Horseshoe Lake is a beautiful lake near the front entrance of Denali National Park. Named after its shape, Horseshoe Lake can be reached from the Horseshoe Lake Trail. This trail is a short and easy hike that first takes you to an aerial overlook of the lake and then down to its shoreline, where you circle around the lake.
Highlights of the trail include seeing the calm water of Horseshoe Lake nestled in its forested setting and an impressive beaver dam built along one side of the lake. The trail will also take you to the edge of the Nenana River where you can watch whitewater rafters pass by.
This was our favorite hike near the Denali Visitor Center. It is a popular hike that can draw midday crowds, so if you are looking for more solitude then consider this hike earlier or later in the day.
Horseshoe Lake Trail Stats
The follow stats are roundtrip from the Horseshoe Lake Trailhead.
Distance: 2.0 miles
Total Ascent: 300 feet
Elevation at Trailhead: 1,720 feet
Elevation at Horseshoe Lake: 1,500 feet
Time: 1 to 2 hours
Please practice the seven principles of Leave No Trace: plan ahead, stay on the trail, pack out what you bring to the hiking trail, properly dispose of waste, leave areas as you found them, minimize campfire impacts, be considerate of other hikers, and do not approach or feed wildlife.
Parking and Trailhead
Denali National Park only has one entrance, which is located at the intersection of Parks Highway (Route 3) and Park Road. From the entrance, drive 1.2 miles along Park Road and you will see railroad tracks that cross Park Road. Immediately past the railroad tracks is the Horseshoe Lake Trailhead on the right side of the road along with a small parking area. This is the ideal place to park for this hike.
If the parking area at the railroad tracks is full, then additional parking is available at the Denali Visitor Center. Continue on Park Road another 0.2 miles past the railroad tracks and you will reach a roundabout. At the roundabout follow the signs to the Denali Visitor Center, which is only a short distance further.
If you end up parking at the Denali Visitor Center, then you have three options for hiking from the visitor center to Horseshoe Lake:
- You can take the Murie Science and Learning Center Trail to the Horseshoe Lake Trailhead.
- The Denali Bike Trail will take you to where the railroad tracks cross Park Road (the Horseshoe Lake Trailhead will be on the opposite side of the road). Both the Murie Science and Learning Center Trail and the Denali Bike Trail will add about a half a mile to the hike in each direction, making the total hike 3 miles roundtrip.
- Alternatively, you can take the Taiga Trail to where the Horseshoe Lake Trail crosses the railroad tracks. This will add about a mile to the hike in each direction, making the total hike 4 miles roundtrip.
If you have any questions about which way to go from the Denali Visitor Center parking lot, just ask one of the park rangers at the information desk located at the visitor center building.
Horseshoe Lake Trail Map (courtesy: nps.gov)
How to Hike to Horseshoe Lake
Step-By-Step Trail Guide
The Horseshoe Lake Trail is an out-and-back lollipop trail. You will follow the trail down to the lake, make a complete circle around the lake, and then return back up to the trailhead the same way you came down.
Horseshoe Lake Trailhead
From the Horseshoe Lake Trailhead located where the train tracks cross Park Road, hike next to the train tracks in the northbound direction for about 100 yards. DO NOT walk on the train tracks as they are operational and a train may pass at any time. Instead, walk along the tree line that runs parallel to the train tracks.
As you are walking next to the train tracks, look for a signpost on the left side pointing across the tracks. This signpost is telling you to turn right and cross over the tracks in order to stay on the Horseshoe Lake Trail.
The well-maintained, compacted dirt and crushed gravel trail will now lead you down to the lake. You will have to descend a little more than 200 feet in order to reach the lake. A portion of the trail has been made into a staircase to help ease its steepness.
Near the top of the descent there is an opening in the trees to your left that provides a great view overlooking the lake. There is also a bench at this viewpoint if you want to sit an enjoy the view for a bit.
First view of Horseshoe Lake
Just before you get to the lake, there will be a trail split with a posted sign. This is where you start the circle around the lake. So, whichever direction you go you will end up back at this signpost.
I recommend going straight at this signpost. The view of the beaver dam, which you will see later in the hike, is more impressive if you hike the loop in a counter-clockwise direction. The rest of this trail description is written such that you will go straight at this signpost (hiking the loop in a counter-clockwise direction).
The trail will now bring you close to the shore of the lake. There will be a bench here if you would like to sit and enjoy the view (the only lakeside bench that we saw).
