Sanctuary River, Denali NP

The Sanctuary River in Denali National Park makes for a fantastic packraft trip, combining great hiking, amazing wildlife and fun floating. The trip involves hiking up Windy Creek from Cantwell on a variety of ATV and game trails, crossing Windy Pass and dropping into the Upper Sanctuary valley. Over Labor Day weekend we were able to boat almost immediately from the base of the pass, but the river was very shallow and rocky until the confluence with Refuge Valley. From that point to the park road is approximately 20 miles of Class II water. The trip can be done in one long day but the country is too spectacular to hurry. The only major downside to this trip is the horrendous racket of flightseeing planes and helicopters through the area.

Brad Meiklejohn
Sanctuary Packraft Web.jpg

This from Roman Dial:

Another alternative that avoids the excess carbon-emitting shuttle and perhaps less than aesthetic ATV trails is to park at Svage Creek where you can drive to then follow and old horse trail/now game trail up the Savage to its extreme headwaters and take the sweet pass over to the Sanctuary, floating back to the Park Road and (hopefully) catchig the shuttle back to Savage. It’s about half walking and half floating in distance, but of couse the boating goes by very much faster.

As a side note … instead of floating the Sanctuary, my wife and I
started in Cantwell and then continued over to the Teklinika (about
another 15 miles). The walk was awesome (through Refuge Valley) but
the boating was awful. The water was supposedily high (as reported
at the WAC) but we were constantly trashing our rear ends. We ended
up cutting the boating short and taking a side pass out to the road.
I recommend the trip as a hiking trip (Windy to Tek then over
Cathedral Pass to the road) but leave your boat in the car … your
fanny will thank you (as will your wife!).

Looking at doing this trip in May, hope all of my planning pays off. Was wondering about suggestions to any other rivers in Denali that I could do a 4-5 hike in and 2 day raft back to the main road. There was an article about packrafting Denali that I read in Backpacker magazine. the writer of the article is planning on writing a book, but it is not due out until next year. Not looking for greater than class III water. Suggestions are welcome and appreciated. Thanks, Jimbo.

My girlfriend and I just did the Sanctuary over June 14-15. Lots of snow and post- holed through Windy Pass- but manageable. Go right around mountain at the top of the pass because there is a lot of snow to the left. We decided to bush-whack to higher ground to the South at the beginning out of Cantwell instead of going directly to the river- nice hiking and views on the tundra once we finished the 2 hour bush whack. Sanctuary River was great, put-in a couple miles up from where Refuge enters the Sanctuary- not many strainers/sweepers and didn’t have to get out once! Great trip!

I did the Sanctuary River trip via Cantwell/Windy Pass and then again via Sable Pass/Teklanika River/Calico Cr. I found the Sable Pass route far superior to the Cantwell route because it did not require a car shuttle - and there was almost NO bushwhacking. We took the bus into the park, dropped camping gear off in the food locker at the Sanctuary campground, and then got off the bus at Sable Pass. We arrived back at the campground in the evening. The Cantwell route was quite brushy…or I just happened to find the thickest brush line up the drainage. The scenery is quite scenic on either route though. I blogged some pics here:

hope this info helps - Ed!

Another great route is to leave the Denali Park road on the west side of Cathedral Mtn and go to the headwaters of the Teklanika River rather than up Calico Creek. Ascend the pass near the eastern most Teklanika glacier following a tributary on the north side of Peak 6575 and drop down to Refuge Valley. Plan extra time to explore up in Refuge Valley; a beautiful place. Then float down the Sanctuary as soon as there is sufficient water.

Alan Peck

Do most of you do this as a day trip? If so, how long does it take? I’m going up to Denali next week, and I am intrigued about the Sanctuary as an intro to wilderness packrafting (I just got my boat two weeks ago). I also wanted to make it into a multi-day trip, although the mention of helicopters made me wonder.

