'climber's trail' is across the river and about 1 mile upstream (i.e., east) from where the McKinley Bar Trail meets the McKinley River. Many hikers find it easier to find from Turtle Hill; so if you have trouble finding it along the river, head for the summit of that small hill.

After Turtle Hill, the informal 'trail' is fairly obvious, but a map and good cross-country travel skills are still required to avoid becoming confused by the many animal trails and stream crossings. The 'trail' is muddy and brushy in many areas until you reach upper Cache Creek and its open tundra fields. The last two miles to McGonagall Pass are a cross-country route through the talus and boulder fields.

sun shining through clouds onto a tree-less landscape of red leaved plants near a small creek
Clearwater Creek and fall colors on the route towards McGonagall Pass.

NPS Photo


Two significant river crossings are required to reach McGonagall Pass: the McKinley River and Clearwater Creek. Even under the best of conditions, a crossing of the McKinley River is typically 2 ½ to 3 feet deep through more than one channel. The Clearwater can be tricky to cross because the bottom is made up of large, slippery rocks that make footing difficult. It is best to cross the Clearwater upstream of where Cache Creek flows into it. Cache Creek is a small stream that can usually be crossed easily.

Once you are across the McKinley and Clearwater, there are many options for exploring this unit that are away from the heavily-used trail corridor. The ridges on either side of Cache Creek or the headwaters of the Oastler Creek all provide amazing views and easy hiking in dry tundra.

Additional Notes and Hazards
Since this is one of the few areas in the backcountry where all parties are following the same “trail,” you are likely to run into signs of other people in this unit. Please pack out not only your own trash but any other litter you come across. Mountaineering parties attempting high peaks in the Alaska Range are allowed to pass through this area going over the quota; so you may encounter large mountaineering groups. Do not venture onto the Muldrow Glacier unless you have proper glacial travel equipment and skills. Take care to camp at least 200 feet from the trail.

Last updated: August 19, 2021

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