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Denali National Park Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Hike – Denali Alaska
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Overview
Location

Denali National Park, Alaska

Sights

Mt. Healy, Denali, wildlife, Dall sheep

Distance

9.41 miles

Parking Lot Elevation

1766 ft (from the Visitor Center)

Summit Elevation

5660 ft

Elevation Gain/Loss

3894 ft

Time Required

6-9 hours

Fees

None

Water Info

Bring 3+ liters of water

Best Season

Summer, Fall

Hours

Open year round

Sun Exposure

Lots of sun exposure

Trail Condition

Good trail in parts. It disappears in some places.

Camping

Yes. Allowed.

Food

Bring meals and snacks

Equipment

Backpack for food and water, hat, sunglasses, good hiking boots, jacket, sweater, wool socks


GPS Coordinates:

Denali Park Visitor Center: 63°43’52.12″N, 148°55’21.80″W
Mt Healy Overlook Trail End: 63°44’33.33″N, 148°57’13.76″W
Alpine Meadow: 63°45’22.75″N, 148°58’21.58″W
Small Cave: 63°45’50.35″N, 148°59’1.19″W
The Monolith: 63°46’6.83″N, 148°59’44.91″W
National Park Marker: 63°46’23.01″N, 149° 0’32.48″W
Mt Healy (The Castle): 63°46’50.21″N, 149° 0’46.29″W
Bison Gulch Turn: 63°47’42.72″N, 149° 0’33.36″W
Bison Gulch Parking Lot: 63°48’18.13″N, 148°57’14.37″W

Trail Map


Driving Directions

The Trail:

NOTE:  Please bring layers of clothes such as a jacket, sweater and some mid layer clothes.  You will be gaining around 3800+ ft so you may go from warm to cool to cold.  Also, the lower altitude portions of this trek are in prime moose and bear habitat.  Please use common sense and be aware of your surroundings at all times!

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

I hiked this trail during the last week in August and it was probably one of the best days for hiking I have had in Denali this year.  The fall colors were out, the air was cool and there wasn’t any rain!

This trail starts off just the same as the Mt. Healy Overlook Trail.  You will begin at the Denali National Park Visitor Center and hike towards the west side of the parking lot and follow the trail markers to get to the Mt. Healy Overlook Trailhead.

Just follow the trail which winds around for a bit until you come to the bridge which crosses over the creek and you are on your way to the top!

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

I’m not going to go in to too much detail with the Mt. Healy overlook part of the trail.  But, this trail gets steep and there are some switchbacks but overall it isn’t too strenuous and it ends at the top of the ridgeline and offers and incredible overlook of the entrance to the national park.

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

You will know you are at the end of the Mt. Healy Overlook portion of the hike when you come to the sign which says, well, “Mt. Healy Overlook. End of Maintained trail”.  This sign is at about the 2.2 mile marker.

Mt. Healy OverlookVisitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

From here the trail will gain lots of elevation for a few more miles.  It is easy to get discouraged during this part since you can see that you have another 4+ miles of steep climbing ahead of you but take your time, rest often, drink water and enjoy the surroundings.  On this particular day it was very windy and in one spot where I was hiking on the saddle of the mountain the winds were probably near 50 MPH! I kept falling over and tripping over the rocks due to the wind’s high speed.  But it didn’t last after I was near the 5 mile marker.

Visitor Center to Bison GulchVisitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

I was hiking in late August and the blueberries were ready for eating!  I can’t get enough of these!

Ripe berries were everywhere

Ripe berries were everywhere

At about the 3 mile marker the trail will continue to go up a rocky tower.  I didn’t go up this trail but I cut around the southern side of it and hiked on what I thought was a moose or sheep trail.  Going up to the top of the rocky tower doesn’t save you any time and you will expend more energy going up and over this tower until you come to the alpine meadow.

This is looking towards the west

This is looking towards the west

Below is where the tower is located.  Just hike on the tundra around the tower, staying at the same elevation, until you come to the grassy meadow on the other side.

Denali Tower

Denali Tower

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

I found more berries. They were bigger in this area

I found more berries. They were bigger in this area

Just before the meadow I found a family of marmots that were just about as curious in me as I was in them.

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

It was at this point that I could see the meadow.  It was probably a hundred yards away.

Visitor Center to Bison GulchVisitor Center to Bison Gulch

I rested here for a little bit and continued hiking up the side of the mountain on the grassy part until the trail transitioned into rocks and dirt.  It is important to remember always that the trail doesn’t exist in certain parts of this trek.  You can always just follow my GPS trail or you can be creative.  You can see in the picture above that the meadow slopes up on the other side of the mountain.  Follow this up.

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

I took this really cool photo looking back towards Denali Tower before I continued on my way up.

Lots of steep hiking

Lots of steep hiking

Just at the top of the other ridgeline

Just at the top of the other ridgeline

Once at the top, take a look in the next valley over.  You can see that it is vastly different than the green grassy one you were just hiking in.  It is still really cool though!  From this point, I checked my GPS and found that I had hiked about 3.8 miles.

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

The trail now follows this ridgeline up to the next top point which you can see in the distance to the north.  It is more rocky from now on out and you will also be leaving all the blueberry bushes behind for now.

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

I got some really great photos of the surrounding area.  It really was the perfect day for hiking!

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

You can see that you got a lot of rocky climbing to go still.  It was here that it got really windy again and the trail was a little hard to see in parts but overall I just kept following the ridgeline (you are probably tired of me saying that but it really is just that simple).

Visitor Center to Bison GulchVisitor Center to Bison Gulch

The picture below is looking back down what I just came up.

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

When I hiked this last year in 2015, I remember finding a small cave around this part.  I couldn’t remember exactly where it was located but I was glad to find it right next to the trail on a larger outcropping of rock.

