McKinley Station

A historic black and white photo of a train arriving at McKinley Station

Photo Courtesy of P44-05-074 Alaska State Library, Skinner Foundation Photograph Collection

The McKinley Station Trail is a moderate walk of 1.6 miles (2.6 km), one hour one-way, from the Denali Visitor Center to the Riley Creek Campground or Riley Creek Mercantile, with 100 feet of elevation change, up to 8.5 percent grade, on a 48-inch compacted gravel surface. It forms a 3.0-mile (4.8 km) loop with the Bike Path. Highlights include historic building remains, geologic features, the railroad trestle, and Riley Creek.

Graphic of a book

Much of the material presented here first is found in, or adapted from, the book, McKinley Station: People of the Pioneer Park, by Tom Walker, Pictorial Histories Publishing, Missoula, Montana, 2009

A map of the McKinley Station Trail
Trail Stop 2

Park Road and Early Entrance: Until 1932, the boundary of Mount McKinley National Park lay a few miles to the west of here. Upon its completion in 1938, the Park Road led 92 miles from the railroad depot to the Kantishna Mining District, just outside the park boundary at that time. Much of the road was cut by hand by teams of laborers, at a finished cost of around $1.3 million. In the days before lightweight chainsaws and powerful earthmovers, the road project rang with the sound of axes and handsaws, the clang of shovel and pick, the clop of horses, and the sputtering of under-powered machinery.

Trail Stop 3

Mount McKinley Park Hotel: Maurice Morino's hotel opened for business on Thanksgiving Day 1921. For almost two decades, people from far and wide gathered at this rustic hotel to celebrate holidays, hold dances and socials, and to enliven the long winter nights. Here, dog mushers and trappers mingled with miners and rangers, schoolteachers and itinerants, and once, a U.S. president.

Trail Stop 4

Residents of the Station: The trail here follows one of the original railroad construction access roads that led up out of Riley Creek to the bluff above. The route winds steadily downhill but briefly flattens out on a few small plateaus. In separate arrangements with Maurice Morino, whose land the trail traversed, people built cabins on these plateaus, trading labor for free rent. Residents at the time included Woodbury Abbey who came to conduct the park's first boundary survey; schoolteacher Mrs. Louise Ann Fairburn; miner Elmer Hosler and his wife, Maud, the postmaster.

Trail Stop 5

Who Were Riley and Hines? You are now standing on the south bank of Hines Creek. In the 1920s, your view would have been of a wide, treeless and rocky flat, with two streams-Hines and Riley-converging nearby. Both streams were important to pioneer residents. Riley Creek provided access to the mountains for hunters and wood gatherers; a trail on Hines Creek led west toward the park. One enduring mystery is the identity of the people for whom these creeks were named.

Trail Stop 6

Original Park Headquarters: The park's first ranger, Harry Karstens, arrived in early summer 1921, and began the pioneering work of establishing the rule of law in the new park. After a summer of meeting people and a long patrol through the park, Karstens began clearing land for his headquarters on the northwest bank of Riley Creek, upstream from the bridge. It offered an ideal place to monitor people using the trail leading to the park.

Trail Stop 7

Alaska Railroad Trestle: The steel bridge looming high above looks much the same as it did upon its completion in early 1922, with one exception. Gone is the football-field-length wooden trestle that originally connected the steel structure to the north bluff. In the 1950s, the railroad hauled hundreds of tons of rock and earth to extend the bluff to the edge of the first concrete and steel support. Except for a change of the vegetation, the view of the bridge to the south is unchanged.

Trail Stop 8

The Hole: You are now standing at the northwest corner of Maurice Morino's original roadhouse, built in a wide clearing overlooking the creek. Imagine the isolation here when Morino built his cabin in 1914: No road, no railroad, no easy overland trail, and the Nenana River unfit for navigation due to its thunderous rapids and steep-walled gorge. This area, below the bridge and at the junction of two trails, eventually became known as "the hole," an area off limits to the station's children. The illicit traits of the "Roaring 20s"-bootlegging, alcohol manufacturing, gambling, violence, and prostitution - were centered here.

