Unit 5: Upper Sanctuary River

Quota: 6
USGS Quad Maps: Healy C5, Healy C6


The Sanctuary River is a large glacial river that is bordered by a narrow gravel bar with brush on either side. The river usually consists of one or two main channels originating from the high glaciers of the Alaska Range. There are a variety of valleys and tributaries feeding into the Sanctuary.

a rocky plain leading up to snow-covered mountains, under a blue sky with one large cloud
Snow and glaciers at the headwaters of Sanctuary River

NPS Photo


Tips and Special Features
It is best to have at least 3 days to fully explore the upper Sanctuary River. The headwaters area is extensive and can provide many days of alpine exploration. Passes out of this valley can be used as routes to reach the south side of the Alaska Range. The terrain and size of this unit means that you will see few other hikers. The Sanctuary River is becoming known in Alaska as a good river to float with a packraft from June – late August.

Hikes into this unit can be started from either side of the bridge over the Sanctuary River on the Park Road. It is about a one hour bus ride from the Park Entrance area. You also can enter the unit from surrounding backcountry areas.

Common Routes and Hiking Corridors
Hiking is primarily along the Sanctuary River, and is mostly in thick vegetation for the first seven miles south of the Park Road. There is no significant difference between the east or west side of the river. It is approximately 14 miles from the Sanctuary River Campground to the headwaters, where the river forks. Areas of brush and a few cut banks that block travel at the river’s edge present the major challenges along this route to the headwaters. The animal trails through the brush make the walking easier, but remember that large animals may be using these trails too. It is possible to stay on the same side of the river for the entire hike to the headwaters. The river is generally crossable because of its braided nature but it can become very difficult to get across after heavy rainfall or hot, sunny days in June.

a river running through a rocky plain in front of cloud-shrouded mountains
Upper Sanctuary River

NPS Photo


Two passes on the west side of Refuge Valley lead over to the Teklanika River (Unit 6). Both are difficult due to their elevation gain, rocky terrain, and steep scree. Snow is also present on these passes until mid summer. If you follow the drainage leading towards the headwaters of Calico Creek (Unit 6), do not follow the creek bottom. There are several dangerous waterfalls that have been the site of multiple hiker injuries. Instead, use the tundra hillsides north and south of this creek.

Another pass in the Sanctuary River headwaters leads east to the Riley Creek (Unit 2) and Windy Creek (Unit 16) drainages. This pass is divided into nearby north and south routes. The northern route is moderate, with more vegetated slopes and shorter sections of lower angle scree. There are steeper sections of scree on the south route. This pass provides a route via Windy Creek to Cantwell on the south side of the Alaska Range. A fourth major pass leads into the headwaters of the Savage River (Unit 4). It is easy to moderate with some sections of brush on the Sanctuary side. It is best to travel on ridges as opposed to the small drainages to avoid the heavy brush.

Additional Notes and Hazards
When traveling along the Sanctuary River bar and in areas of high brush, it is important to be loud. Use your voice to make animals aware of your presence. Also, air traffic and its attendant noise is often present in the southern portion of the unit.

steep, rocky mountains sloping down to a green, fairly level plain, with a narrow creek cutting a deep ditch through its middle
A typical tundra bench in upper Sanctuary River

nps photo

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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Mailing Address:

PO Box 9
Denali Park, AK 99755


(907) 683-9532
A ranger is available 9 am—4 pm daily (except on major holidays). If you get to the voicemail, please leave a message and we'll call you back as soon as we finish with the previous caller.

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