Hiking the Golden Hour – Savage River Denali

Savage River, Denali

Officially, Denali National Park claims to have no trails in the wilderness. There are official, marked trails in some places, notably the park entrance and Eielson, but when asked, Rangers will never mention other trails. But there is a trail beside the Savage. It begins about half a mile south of the camp, when an unmissable bluff rises on the west side of the river. It’s a flat, smooth game trail which continues up to the point where the river enters the mountains.

A Beautiful Scene

The early morning sun gave a golden glow to the landscape, spruce trees and scrub brush shining beside the trail. The ‘Golden Hour’ may be the best time for photography, and my sister snapped a shot of me standing still, looking east towards the rising sun. The Savage River gurgled nearby, little more than a quiet stream, especially in August. The wilderness around us almost seemed to shimmer with the pale light peeking its way through the valley. It’s easy to forget that scenes like this are real, not just reserved for National Geographic or movies with digitally enhanced particle effects. The Golden Hour in Denali is something truly spectacular.

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A rainbow after a brief morning shower. I don’t think the lighting and atmosphere could have been better in any way. The colors of the woods, the Golden Hour, and the rainbow just mix together perfectly.

 

We had started out into the backcountry only the day before. This backpacking trip was a short one, only a single night spent along the Savage River just before the water disappeared deep into the Alaska Range. It was me, my father, my sister, and her fiancee, all traveling together along a route that my father and I had traveled some years before. The trip south along the Savage is a wonderful one, rarely mentioned because so many tourists never actually leave the road system behind. Starting from the Savage River Campground, which is conveniently the last campsite you can drive to, we made our way south along the river. It’s not a particularly challenging hike, and oddly enough we chose it because three of us were recovering from various injuries.

Hiking Along the Savage River

Officially, Denali National Park claims to have no trails in the wilderness. There are official, marked trails in some places, notably the park entrance and Eielson, but when asked, Rangers will never mention other trails. But there is a trail beside the Savage. It begins about half a mile south of the camp when an unmissable bluff rises on the west side of the river. It’s a flat, smooth game trail which continues up to the point where the river enters the mountains. Should you continue past that point, the gravel rivers bars are your best choice for navigation.  Here and there we encountered patches of forest, then followed by open scrubland. The trees along the Savage are young, as they have only been able to grow because of warmer winters. A hundred years ago, the area was pure tundra.

savage river denali
A view south from the Savage River Campground, taken in mid-morning. We camped the night before just north of where the valley narrows down.

 

Our way south on that trail was an easy one. We set out late in the day, knowing our trip would not be terribly long. Since it follows a bluff over the river, the trail almost always offered a fantastic view to the east. There were no human tracks on the trail at all, the only sign of moose and caribou and bear. When the trail petered out, at the point where the river makes a tight dogleg turn and enters the mountains, we decided to set camp. We descended a small bluff and dropped our packs in a patch of boreal forest. We were away from the trail, sheltered from the wind, and close enough to the river.

savage river
The view north from our camp in the evening. It was a clear day, and silent except for the noise of the river.

 

I am in love with the boreal forest. Also called taiga, or ‘Land of the Little Sticks’ in Russian. It earned its name by the fact that trees here are smaller than usual. These spruce trees create a sort of cavern, almost a form of natural protection, like a shield encompassing you. The only noises here were the rush of the water and the song of the wind over our heads. It was August, and though the park was packed with tourists, there was no sign of them here. For all intents and purposes, we had fallen from the face of the earth. That feeling, that true feeling of being away is what drives me to keep going back into the field.

It has become an addiction of sorts, a sweet, healthy addiction that gives me quiet inside.

The Savage River holds a special place in me because it was the first place where I ever entered the wilderness on a trip that I had planned. I was nineteen, and I cannot forget the river in May, still surrounded by snow, still covered in ice in many places. I am sure that I will return again. Never have I encountered another backpacker there outside my own group. It’s accessible enough not to be a pain but remote and foreboding enough to keep out most people.

savage river denali alaska
The view south, deep into the mountains as seen from the river. Fang Mountain, 6,736 feet, stands out on the left. Its nearly unclimbable peak barely pokes out over the nearby slope. This picture was taken in May of 2015, thus the brown and snowy landscape.

 

We cooked and ate near the river, a simple dinner of rice, onions, sausage, and spices. After some small talk, we settled down to reading. Normally, I’m the guy who insists on cutting his toothbrush in half to save weight. But the world will end before I backpack without a book! I propped myself up near the river and read until the light grew faint. The summer sun in Denali never truly sets, rather the light dims and seems to turn gray. At a point, it’s almost like seeing a black and white picture, still clear enough to see, yet hazy too. When this happened and I could no longer read, I double checked that our food was secure and lay down to sleep.

gold hour photography
Late in the evening, I went on a little hike a bit further down the trail. This young moose barely seemed to care, though I was careful not to get too close to it.

Golden Hour

After a quick breakfast in the morning, our group packed up and departed. The trip north was a beautiful one, with the sun rising over the eastern hills just as we left the densest forest. The lighting was a brilliant golden hue. The trees lit up and glowed as if they were on fire. The sunrise seemed to consume the entire landscape. Like I already said, the Golden Hour is magical. Before long we were back at the Savage River Campground, where we actually parted ways for the rest of the day. Our little adventure was over, but I will never be able to drive that beautiful golden light from my mind. Even if you hate mornings, you owe it to yourself to rise early one day and hike through the sunrise. The way the sun bathes the landscape in gold is unique and irreplaceable.

I backpack for a whole host of reasons from exercise and challenge to escapism. But if I had to condense it all into a word, I go out into the wilderness looking for beauty. It’s the one thing in the world I’m willing to push myself hard for, willing even to hurt for. If it gives me that perfect feeling of awe, then it is worth it. The wilderness is where I find that in its most perfect form, and that is why I will continue to go back there forever.

golden hour savage river denali aslaska
The sun sets behind Denali itself. Each day gives two Golden Hours, and seeing the brilliant golden and orange lights behind the highest mountain in North America is awe inspiring.

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