This is a beautiful course and worthwhile doing as a race or as a multi-day backpacking trip. The recommended route—and the one that I mostly followed—parallels the crest of the Alaska Range through foothills on its north side. Views of the range’s big peaks—including 13,020-foot Mount Moffit, 12,339-foot Mount Deborah, and 13,832-foot Mount Hayes—are constant, and many of the course’s primary challenges—including glacier crossings, glacier-fed rivers, and capricious weather—are related to the course’s proximity to this range.
Be aware that there are very few bailout/self-rescue opportunities on this course, so it’s advisable that you (1) know what you’re doing and (2) do it well. The easiest bailout is at Donnelly, on the Richardson Highway; there are also some long floats to safety on the Little Delta and Wood Rivers.
If I were doing this course as a multi-day backpacking trip, I probably would skip the first 40 miles, from the Gerstle River to Donnelly. This section was added to the 2009 course because race organizers felt that the old course from Black Rapids to McKinley Village (done 1994-1996) was too short and fast. Granite Mountain is an impressive looking bulge, but unfortunately it is geographically distinct from the remainder of the route and it results in an unfortunate road crossing. Moreover, the fastest route to Donnelly is probably along the ATV trails on Granite Mountain’s northwest side, which hardly offer a “wilderness” experience.
A fun and interesting feature of the AMWC is that race organizers do not set the route. Instead, they give start and finish locations and it’s up to the racers to figure out how to get there. The result is a scattering of racers at the starting line—racers took off in three distinct directions at the start of the 2009 race—with each team setting out on what they have identified as the “fastest” route, i.e. the one that has the fewest miles, the least elevation gain and loss, and the most favorable ground cover (e.g. hard tundra, not alder and devils club); racers must also account for opportunities to packraft and/or mountain bike, both of which are faster and easier than hiking, as well as whether a route is within their comfort level.
While there is certainly more than one way to reach McKinley Village from the Gerstle River, there is general agreement on a “recommended” route that is probably the most efficient and the safest. Racers were sent a description of this route prior to the race.
Below I have identified a few deviations from this recommended route:
- From the Gerstle River there are three main options, all about the same distance. (1) A series of ATV tracks and short cross-country connections can be taken around Granite Mountain’s northwest side. This route is fast and easy, but it can be muddy and it is conducive to wrong turns. (2) Another option is to head up the Gerstle on the ATV track and then climb to St. Antony Pass. This is the cleanest route, i.e. it’s straight-forward; but the climb to the pass is steep and brushy, and the backside of St. Anthony Pass has lots of “sponga” and shin-biting willows. (3) The last option to Donnelly is up-and-over Granite Mountain. ATV trails might go high into the brush from the start but brush will inevitably be encountered; and it’s a big climb.
- At Donnelly some racers have left the recommended route in order to follow the Black Rapids and Susitna Glaciers. This is probably not a winning route—the moraines are extremely slow-going and the Black Rapids Glacier is now too, due to an earthquake several years ago that resulted in heavy rockfall onto the glacier. Not to mention weather- and crevasse-related dangers…
- A 20-mile shortcut begins at the East Fork of the Little Delta River. Climb up the Gillam Glacier, over a steep headwall, and drop to the Yanert Glacier. In addition to the steep headwall, this route is made difficult by the moraine travel.
- Instead of hiking up Big Grizzly Creek from its confluence with the Wood River, continue floating (or hiking) downstream on the Wood to Grizzly Creek. Go south-southwest over a low pass to Dick Creek. This route is 5 miles shorter, has about 500′ less elevation gain than the Big Grizzly Creek route, and has a good system of game/horse trails. It’s also possible to hike over from the Wood River into Dean Creek—this route is also about 5 miles shorter than the Big Grizzly route; I have not heard of anyone who has tried this.
I went around the northwest side of Granite Mountain to Donnelly. I would not have taken this route if it had not been for my teammates, who before the race had flown over the course and taken coordinates of important junctions with a GPS. Using Google Earth I could not stitch together a complete network of ATV tracks, and the number of random intersections concerned me; it also looked swampy. (The St. Anthony Pass route, on the other hand, was very clean.) I would recommend to anyone who plans to take this route to take at least a few of the following measures: (1) print satellite images of all the junctions; (2) pre-program the track log, especially junctions, into a GPS; (3) draw onto your topographical maps the route using waypoints you get from Google Earth. If you do all of this you probably will avoid getting lost or making wrong turns—it’s not as much of a maze as I’m making it out to be.
