The Toklat River in this area is a mile-wide river valley with steep mountains on both sides and many clear-running side streams. The hillsides and drainages at the edge of the large gravel bar are vegetated with stands of spruce trees or tall willow. Once you climb through this vegetation, there is open alpine tundra higher up on the peaks and ridges.
Some say the Toklat River is the heart of Denali National Park. Charles Sheldon, one of the primary advocates for establishing the park, explored this area extensively in the early 1900s. Mount Sheldon, a nearby jagged peak, bears his name. If you wish to stay along the Toklat River, you can easily spend a 1-3 night trip along its banks and look for wildlife and mountains to explore. There are also ways to use the river as an access corridor to create loop hikes over toward the East Fork River or westward into Stony Creek.
Due to the shape of the unit, the only road access is from the Toklat River Bridge (Mile 53), a 3 hour bus trip. Traveling north from the Park Road can be challenging because the river usually runs up against cliffs on both the east and west sides. You can start your trip from the east or west side of the bridge, depending on where the river is flowing and what part of the unit you wish to access. The river changes its course throughout the summer, so check with the Backcountry Information Center for current conditions.
A river crossing will probably be required at some point if you wish to hike more than a couple of miles into this unit. While the Toklat is the largest river that crosses the Park Road, it is heavily braided in many areas. For most of the summer, crossings are possible if you take your time to look around for a good route. The main travel corridor in this unit is downstream along the gravel river bar to any of several locations where it is possible to camp by the river or head east or west out of the valley.
The best access to the eastern half of the unit is often from the east side of the Toklat River Bridge. If the river is flowing up against the cliffs immediately downstream, you will need to travel down the west side of the river and then make a crossing back to the east before the river runs up against another large bluff. This crossing can be more difficult than most of the crossings because the river is not well braided in this area. If you want to access the western portion of the unit, you usually have to make two river crossings, one to get around the bluff near the Park Road and then one farther downstream to get back to the west side of the river.
Of the possible travel routes on the west side, the first of these is a small drainage about 2 miles downstream from the Park Road that leads over to Stony Creek (Unit 33 and 39) via a moderately vegetated pass. Another 2 miles farther downstream is Sheldon Creek, which heads west into to the alpine terrain of Mt. Sheldon and another moderate pass over to Stony Creek (Unit 39). Both of these passes provide good options for multiday loop hikes, but they do have significant brush in the drainage bottoms.
There are also a few drainages on the east side of the river that can be used to reach Unit 31 and the alpine ridges of Cabin Peak, Polychrome Mountain and the Wyoming Hills. The first of these is marked by a prominent alluvial fan about 1 ½ miles down from the Park Road. The next one is Cabin Creek, another 4 miles downstream on the east side. The lower portion of the first drainage is wide open and brush free, but the pass it leads to is mostly wet tundra.
For hikes continuing north into Unit 38, it is best to travel on the west side of the Toklat after the confluence with Cabin Creek because the river frequently runs up against the cliffs below the Wyoming Hills. The river usually braids out again near the border of Unit 38 and in this area there are more opportunities to follow drainages up into the high country.
Additional Notes and/or Hazards
During high water levels, the Toklat River can be very dangerous to cross on foot and should be avoided. Ask the BIC about current Toklat River conditions and the latest information on the best places to cross. Housing and road equipment for Park employees is located on the west side of the Toklat River Bridge: follow signs for visitor access in this area and stay out of the active gravel pit and residences.
Last updated: April 14, 2015