Trail Stop 9

Mount McKinley Silver Fox Ranch: Until the late 1920s, raising captive foxes for their fur, called "fox farming," was a burgeoning industry. The cold, long winters that characterized the Riley Creek bottomland offered near ideal conditions for breeding foxes with luxurious fur. Silver foxes, an almost black color phase of red fox, were especially valuable and in high demand both in the U.S. and abroad. The spot where you stand now is the former site of Duke and Elizabeth Stubbs' Mount McKinley Silver Fox Ranch, a business that sold furs both to tourists and fur buyers, and supplied breeding pairs of foxes to fur farms across Alaska.


Welcome to the McKinley Station Trail!

Use the stops on this self-guided walking tour to journey back nearly a century, to a time when a raucous and vibrant community existed in Denali—an era of gold prospectors, trappers, hunters, and pioneer rangers.

  • Where to start: The stops on this self-guided tour are ordered from the Denali Visitor Center to Riley Creek.
  • Duration: The trail is about 1.6 miles, so it will take most visitors about an hour to walk from the visitor center to Riley Creek—although you can certainly take your time and enjoy a more leisurely pace.
  • Directions: Generally, you'll follow trail signs for McKinley Station. There is a short side-trip down part of the Triple Lakes Trail near the half-way point.

The surrounding land looked very different than it does now. Rather than thick forest, you would have been standing in open country covered with low ground cover.

McKinley Station was typical of Alaska towns of that era, booming overnight then fading into obscurity. Construction of the Alaska Railroad provided the original stimulus for the community and the development of the new park kept it going.

Expediency, not stewardship, was the frontier byword. Throughout the 1920s, about 60 people over-wintered here, with dozens more in summer residence. Year-round employment was scarce, seasonal construction and tourism jobs the source of much needed cash. Despite the sometimes boisterous and rollicking nature of the village, a one-room schoolhouse sat not too far from here and a hotel hosted a variety of relatively genteel social gatherings. Nearby, a trading post, a fox-farming enterprise, and the railroad depot offered occasional work.

When Congress founded Mount McKinley National Park in 1917, most locals considered it a passing fancy. Alaskans of that era viewed conservation as an impediment to the exploitation of the territory’s natural resources. They viewed national parks as playgrounds for over-privileged easterners, and resented new restraints. For four long years, the park existed in name only, without protection of any kind. In 1921, Congress finally appropriated funds to hire rangers to enforce park boundaries and poaching regulations. When the park’s first superintendent began building headquarters on the banks of Riley Creek, he was met with open hostility, and disdain.

In 1932, less than 20 years after it emerged, McKinley Station effectively ceased to exist when park boundaries expanded east to the Nenana River, enveloping the community. Harsh winters and seasonal changes have all but erased McKinley Station. Except for cabin berms, trash dumps, and varied debris, little is left today.

Note to hikers: Federal law forbids the removal, disturbance, or destruction of historic artifacts of any kind. Any disturbance, no matter how slight, might affect future research and understanding. Enjoy your exploration of this pioneer community but please take only pictures and leave only footprints.

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    End of an Era ...

    ... and the walking tour.

    On March 19, 1932, President Herbert Hoover signed an act expanding the park, moving the eastern boundary to the "natural boundary" of the Nenana River. The move placed the entire community within park boundaries. Many cabins were without title and some claimed land was immediately in dispute.

    Conservationists hailed the extension as a long overdue move to protect the eastern boundary of the park. Park regulations held sway over the surrounding land. Sheep and caribou herds that lived on the hills overlooking the river would now be protected.

    Local residents viewed the changes with dismay. With the expansion, McKinley Station as a viable community came to an end and its citizens scattered, some moved north to Healy, others south to Cantwell.

    In the wake of its passing, left behind today in cabin berms and debris piles, are remnants of the hopes, dreams, and lives of the people who once called McKinley Station home.

    Last updated: July 29, 2021

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