The route around the northwest side of Granite Mountain can indeed be swampy. We were fortunate in that it had been an extremely warm and dry summer, so there were only a few places with standing water in the track. If it had been a wet and cool summer, however, we would have slogged for several miles through muddy swamps and wet meadows.
There is not a continuous network of ATV tracks to Donnelly. We took tracks, some more defined than others, as far as the bench above and to the west of Ober Creek before peeling off towards the pipeline.
Take a b-line route through spruce and alder from the pipeline to Donnelly. There are some unavoidable wetlands at the bottom of the descent.
The Delta River is one of three rivers to cut across the Alaska Range, making it a natural wind corridor as weather fronts try to push north or south across the range. We experienced 50 mph winds, which I gather is fairly common here—I’ve heard several stories of packrafts and canoes being blown away, even after being weighted with packs and even a quartered moose. In these windy conditions it’s very helpful to have a paddle tether—and always keep a good grip on your boat!
We crossed the Delta River just upstream of McGinnis Creek. The river only has a few channels here, allowing for a faster crossing than across from Donnelly where it is widely braided. Currently the river is pushing up against the alluvial fan of McGinnis, leaving a steep bank without observable take-out points, so crossing directly at McGinnis would be difficult. Plan on crossing the braids downstream of McGinnis or the deeper channels upstream.
The Delta was severely flooded during the 2009 race and a packraft was absolutely necessary to safely cross it. The situation may be different in other years—apparently some racers did ford/swim across the Donnelly braids during the 1994-1996 races. With such a big flow this year, it’s also entirely possible that the position of the Delta River fundamentally changes for future races.
Pick up the ATV track on the north bank of McGinnis Creek as the braids start to narrow into the gorge. The track initially is very wide, with enough room for a Winnebago, but it narrows down into an ATV track and becomes overgrown with knee-high grass as it begins the climb towards the tundra flats above.
There is a cabin, outbuilding, and runway strip near where the ATV track levels out onto the tundra benches. Everything is located approximately on the border between Section 30 and 31, on the east side of the creek.
A faint ATV track goes to the pass between Points 5402′ and 5440′. From here there’s a straight-line up-and-down route across “sponga”—i.e. soft, energy-sapping tundra with ankle-biting vegetation—to the Trident Glacier. Look for caribou around here. The brush line is surprisingly high, at about 4,500 feet. There is a slightly longer route to the south that has less climbing and descending. And there’s a shorter route to the north that has more climbing/descending and more brush.
The Trident Glacier is well protected on both sides by moraine slopes, which are fairly steep and treacherous—they consist of crumbly sand and loosely embedded rocks.
The Trident’s moraine is geologically fascinating but it’s annoyingly difficult to walk across—it’s rocky, sandy, and loose, and it’s topography is patternless. Minimize your time on the moraine by cutting straight across it, perhaps by heading due west towards the tarn at elevation 3820′, northwest of Glacier Mtn.
The bench between the Trident and Hayes Glaciers is tussocky sponga—be prepared to slog.
Like all the glacier-fed rivers during the 2009 race, Hayes Creek was majorly flooding; it was an
impassable, raging Class VI torrent. If this is the case in future years, one option is to head 3 miles northeast to where it braids out some. A better option is to head upstream and get onto the glacier, and then cross the river above where it flows out from underneath the ice.
From Hayes Creek it’s possible to follow the “moat” between the boob-like domes and the moraine—it has minimal brush and good game trails; alternatively, climb through brush to the top of the boobs and follow hard tundra across towards the west lobe of Hayes Glacier.
Even during flood stage, we found it easy to cross West Hayes Creek—we almost managed to keep our feet dry. Most of the glacial melt must be going down East Hayes Creek.
