The Savage Alpine Trail, in the Denali National Park & Preserve, is one of my favorite hikes in Alaska. Many hikers follow this trail to the first and second overlook hoping to see Mount Denali.
When I hiked it, it was quite overcast and Mount Denali was completely covered by clouds. The weather did not cooperate at all – the clouds did not lift during the day, but at least it did not rain. This means that I was unable to see Denali during the hike. Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed it and I recommend it to anyone who likes hiking.
Don’t worry, I managed to see Mount Denali on a different day when I hiked the Curry Ridge trail!
The Savage Alpine Trail is a challenging 4.1 miles (6.6 km) hike. In this post, I will share everything you need to know before you embark on the hike and to help you make the most of it.
Not keen on hiking? You can see Mount Denali in all its glory on a scenic flight such as this one that lasts overall about 2 hours and includes a glacier landing. It departs from Talkeetna.
For more hikes, make sure not to miss my post The Best Hikes In Alaska.
Hiking The Savage Alpine Trail In Denali
Ways of hiking the Savage Alpine Trail
Let me start by saying the Savage Alpine Trail hike is a challenging one – or at least, it definitely was for me. And I am incredibly sporty and I hike a lot. The good news is that there are a few ways in which you can actually hike this trail and you can pick whichever you are most comfortable with.
Here is a quick overview:
POINT TO POINT FROM SAVAGE RIVER TO MOUNTAIN VISTA – This is the way I did it and in theory the most challenging one. You will be walking on a steep and steady uphill trail for the first half of the hike, and once you get past the second overlook you’ll start a slow, gentle descent towards the Savage Campground and the Mountain Vista picnic area. Follow the trail this way if you are a confident hiker that’s not afraid of a steep ascent.
POINT TO POINT FROM MOUNTAIN VISTA TO SAVAGE RIVER – This is an easier version of the hike if you are not feeling up to the challenge. The first part of the trail, until you get to the second overlook (it’ll be the first for you though), is a steady but gentle uphill. The second part is a very steep descent on rocky terrain and lots of steps. The descent can be quite hard on your knees. Follow this trail if you don’t mind going downhill (personally, I am not a fan of that!)
FROM SAVAGE RIVER OR MOUNTAIN VISTA TO THE SECOND OVERLOOK AND BACK – This is the best way to do the hike if you are concerned about / don’t want to have to wait for the Savage River Shuttle to take you back to the parking lot where you have left your car. Keep in mind that if you decide to walk from Mountain Vista you won’t be able to enjoy the views of the Savage River along the trail.
Depending on which way you want to go, you will have to pick a different trailhead (don’t worry, I will talk about the trailheads in a bit).
Practical Guide To The Savage Alpine Trail
Wondering things such as how long is the Savage Alpine Trail, what’s the Savage Alpine Trail difficulty; what’s the Savage Alpine Trail time; and what’s the Savage Alpine Trail elevation? Don’t worry, I got you covered!
Here is a short overview of all the technical information.
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY – Strenuous
TOTAL WALKING DISTANCE – 4.1 mile (around 6.6 km) point to point.
TOTAL WALKING TIME – 2.5 to 3 hours or longer, depending on your pace.
ELEVATION GAIN – 1,450 ft (442 meters) (around 900 feet – 274 meters – just in the first mile!)
STARTING ELEVATION – 2,600 feet (792.5 meters)
HIGHEST ELEVATION – 4,150 feet (about 1,265 meters)
Please keep in mind this technical guide refers to the hike as starting from the Savage River Loop trailhead at the Savage River parking lot and ending at the Mountain Vista picnic area.
Savage Alpine Trail Trailheads
There are two trailheads: one is marked as Savage Alpine Trail and is near the Mountain Vista picnic area, the other is the Savage River Loop trailhead which is next to the Savage River and it’s also where the actual Savage River Loop – a much easier and shorter walk compared to the Savage Alpine Trail – starts.
As I have explained above, deciding which trailhead to use is a matter of personal preference – both ways present some challenges.
If you start at the Savage River Loop trailhead you will be going on a steady and really steep uphill for the first half of the hike, and it can be quite challenging.
On the other hand, if you start at the Savage Alpine Trail by the Mountain Vista parking lot, you will be going on a slow and steady uphill and then face a steep downhill, which can be hard on your knees.
My preference is to always go uphill on steep trails, so I opted to hike from the Savage River Loop trailhead.
Savage Alpine Trail description
As already stated, I used the Savage River Loop trailhead as a starting point and walked all the way to the Mountain Vista. I will be describing the experience of this specific trail.
Once you get to the Savage River Loop trailhead, you will need to turn right (if you continue straight you actually follow the Savage River Loop trail).
For the first part of the trail and at least until you reach the second overlook the landscape is almost barren – there are no trees in sight, just low grass and lots of dark rocks.
