If you want sweeping views of Denali National Park, and a great view of Denali without venturing too far into the park, put the Savage Alpine Trail on your to-do list.
This is one of our favorite hikes in Denali National Park & Preserve. On a clear day, you can see Denali from the high points of this hiking trail. It’s a tough hike but well worth it for the view.
Overview of the Hike
The Savage Alpine Trail is perfect for those who don’t have the time, or were unable to get a bus reservation to head deeper into the park, to still get a great view of Denali.
Near the park entrance, you can get a view of Denali, but it looks tiny since it is so far away. In the Savage area, you are about 15 miles closer, but due to mountains in the foreground, you can’t see much of Denali from the road. To see it, you need to climb up into the mountains next to the Savage River.
The Savage area is located at mile 15 of Denali Park Road. This is as far as you can drive into the park. Beyond this point, you must have a permit (which are very hard to get) or ride one of the park buses.
The Savage Alpine Trail is a 4-mile point-to-point hike. To do the full hike, you either need to use the park shuttle or walk back to your car on Denali Park Road, which adds another 2 miles to the hike. Another option is to just hike the first half, enjoy the views from the highest point along the trail, and then retrace your steps back to your car.
In this guide, we cover the different ways to hike the Savage Alpine Trail.
Savage Alpine Trail Point-to-Point
Here are the hiking stats if you do the Savage Alpine Trail point-to-point. These stats come from the National Park Service website.
Distance: 4 miles one-way
Elevation Gain: 1,500 feet
Length of Time: 2 to 4 hours
If you hike the Savage Alpine Trail point-to-point, you will need some sort of way to get back to your car. You have several options:
#1 If you are traveling as a group with more than one vehicle, you can park a vehicle at each trailhead and use these as a shuttle.
#2 Walk back to your car on Denali Park Road once you finish the hike. This adds roughly 2 miles to the hiking stats above.
#3 Use the park shuttle (more on that below).
#4 Hitchhike to your car at the end of your hike.
Trailheads for the Savage Alpine Trail
Since this is a point-to-point hike, there are two trailheads.
The Savage River trailhead is located next to the Savage River. This is the point where the Denali Park Road changes from a paved road to a dirt road. Beyond the bridge, you can only drive Denali Park Road with a permit, or ride one of the buses.
The Savage River Loop starts at the same trailhead.
There is small parking lot at Savage River that can hold roughly 20 cars. This parking lot tends to fill by mid-morning. Overflow parking spills onto the road next to the parking lot. There is also a gravel parking lot on the opposite side of Savage River that can be used for overflow parking.
There are restrooms at the parking lots on either side of the Savage River.
This photo was taken from the Savage Alpine Trail. You can see the Savage River parking lot, the overflow parking area on Denali Park Road, the bridge over the Savage River, and parking lot on the opposite side of the river.
Just to be clear, the trailhead is located at the paved parking lot on the east side of Savage River. On Google Maps it is labeled Savage River Loop Trailhead.
The second trailhead is located on Denali Park Road (Savage Alpine Trailhead on Google Maps). Park at the Mountain Vista Picnic Area and cross Denali Park Road to get to the trailhead. This parking lot still had lots of spaces when we drove through it midday. There are restrooms and picnic tables.
Mountain Vista Picnic Area and the Savage River shuttle
Savage River Shuttle
The Savage River Shuttle connects the Denali Visitor Center to the Mountain Vista Picnic Area and Savage River. It is free to park visitors.
When we did this hike, the shuttle only ran once every two hours. That makes planning your time a bit difficult, with such a huge time span between buses. However, with some planning, you can use the shuttle to your advantage.
Drive to the Savage River parking lot in the morning, a little bit before the shuttle is due to arrive. From Savage River, ride the shuttle to the Mountain Vista parking lot. Hike the Savage Alpine Trail point-to-point, ending back at the Savage River. By using the shuttle in this direction, you get the shuttle ride over with early and don’t have to wait for it once finished your hike.
PRO TRAVEL TIP: You can get the shuttle schedule at the Denali Visitor Center (I could not find shuttle times posted online). Ideally, do this the day before your visit to the Savage Area. It’s best to get to Savage River in the morning when you can get a parking space.
Which Direction Should You Go?
The park ranger we spoke to recommended starting at Mountain Vista and ending at the Savage River. Mountain Vista is located higher than Savage River, so you will have less ascent on the hiking trail. And you get to hike down the incredibly steep section near the Savage River parking lot, rather than hiking up it. Just note, if you plan to walk back to your car at Mountain Vista, it will be a mostly uphill walk on Denali Park Road.
Savage Alpine Trail Out-and-Back from Savage River
Here are the hiking stats if you do the Savage Alpine Trail out-and-back-from Savage River.