I’m looking for partner(s) to do this trip with next weekend. (Sept. 12-14)
I believe the 14th is the last day the buses are running. Was thinking of heading to Cantwell Friday after work, camp and then do the hike/float as an overnighter. I’m open to other variations though.

happy paddlin’

I must say that I’m a little lost with this last post… Something’s missing.

Does this help!

The common word appears to be ‘Sanctuary’!

This last weekend my girlfriend and I did the “classic” Savage to Sanctuary route. It is a beautiful time to be in that country and we had a lot of fun. Neither of us had a lot of experience being off trail in the Interior before and so offer some advice to some other such newbies. Other folks need not read on.

We did the trip as an overnight. We started in the afternoon from the Savage River campgound and hiked six hours the first day into the upper Savage River valley and camped just before the various headwaters come together into one main river bar. We had started out of the campground hiking the river bar, but almost immediately climbed west out of the drainage as a sow with two cubs was blocking our path. We planned on angling west of the bar anyways, as there is an old horse/wagon trail on the west bank of the bar. We found it quickly. It’s a great trail and we followed it for maybe a couple of miles before it became a game trail and ran back down into the river bar. We lost a lot of time the first day because after that time we kept on leaving the river bar when it didn’t run as straight up the valley as we wanted and we tried to cut across the tundra/dwarf birch/willow country around it. This was definitely slower in the long run than just sticking with the easy gravel walking along the (albeit often circuitous) river bar.

We got up late the second day and followed the river bar again. Before the main bar forks you should try to remain on the bar on the west edge of the valley. This is the fork that continues north-south to a 4500 foot pass near the extreme southernly headwaters of the Savage river. This pass heads west to the Sanctuary valley. The other fork of the bar appears to be the main north-south bar, but ends up cutting east and away from the pass.

The obvious first low point in the mountains (what we thought was the pass) actually became a narrow ridge that ran perpendicular to the mountains and actually ran up a 5000 ft (or so) peak that we walked over. This peak was no lower than the surrounding mountains. This is obviously not a pass in any real sense and probably not the correct route. I think the actual 4500 foot pass was just off our left (south) of the ridge we climbed, between the ridge we were on and another mountain. (However, this could have been a more northerly 5000 ft “pass” shown on our map however and the 4500 ft pass have been even further south up the valley, but I don’t think so). The only problem with this pass is that it starts out as scree filled gully on the eastern side, but would probably be easier to go over than the mountain we climbed. We could have just climbed down to it, but by the time we figured out that it was the pass, it was just easier to walk over the top of the mountain.

From the top of the mountain (and probably the pass as well) you can see the Sanctuary river. It’s still a ways away at this point - across a high plateau and then down all the way across the Sanctuary valley. Don’t drop down into the drainages (south) leading to the Sanctuary thinking that the walking will be easier. It is far better just to stay high and rightish on the valley plateau lying north of the drainages. This plateau will eventually slope down and flatten out a mile or two from the river. From there it’s a straight shot over soft easy tundra with low shrubs to the river. This day was about six hours of walking. You could walk upstream to the dramatic looking Refuge valley from here if you had the time.

From there we had to haul butt on the river to catch the last bus at 10:20 p.m. and to beat the setting sun. (Alissa had to work the next day). The river was straightforward class 1 and 2. Some of the rapids were splashy and fun. There was only one sweeper that we had to get out for. The biggest problem was finding the deepest channel so as not to get stuck, which happened a bit. We got to the the campground at 9:30 with almost no light left. Not fun racing against the sun (and a little dangerous), but still better than not doing it at all (maybe). Alissa got really close to another grizzly on the river and floated over a dead moose calf.

All in all it was 12 hours of hiking with heavyish packs and 3 and half hours of floating. We probably could have shaved 2-3 hours off our hiking time by following all the advice above and obviously could have taken more time on the float as we were paddling pretty aggressively.


In August, my boss and I packrafted the Sanctuary River by hiking from Cantwell through Windy Pass. It was my first packrafting trip! Things went reasonably well, though the River’s water level was a bit too low for a perfect adventure. Still, I can’t wait to go again! Check out my entire trip report here:


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.