After about 0.15 miles (less than 250 meters), you will have gained about 180 feet (24 meters) in elevation, and find yourself at what looks like a tower of dark rock. Rumor has it that this is the first spot to catch a glimpse of Mount Denali, but I was not so lucky.
You will then have to continue along the rock steps until eventually you start a series of switchbacks. After having walked around 0.7 miles (that’s little over 1.1 km) and having gained 760 feet (231.6 meters) in elevation you get to the first overlook, from where you can enjoy better views of Mount Denali (again, I was unable to see it) and the mountains around it.
After that, the ascent won’t be as steep. You will be going along an exposed ridge of really dark rock for 0.3 more miles (less than 500 meters) and eventually after 1 full mile of walking (1.6 km) and having gained a total of 960 feet (almost 293 meters) in elevation you will be able to catch your breath as the trail finally becomes more moderate.
The highest point of the hike is at about 1.7 miles (2.7 km) from the trailhead – by that point you will have gained a total of 1,560 feet (475,5 meters) in elevation.
The trail forks at this point, and you may be confused (as I was for a moment or two) and continue straight. Instead, you actually have to (finally) walk down to the second overlook.
From there, the trail continues to slowly descend all the way to the Mountain Vista parking lot. On this part of the trail, the vegetation begins to be a bit thicker and you will eventually walk through the forest and next to a creek, and at times along a boardwalk.
You will have to cross Denali Park Road to get to the Mountain Vista parking lot, where the Savage River Shuttle stops to take you back to either the Savage River parking lot or to the Visitor Center.
How to get to the trailhead
Getting to one of the Savage Alpine Trail trailheads is actually very easy. Here’s how to do it.
Depending on which direction you want to hike, simply drive to either the Savage River parking lot or to the Mountain Vista area and park there.
The Savage River parking lot is at Mile 15 of Denali Park Road, after which the road turns into a dirt road and private cars are not allowed to drive.
The parking lot at the Savage River trailhead (marked as Savage River Loop Trailhead on Google Maps) is fairly small and gets filled up quickly in the peak season. However, there is an overflow parking on the road next to the parking lot and you will find a gravel parking lot on the opposite side of Savage River.
You will find pit toilets in both parking lots.
The parking lot at Mountain Vista is larger, so you have better chances of finding a spot here later during the day. There are various pit toilets and a few picnic tables here too.
The Mountain Vista Trailhead (which is marked as Savage Alpine Trailhead on Google Maps) is located on the other side of the road from the parking lot, so you will have to cross Denali Park Road to get there.
Once you complete the hike (whichever direction you decide to go), you have the option of either walking back to the parking lot where you have left your car (that’s another 2 miles – 3.2 km), or take the Savage River Shuttle back to the parking lot. Alternatively, once you get to the first or second overlook point, you can simply turn around and walk back to your car.
Savage River Shuttle (AKA Savage Alpine Trail Shuttle)
If you don’t have a car, don’t worry: first of all there are buses going to Denali National Park from Denali Park Village, and from Healy (the closest small town to the park). Once at the park, getting to the trailhead is even easier.
There are regular (and free) shuttle buses for all visitors. You need to look for the Savage River Shuttle. The bus departs regularly from the bus stop close to the Denali National Park Visitor Center and stops at both the Savage River parking lot, and at the Mountain Vista parking lot.
The Savage River Shuttle will drop you off at the gravel parking lot in the Savage River area, which means you will have to walk across the bridge to get to the trailhead.
Keep in mind the Savage Alpine Trail shuttle bus schedule changes seasonally and the shuttles are only available from late spring to beginning of the fall season. You can find the bus schedule on the national park website here, or you can get a printed one at the Visitor Center.
Once you complete the hike (whichever direction you decide to go), you can take the bus back to the Visitor Center, from where you can take the bus back to Denali Park Village or Healy.
What to wear and pack for the hike
For the best experience, you need to wear the right gear and pack some other essential items. Here is what I recommend:
STURDY HIKING BOOTS OR SHOES – Most of the hike is on gravel and rocks, so you will need appropriate shoes. I actually wore hiking shoes on this one, but you may find it better to have some ankle support, especially when walking downhill.
WIND AND RAIN PROOF JACKET AND PANTS – A good wind and rain proof jacket is essential in Alaska. Rainproof pants are probably too hot to wear unless it is actually raining, so keep them in your daypack and quickly put them on if it starts to rain.
WATER – There is no way to refill your water bottle along the trail, so bring at least a liter.
SNACKS – Bring some snacks to keep you going. It can be some trail mix or a protein bar. I love the Cliff bars as they are vegan / lactose free, full of flavor and give me a lot of energy.
SUNSCREEN – There is virtually no shade on the trail, and you will want to protect your skin from the sun (yes, the rays filter even when it is cloudy!) and the wind.
SUNGLASSES – It’s so windy, you will need them to protect your eyes from dust more than anything else.
