Saturday, February 1, 2014

Hike heads to former bend in subarctic river

Horseshoe Lake Trail runs

near Denali N.P. entrance

Though known for its backcountry trails through an expansive wilderness, Alaska’s Denali National Park offers natural quiet and the opportunity to spot wildlife right near its entrance.

An artist sketches the shadows of Labrador Tea
at Horseshoe Lake. Photo courtesy Denali NPS.
The 1.5-mile Horseshoe Lake Trail is one such day hike. An out-and-back trail, it runs 3-miles round trip.

Late May through early September mark the best time to visit the trail. Be forewarned: Though you’re in sparsely populated Alaska, this trail attracts a lot of hikers.

Located 240 miles north of Anchorage and 120 miles south of Fairbanks, the subarctic Denali National Park is truly remote. It can be reached via road on Alaska Hwy. 3, but you also may want to consider taking a bus, train or plane there; all three have stops in the national park. Whichever method used, you’ll likely end up staying overnight in Denali, offering an opportunity to see the incredibly impressive Northern Lights.

Entering the taiga
To reach the trail, from Parks Highway, turn onto Park Road leading to the Denali Visitors Center. Park in the visitors center lot. You can reach the trailhead in a couple of ways. The easiest way is to the shuttle from the visitor center to the trailhead. Alternately, you can walk the Murie Science and Learning Center Trail, turn right onto the Taiga Trail, and cross the railroad tracks to the Horseshoe Trail.

The trailhead sits west of the tracks at mile 0.9 on Park Road. After briefly paralleling those tracks, the trail crosses a small creek and then the rail line itself.

From there, the developed trail heads into a taiga forest, a giant and dense spruce woodland. Though a unique setting for those visiting Alaska, the taiga is the world's largest land biome. Nearly a third of the world's forest cover is taiga.

The trail next comes to an overlook with a bench, offering a fantastic view of the Nenana River and the surrounding mountains. Keep an eye out of fox and small game that come to the river.

Past the overlook, the trail descends about 200 feet to marshland that encircles Horseshoe Lake. Sitting at the foothills of the mountain range, the lake is quite pretty.

Abandoned river
Horseshoe Lake formed when the Nenana River meandered in this direction. As the river eroded away the bank, the meander curved into a U-shape and then almost a full loop. Usually during a flood, the land between the loop's unmet ends are washed away, and the river changes its course, leaving behind a lake.

A fire ripped through the area surrounding the lake in 2002, and you’ll see remnants of it. Today, the flora is growing back, and the lake sports a beaver dam and lodge visible from the trail.

The trail ends at the lake’s north side. After taking in the views, head back the way you came.

Be advised that in wet weather, the trail can be muddy in areas. You’ll definitely want to wear waterproof hiking boots with good traction.

Upon returning to the parking lot, be sure to stop at the visitor center. It offers exhibits of animals that live in the national park as well as a 20-minute film.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.