The tundra between West Hayes Creek and the East Fork of the Little Delta River is comparable to the tundra between the Trident and Hayes Glaciers—slow-going, tussocky sponga, often with ankle- and shin-biting brush. Thankfully, west of the East Fork the tundra firms up and makes for joyous walking.
The ideal entry into the East Fork is probably via the gentle nose that drops from the tundra benches to the confluence of Whistler Creek and an unnamed creek. The descent will be brushy, but there are lots of meadows and moose trails through here. We descended just to the south of this nose, on steeper slopes, and lucked out in finding an old landslide path that was stripped of vegetation.
The location of the East Fork shifted while flooding in 2009. The bulk of the flow is now along the southern edge of the valley, including through the forest in Sections 36 and 30, in the former bed of some small tributary streams. Further change can be expected here—check satellite images for the most recent information. We reached the East Fork in the dark and it took us a while to figure out what we were seeing down below. We ended up going southwest on a game trail that parallels the valley on a bench above, then dropped into the forest and hiked upstream (still parallel to the river) through swampy flood plains, eventually reaching the gravel flats above where the river now enters the forest. We knew it would have been faster to paddle across the river’s new channel in the forest and get to the (now dry) gravel flats, but there were lots of sweepers, strainers, and standing trees and bushes in the river that made us uncomfortable with this option. The best route through this area may now be following Whistler Creek out to the gravel flats, crossing the river there, and then hiking up dry gravel braids to the toe of the glacier.
From the tarn-dotted bench north of Gillam Glacier, we stayed high on good tundra before dropping into Buchanan Creek. It was recommended to us by another racer that we shoot the 4,400’+ pass to the north but this route looks brushier and it is longer.
It seemed to take forever to reach Buchanan Pass but the travel was generally good: there are good tundra benches just above the creek, and travel in the creek is not bad either.
There are lots of moose trails running through the light willows and birchbrush down to the West Fork of the Little Delta River. These game trails continue up the West Fork, though the West Fork is wide and graveled so they are not as beneficial.
There is a private, locked cabin on the east side of the braids just across from where the recommended route turns up a creek towards the Wood River. This creek bottom is filled with gravel and the travel is good. Ditto for the creek bottom on the other side of the pass—you can follow it down easily through several gorges to the Wood River.
In 2009 we were able to float the Wood River, which is a young and restless Class II braided creek. But this is not normally the case—it usually does not have enough water and racers must hike down the gravel and along the game trails in the brush.
There is a good horse trail that runs parallel to Big Grizzly Creek on its north and east sides. It is an older trail and has been washed out in several places; it is easy to lose further up valley, but there are plenty of game trails to jump on when that happens.
Look for a good horse trail running along the east side of Edgar Creek starting in Section 9. It then parallels the creek towards the Yanert River, oftentimes along the edge of the gorge. The trail becomes overgrown and faint, but it’s still there and it’s wise to stay on it—the vegetation is pretty thick and disorienting. Eventually the horse trail crosses Edgar Creek, which flooded recently and carried down a bunch of rock debris. We managed to find the trail on the other side and followed it to a private, unwelcoming cabin, from where we followed an ATV track to the Yanert’s gravel flats.
The Yanert is an awesome Class I-II float, especially when it’s flooding because it moves fast. If the river is flooding, beware when it narrows into one channel about 15 miles downstream—there are some nasty Class III holes (all avoidable) and fun wave trains.
The first opportunity to get out of the Yanert is just after Moose Creek, in Section 25. The confluence is very obvious, can’t be missed. There is a horse trail along the south bank to a cabin on Ravine Creek. It’s also possible, and actually much faster, to continue floating the Yanert to Ravine Creek, on the southwestern end of the “horseshoe” in Section 26. Walk up Ravine Creek a short ways to the cabin, located on the west side of the creek, and then begin following a good ATV track southwest towards the power lines.
Reach the powerlines after about 3.5 miles on the ATV track, which may be wet and muddy in places. Walk about 1.5 miles south on the service road to Pylon 661. Go 100 yards further south to the junction with the High Trail, an ATV trail that cuts across the powerlines here. Go west for 1 mile until you reach the gravel pit and the sign-in sheet, which in 2009 was posted just off the gravel pit’s north entrance road.
McKinley Village is about 3 miles north of the gravel pit.