HAT OR BEANIE AND GLOVES – This really depends on the season. I wore a beanie and gloves during my hike (it was the beginning of September) as some bits of the trail are very exposed to the wind and it felt quite chilly.
HIKING POLES – I am actually not a fan and I never use them, but some people find them useful to go over larger rocks and steps both uphill and downhill.
FIRST AID KIT – Make sure you have some disinfectant and some band-aid.
INSECT REPELLENT – I actually did not see mosquitoes on this specific trail, but there are lots in Alaska so definitely carry some just in case.
BEAR SPRAY – It’s actually quite uncommon to find bears along the Savage Alpine Trail (especially on the most exposed bits), but it’s always a possibility! Bears tend to stay away when they hear noise, so the best thing to do if you are walking with friends is to actually talk. Otherwise, bring bear spray. It’s commonly sold in larger stores in Alaska and you should also be able to find it at the shop by the Visitor Center.
Tips to make the most of the Savage Alpine Trail
Finally, here are some additional tips that will help you make the most of this fun hike.
Check the trail conditions
This is especially important if you are hiking at the very beginning of the season, as you may still find some snow along the trail. I recommend stopping by the Visitor Center before you head to the trailhead to ask about the trail conditions – they will have the most updated information. Alternatively, look online on the National Park Service website.
Don’t hike just to see Mount Denali
The main tip I have for anyone who wants to hike the Savage Alpine Trail is to embrace the hike, no matter what. There are many more reasons to do this hike – the challenge itself should be one for sure!
If your only reason to hike this trail is seeing Mount Denali, you may end up being disappointed: it may rain during the hike, or be overcast to the point that Mount Denali can’t be seen at all.
If you are really keen, my advice is to give yourself a few days in the area (three or four as a minimum) and wait for a sunny day to do the hike. Otherwise, this remains a memorable hike no matter what. Even without seeing Mount Denali, the views along the way are stunning.
Keep your eyes open for wildlife
During the hike, you will also get a chance to see some local wildlife – birds of prey are common to see; as well as arctic ground squirrels. It’s not too hard to see moose and caribou (in fact, some people spot them from the bus along Denali Park Road!) and at times even bears.
Go at your own pace
The Savage Alpine Trail is a challenging hike, but it should not be a race! I tend to walk at a rather fast pace when I am hiking, even when I go uphill and usually until I find a rhythm that suits me. But that’s just me and what I actually enjoy.
If you are finding it hard to walk, simply slow down and pace yourself at a rhythm that is more comfortable. It will make the overall experience way more pleasant.
Be a responsible tourist
Please respect the delicate environment of the Denali National Park! Here are some important rules to follow:
- Do not walk off trail.
- Pick up after yourself and don’t leave any waste around: there are garbage bins at all parking lots and in the Visitor Center area.
- Do not light fires: there can be very strong winds in the area, and there is a high risk of wildfires in general.
- Respect wildlife: always keep a safe distance from animals you spot in the area. This means you should not approach them (it may actually be dangerous!) and by all means do not feed them!
- Respect other hikers: if you come across a hiker that appears to be in need of help, stop! And always be friendly.
For more information on sustainable travel, read my post How To Be A Responsible Tourist.
Seeing Mount Denali Without A Hike
I get it, not everyone wants to or is fit enough to puff their way up a viewpoint to see a mountain, no matter how beautiful it is. If this is you, don’t worry. There are other ways of seeing Mount Denali, though depending on what you decide to do it can be quite costly.
The best way to see Mount Denali in all its glory is on a scenic flight such as this one that lasts overall about 2 hours and includes a glacier landing. You get really close to the mountain. Keep in mind that flights are on a really small plane, so they may be subject to the weather conditions. Flights will be cancelled when it rains heavily or if it’s really windy.
If you can’t shell out the money for a scenic flight, there are some more reasonable options.
In the summer months, you can take the free Savage River Shuttle that departs from Denali National Park Visitor Center (there are no really good views from the Visitor Center itself!) and stops at Mile 15.
The first viewpoint is at Mile 9; then there’s another at Mile 11. The shuttle also stops at the Mountain Vista parking lot (as seen above, one of the trailheads to the Savage Alpine Trail), and from there you can walk the very easy Mountain Loop Trail – it’s a nice 30 minutes walk with virtually no elevation gain and on a clear day you can see Mount Denali from there.
You can also go on one of the bus tours suggested by the Denali National Park. The schedule varies, so you will have to make a specific request directly with the company operating the tour.
GOOD TO KNOW: The best place to see Mount Denali would be the Reflection Pond, however this is at Mile 86 and following some landslides in 2022, buses aren’t allowed to travel beyond Mile 43 (cars can’t drive beyond Mile 15).
If you are traveling to Alaska, these posts will provide guidance on how to plan your trip:
- A Short Guide To Talkeetna
- The Best Alaska Travel Tips
- The Best Places To Visit In Alaska
- How To Hike The Harding Icefield Trail