In the middle of June, 2013 a group of us did the “classic” Cantwell to the Denali Park road version of this trip - via Windy Pass and the Sanctuary River.
START: Once you park at the lodge/bar in Cantwell - cross the street and railroad tracks and walk up the road (north). Walk a few hundred yards until the road ends in a driveway. This leads to a dog mushers house and dog yard. It is fairly new I believe. You can access the four wheeler trail here if you get permission from the land owner (we didn’t try this though). Alternately: The road continues left (uphill) at this point. In a couple hundred yards it ends again and makes a sharp left. Before you get to this deadend/left, on the right side of the street, there is a trail that will take you east back towards the dog musher’s yard (but skirting it). RIght past the dog yard the trail will cross a small creek and run into the four wheeler trail going northwest towards Windy Creek.
This four wheeler trail will take you without complication for a couple/three miles until it begins to fork into three smaller trails. I believe (but can’t quite remember) that the first fork seems to go off west, upland, into the mountains. This fork will be on your left, was more narrow and seemed non-motorized. We passed it by. The next fork comes along shortly after and goes more directly west through the forest. This will also be on your left. It was narrow and had non-motorized trail markers along it. The four wheeler trail continues north (dowhill) in the direction of Windy Creek. We decided to go west (left) through the forest (because it had non-motorized trail markers and the four wheeler trail was super muddy).
This narrow, non-motorized trail quickly became a muddy cricklet and led us through a series of swamps, and was not always easy to find. Eventually the trail completely disappeared and we headed straight north (downhill) to the creek. We ran smack dab into a National Park Service cabin, nearly right on Windy Creek and with a trail running near it (creekside to the cabin). I bet that this trail right near the cabin is probably the four wheeler trail that we abandoned when we went left through the forest. You cannot see Windy Creek, nor the trail running alongside it, from the NPS cabin. The cabin is just uphill (via a short connector trail) from the creek. Windy Creek was raging - it looked like a river, with big Class 2 plus whitewater, verging on Class 3.
I would suggest NOT doing what we did (going left/west through the forest and swamp at the narrow non-motorized trail) but instead at the second fork, continue downhill (north) on the four wheeler trail. Like I said, I believe that staying on this trail will take you right down next to Windy creek (and past the very short connector NPS cabin if you want to look at it). This main trail continues along Windy Creek and eventually continues up the Windy Fork when it comes into Windy Creek (although we did not follow it very far up Windy Fork itself before we inflated our packrafts to cross it).
Back at the NPS cabin: We immediately crossed a small swollen stream directly west of the cabin (because this tiny stream was too swollen to cross at it’s mouth down where it crosses the main trail along the Windy, even though that crossing was only a couple of hundred yards downstream) and followed the trail (looked like an old bulldozer trail in places but eventually became more of a horse trail by the time we left it) west along Windy Creek until we reached where Windy Fork (flowing out of the west) meets Windy Creek (flowing from the northwest at this point).
We inflated our packrafts here and crossed the Windy fork of Windy Creek. At this point we had left the man made trail/horse trail behind for good and began bushwacking north along the west bank of the north fork. We eventually crossed Windy itself (we were able to walk across) and hiked up the east bank (the hiking looked better on the east side at a certain point) until we reached the alpine. Then we crossed the creek again back to the west bank and started to climb to Windy pass.
Due to a late breakup in 2013, followed by record heat, the water levels in this area were very high. I believe this contributed to making the hike to Windy Pass very challenging, as we could not walk in (or up the side) of Windy Creek at all. I mention this because we found the 8 miles or so ( from after we packrafted across Windy Fork until we reached the alpine near Windy Pass) to be VERY challenging bushwacking with lots of side-hilling and climbing up and down. Other reports of this route that I have seen state that the bushwack is only 3 miles or so from when you leave the fourwheeler trail/bulldozer trail/horse trail. Other reports have also characterized this route as a good introduction into hiking trail-less wilderness. I do not agree. Perhaps, I might agree if we had been able to walk in, or alongside of Windy Creek. But like I said, we couldn’t because of the high water. If we had someone who with us who didn’t have any experience bushwacking those 8 miles or so would have been a nightmare for them.
Windy Pass: It’s quite a climb. You pass by the foot of Riley Pass to the north as you begin the climb to Windy Pass - and Riley Pass is much lower and more gradual in comparison. Very tempting actually - but it leads to Riley creek. Continue climbing to the west. There are actually two Windy passes, separated by a small mountain. One goes north around the mountain and one south. You can’t see the north pass until you are almost done climbing to the south pass. They both run westward into the upper Sanctuary valley, going around this small mountain and ending up at the same place. The south pass is the one that we took. There was a lot of snow in the pass and a bit of exposure. We descended through the snow fields a couple of miles to the Sanctuary River.
The Sanctuary River was floatable only a couple of miles from the pass (I’d never heard of anyone finding it floatable this far up valley before), but although it was very high, there were some tight snow bridges and some wood, so we ended up hiking a few more miles downriver and putting in about 1.5 miles above the “forks” of the Sanctuary. As big as the Sanctuary was, and although all the rapids were all bigger than the previous time I had floated it, nothing was bigger than class 2 plus. There was only one river wide sweeper below the forks. The whole float was 17-18 miles. The float took us about 5 hours. We finished in the late afternoon. The whole trip took us about 51 hours. We saw moose, caribou and brown bear on the trip.