Small cave

Small cave

Keep going up!  You can see in the picture below that there isn’t any trail to follow.  Don’t try and find any shortcuts either because there aren’t any on this hike.  Like I’ve said a few times before, just try and follow the ridgeline up to the next point!

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

Finally you will arrive at one of the highest points on this trek!  But, you are still about 1.5 miles to go until you are at the actual summit of Mt. Healy.

From here you will need to follow the ridge to the west until you join up with the next ridgelines.  You can see Mt. Healy in the distance – it is the peak with the abrupt edge.

Mt. Healy is that peak with the abrupt edge in the distance

Mt. Healy is that peak with the abrupt edge in the distance

I took one last look down at the Denali area and continued on.

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

The ridgeline for the first part is relatively flat.  You will see some cool stuff along the way such as the monolith which I dubbed, well, The Monolith!  It is a 60+ foot tower and makes for an easy-to-recognize landmark.

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison GulchFrom here stay on the north side of the ridge but not going too far down in elevation.  This area is what I call the Chocolate Ridge because of the chocolate colored rocks.  This area wasn’t too steep but if you look to the north you can see that it slopes down a thousand feet so if it is windy and you lose a hat it will go all the way down!Visitor Center to Bison GulchVisitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

Keep hiking the ridge until you come to two National Park markers.   They are just two iron bars that were hammered into the ground.Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

Mt. Healy, sometimes called The Castle or Castle Rock, is the steep rocky peak in the distance.  It looks like jaws are opening up!Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

From this point it is about another 1/2 mile until you come to the summit.   The trail is even harder to see but it isn’t too bad as long as you just hike towards the top.

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

I found some Dall sheep around this area too.

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

The summit isn’t too far from here.  But there is a tricky spot that messed me up last time I was here.

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

Getting closer...

Getting closer…

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

Once you come to the spot that you can see in the picture above do NOT climb to the top of this.  This may appear to be the summit but it is actually hidden behind this outcropping.  I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle.

There were some large unstable rocks during this part which I accidentally knocked loose.  Try not to rush here.

Visitor Center to Bison Gulch

Looking to the west

Looking to the west

Now it is time to hike the last steep portion to the summit!

I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle.

Once at the top you need to be very careful!  The eastern side is a 400 ft sheer drop so make sure you and others you are with stay away from this edge.

The views are simply incredible!  I really had the perfect day for hiking!

I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle.

Looking north towards Otto Lake and Healy

Looking east towards Sugar Loaf and Dora Peak

Looking east towards Sugar Loaf and Dora Peak

Looking south towards the trail I just hiked

Looking south towards the trail I just hiked

Looking southwest towards Denali

Looking southwest towards Denali

Another view of Healy

Another view of Healy

Sheer cliff edge

Sheer cliff edge

When I had rested long enough and took in the amazing views I carefully hiked off the Castle just to the base of it and hiked north to begin my decent to Bison Gulch.

I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle.

I had to stop a few times along the way to get some good shots of Mt. Healy again.

I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle. I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle. I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle. I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle.

By now after hiking nearly 6 miles, my knees and thighs were killing from all the steep climbing.  I still have about 3.7 miles until I reach the parking lot at Bison Gulch so I slowed my pace down even more.

I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle.

The trail here also comes and goes so you may have to be vigilant to find the best route.  I didn’t think the trail was too hard to see in most of the places going down but there was one place where the trail disappeared entirely and I was left to find my own way until I found a trail again.

I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle. I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle. I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle. I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle. I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle.

Looking back towards Mt. Healy.  This is the last time you will see the top of the mountain on this trek.

I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle. I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle. I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle.

You may want to use my GPS coordinates so you won’t go passed Bison Gulch.  Other hikers sometimes choose to continue following the ridge into Antler Creek which is a much longer route to the bottom!

From this point before you go down Bison, it is about another 2 miles until you finish the hike.

Follow this ridgeline down into Bison Gulch

Follow this ridgeline down into Bison Gulch

There is a noticeable trail along the talus here

There is a noticeable trail along the talus here

CFVE9078

I thought my knees were hurting up at the top but they were killing me now for sure!  I was also running low on water so it was good that I was within 1.5 miles of the end.

I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle. I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle. I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle. I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle.

Once you are near the bottom you will come to an area where you will see trees and bushes again.  I have found moose in this area so try and be aware of your surroundings.

I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle.

You have finally finished this trail!  It was long but worth it I hope.  The Bison Gulch “parking lot” is big enough for many cars and RVs.  I have seen this place packed with RVs some nights in the summer.

I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle.

Looking back at the trail I just came down.

I hiked to the left of this slowly gaining in elevation and then I came to the top of the Castle.


Personal Thoughts:

Hiking Mt. Healy is my favorite hike in Alaska.  The landscape looks so alien and mysterious and on clear days you could even see Denali in the distance.  I would recommend this hike to anyone who wants to do a hard full-day hike but doesn’t or can’t go deep in the national park.

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Difficulty
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Technicality
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The Bottom Line

Difficulty is basically the length, duration and stress of the Trek. If the Trek is really long then it will receive a higher rating. If the Trek is short then it won't receive that high of a rating. However, difficulty rating also includes how tired we were at the end of the Trek.

Technicality is how strenuous the Trek is. If there is lots of bouldering or if there is bushwhacking involved then the rating will be higher. Technicality also includes if there are steep inclines or the need for ropes and other equipment.

Enjoyment is strictly how much fun we had doing the Trek. Regardless of how tired and exhausted we were, if we had a ton of fun doing the Trek then it will receive a higher rating.

8.7
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About The Author
Jeff Johnson
Questions or comments? I'd love to hear from you! JeffTJohnson@ymail.com

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