This is how we did this hike. We had just missed the shuttle and did not want to wait around for the next one, or take our chances that we would just miss the following shuttle once we made it to Mountain Vista. So, we hiked to the highest point of the trail, saw Denali, and had an overall great experience.
Distance: 3.5 miles
Total Ascent: 1,710 feet
Starting Elevation: 2,600 feet
Highest Elevation: 4,150 feet
Elevation at the Second Overlook: 4,030 feet
Length of Time: 2 to 3 hours
Map of the Savage Alpine Trail out-and-back from the Savage River parking lot.
Savage River Trail elevation profile (out-and-back from the Savage River parking lot)
Note: You can also hike out-and-back from Mountain Vista. This will be a 4-mile round trip hike with slightly less ascent than doing this hike from Savage River. What you miss out on are the views over the Savage River, but you won’t have to hike up the ass-kicker switchbacks on the western side of the trail.
Photos & Trail Description: Doing the Savage Alpine Trail Out-and-Back
The Savage Alpine Trail and the Savage River Loop share the same trailhead. Go right to hike the Savage Alpine Trail. You know you are on the right trail if you immediately start climbing up the mountain, some of this on steep steps.
Start of the Savage Alpine Trail
You cannot see the top of Denali from the parking lot, but you don’t have to hike up very far before the peak comes into view on a clear day. At 0.15 miles (180 feet of elevation gain) you will work your way up to a tower of dark rock. This is your first opportunity to see Denali.
View of the trail and Denali off in the distance.
The steepness of the rocky trail will continue (as do the stone steps) and eventually you will enter a section of switchbacks. Since you are on the backside of mountain, Denali will go out of view during this portion of the trail.
The switchbacks end 0.7 miles into the hike. At this point you climbed 760 feet in elevation and have a beautiful view of the top of Denali and some of the alpine peaks near it.
First overlook from the trail.
The view from the overlook.
PRO HIKING TIP: Feeling wiped out? You can turn around here. The view of Denali at this point is pretty good. It gets better as you go higher up the trail, but it doesn’t get dramatically better (keep scrolling for more photos). So, if you’re exhausted, you can make this your turn-around point.
If you do continue onward then the next part of the trail was our favorite part. For the next 0.3 miles, the trail is flatter and you walk across a ridge of dark jagged stones. Kids will love this part of the trail. This section of trail might have an official name but Tim liked to refer to it as Devil’s Ridge.
At 1.0 miles into the hike and 950 feet of elevation gain, the trail becomes moderate the rest of way.
At 1.7 miles into the hike and 1560 feet of elevation gain you reach the high point of the trail. You might see a trail split here that goes higher but that isn’t the official Savage Alpine Trail. The official Savage Alpine trail descends to an overlook that is visible from here.
The trail leading to the second overlook.
Walk down to overlook. From the overlook the trail continues down and goes to the Mountain Vista parking lot.
View from the overlook.
This photo of Denali was taken with a zoom lens (300 mm) from the overlook.
From the overlook, retrace your steps back to the parking lot, if you are doing this hike out-and-back. The views are better on the return hike, as you are walking towards Denali. It’s also a lot easier, since the climbing is over and done with.
The hardest section on the return hike are the switchbacks. The trail is the steepest here, with lots of stone steps, so your thighs, and maybe your knees, will be screaming at you at this point.
Once back at the parking lot, you have the option to hike the Savage River Loop, if you still have the energy. It’s a nice, easy stroll along the river.
Tips to Have the Best Experience
This hike is best done when the skies are clear, so you can see Denali. The Savage Alpine Trail is still a great hike to do if Denali is hiding behind the clouds, but seeing Denali is icing on the cake.
Get to the Savage River parking lot before 10 am so you can get a parking space.
The day before your hike go to the Denali Visitor Center to get updated Savage River Shuttle times.
Before you go, get updates on trail conditions, either on the National Park Service website or at the Visitor Center.
The trail is very easy to follow. However, if you are here early in the season, there could be snow on the trail, making it harder to follow the trail. Bringing along a GPS preloaded with trail maps or using All Trails would be useful in this situation.
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.
What to Bring
Hiking shoes. There is a lot of loose rock and gravel on this trail so I recommend wearing hiking shoes with good traction.
There is no water along the trail. Bring at least one liter of water per person.
Bring sunscreen. There is very little shade on the trail.
Have insect repellent available. We only saw a few mosquitoes on this trail, mostly at the start when we were close to the Savage River.
Hiking poles. This trail is incredibly steep and hiking poles will take the stress off of your knees.
This hike is in bear country, however, we didn’t see any wildlife while we were here. There were many people already on the trail when we started so the chance that we would see a bear was slim. Even so, it’s a good idea to bring bear spray, especially if you plan to do this hike early or late in the day, when there are fewer people.
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.
If you have any questions about how to hike the Savage Alpine Trail, or if you want to share your experience, let us know in the comment section below.
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