Unit 23: Mt. McKinley, Alaska Range

UNIT 23
WEST FORK GLACIER
Quota: 8
USGS Quad Maps: Mt McKinley B1, Mt McKinley A1, Healy B6


Description

The West Fork of the Chulitna River and West Fork Glacier are the dominant terrain features in the unit. They are surrounded by extremely steep valley walls that are nearly impassable due to rock outcrops, hanging glaciers, steep ravines and dense brush. The glaciers in this unit are huge compared to their counterparts along the Park Road and they contain icefalls, hidden crevasses and miles of moraine.

 
snow-covered mountains looming over a gravel and snow-covered mountain pass
The West Fork Glacier, seen from Anderson Pass

NPS Photo

 

Tips/Special Features

The Anderson Pass area has tremendous views of both sides of the Alaska Range, but there are no easy travel routes in this unit once you leave the pass. It takes most people 2 days of hard backpacking to reach this unit so be prepared for remote conditions and no other hikers. The valley sides are nearly impossible to traverse for long distance due to steep cliffs, loose rock and heavy brush. That leads most people to travel on the glaciers and valley bottoms, both of which pose hazards. The most practical route is to follow the glaciers, which is why glacier travel skills are essential for this area.


Access

There is no road access to this unit. Access is from the southeast via Easy Pass (Unit 17) or from the northwest over Anderson Pass (Unit 18). An alternative is accessing the West Fork of the Chulitna River from the George Parks Hwy along the Dunkle Mine Road (Unit 70). For most of the summer it can be either difficult or impossible to reach Unit 23 by foot this way because of needing to cross both the Bull and Chulitna Rivers.


Routes/Hiking Corridors

Most of the hiking through this unit is done as part of a trip along the Denali Fault which parallels the south side of the Alaska Range from Anderson Pass to Cantwell. This route involves glacier travel, steep rock, snow-fields and multiple river crossings. It requires at least 7 strenuous days of hiking through remote areas with a heavy pack and it is best to have 8-10 days. This traverse is recommended only for hikers experienced in backcountry Alaskan travel.

There is a description of how to access Anderson Pass in the Unit 18 description. The north side of Anderson Pass that leads to the headwaters of Glacier Creek is on a steep permanent snowfield. Stay near the eastern edge to avoid the crevasses near the western edge.

Once at Anderson Pass, there are two possible routes to reach Easy Pass (Unit 17) and both involve significant hazards. The most direct route is to drop down to the West Fork Glacier and follow the unnamed glacier system directly east of Anderson Pass. There are deep, hidden crevasses on this route and roped glacier travel is necessary to safely cross. The hillsides at the southern edge of the glacier are extremely steep talus and rock outcrops. Travel along this ridge system is not recommended because of the danger of a serious fall.

 

The most common route out of Anderson Pass is to drop to the West Fork Glacier and follow the medial and side moraines southward to the main West Branch of the Chulitna River. On this route you must travel 7 miles on glacial moraine, which can be mentally and physically tiring. You often need to backtrack as you navigate hazards such as ice cliffs, lakes and holes in the glacier that lead into rivers under the ice. Use caution and do not rush the glacial moraine crossing.

The main branch of the West Fork of the Chulitna River is too large to cross by foot for most of the summer. The river frequently runs up against cliffs or rock outcrops as it meanders back and forth across the valley floor. This means you must climb up and down several hundred feet around these obstacles, often through dense brush, to move south along the river valley. When you get off the glacier, it is best to stay on the south side of the river so you do not have to cross it. Eventually, you will need to cross the eastern branch of the Chulitna if you want to get to Easy Pass.


Additional Notes and/or Hazards

Experience with crossing large glacial rivers and glacial moraines is highly recommended before you attempt a trip in this area. Be prepared to rescue yourself as you are not likely to run into other parties and it will take at least 2 days of hiking to reach any road for help. Please contact the park’s Backcountry Information Center before planning a trip through this unit or along the Denali Fault.

 
a wide, shallow river flowing between mountains
The West Fork of the Culitna River, near the toe of the West Fork Glacier

NPS Photo

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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Mailing Address:

PO Box 9
Denali Park, AK 99755

Phone:

(907) 683-9532
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