You will also see a posted sign for the Beaver Dam spur trail, which as the name suggest will take you to see the Beaver Dam. This tenth of a mile long spur trail (0.2 miles roundtrip) is optional since you will also walk past the Beaver Dam when you circle around to the other side of the lake later in the hike.
As you continue to follow the Horseshoe Lake trail you will leave the lake behind for a bit and the trail will take you out to the Nenana River.
The Nenana River
Another view of the Nenana River
The trail then circles back towards Horseshoe Lake and you will be walking towards the Beaver Dam.
The beaver dam
Continue to follow the Horseshoe Lake trail until you circle the entire lake. At the end of the loop, retrace your steps back up the hill and out to the train tracks.
About Our Experience and Is It Worth It?
We hiked the Horseshoe Lake Trail in the late afternoon. For us, it was a great end of the day hike. Earlier in the day, we hiked both the Mount Healy Overlook Trail and the Savage Alpine Trail. Since we saved this hike for the end of the day, we missed the midday crowds and were able to enjoy the peacefulness this lake setting offers.
This is a must do hike when visiting Denali National Park. We really liked doing it at the end of the day, but it can also make for a great morning hike, if you are waiting for cloud cover to burn off before tackling a strenuous hike into the mountains for alpine views.
We saw people of all ages and various ability levels enjoying this hike.
What to Bring
- Insect repellant
- Bear spray
- Rain jacket: Just in case bad weather moves in.
If you are new to hiking or are curious about what you should bring on a hike, check out our Hiking Gear Guide. Find out what we carry in our day packs and what we wear on the trails.
Be bear aware, moose aware, and wolf aware. Posted signage at the Denali Visitor Center provides the following advice:
1. Talk and/or sing while you are hiking to make your presence known so you don’t surprise a bear. If you run out of things to say then simple repeat the phrase “Hey Bear”.
2. If you see a bear, do not run as they may see you as prey. Put your arms up to make yourself look bigger and back away slowly while keeping your eyes on the bear. Get at least 300 yards away from the bear.
3. If the bear charges at you then use bear spray.
1. Stay at least 25 yards away from a moose.
2. A moose may charge if you are too close, especially a mother protecting a calf. If this happens then run and get away as fast as you can. They will try to trample a perceived threat.
1. Stay at least 25 yards away from a wolf.
2. If a wolf approaches you then shout aggressively and throw rocks at it.
In 2021 it was estimated that 350 bears, 1,700 moose, and 90 wolves (14 packs) inhabit the 6 million acres of Denali National Park. We did not see any of this type of wildlife while hiking the Horseshoe Lake Trail but we did see moose twice in the same general area as this trail.
Get updates on road conditions and trail closures, as you plan your trip and just before your visit, on the National Park Service website.
If you have any questions about how to hike the Horseshoe Lake Trail, of if you would like to share your experience, let us know in the comment section below.
More Information about Alaska
HIKES IN DENALI: There is a long list of hikes to do in Denali. Several top hikes include the Savage Alpine Trail, Mount Healy Overlook, and the Triple Lakes Trail. Get the full list in our Denali Hiking Guide.
BEST OF DENALI: For more information about what there is to do in Denali National Park, read our article Best Things to Do in Denali.
DENALI PARK ROAD: Taking a park shuttle on Denali Park Road is one of the top experiences in the park. In our Guide to Denali Park Road, learn what there is to see and do along the road. It’s also important to know that currently there is a road closure on Denali Park Road, which will impact your experience.
BEST OF WRANGELL-ST. ELIAS: Top experiences in Wrangell-St. Elias include hiking the Root Glacier Trail, taking a flightseeing tour, and hiking to Bonanza Mine. For the full list, read our article Best Things to Do in Wrangell-St. Elias.
KENAI FJORDS NATIONAL PARK: While in Kenai Fjords National Park, hike the Harding Icefield Trail, cruise the Northwestern Fjord, go ice climbing on the Exit Glacier, or go kayaking in front of Aialik Glacier.
DRIVING IN ALASKA: The Seward Highway connects Anchorage and Seward is one of the most popular scenic drives in Alaska. We also have a detailed guide to driving from Anchorage to Valdez, yet another amazing road trip.
NATIONAL PARKS: In our Guide to the US National Parks, get the full list of national parks with important travel planning information, such as things to do in the parks and sample itineraries. You can also learn more about the national parks and get a FREE printable checklist in our US National Parks Checklist.
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