We perform inverse kinematic and forward dynamic models of the M 7.9 2002 Denali fault, Alaska, earthquake to shed light on the rupture process and dynamics of this event, which took place on a geometrically complex fault system in central Alaska. We use a combination of local seismic and Global Positioning System (gps) data for our kinematic inversion and find that the slip distribution of this event is characterized by three major asperities on the Denali fault. The rupture nucleated on the Susitna Glacier thrust fault, and after a pause, propagated onto the strike-slip Denali fault. Approximately 216 km to the east, the rupture abandoned the Denali fault in favor of the more southwesterly directed Totschunda fault. Three-dimensional dynamic models of this event indicate that the abandonment of the Denali fault for the Totschunda fault can be explained by the Totschunda fault’s more favorable orientation with respect to the local stress field. However, a uniform tectonic stress field cannot explain the complex slip pattern in this event. We also find that our dynamic models predict discontinuous rupture from the Denali to Totschunda fault segments. Such discontinuous rupture helps to qualitatively improve our kinematic inverse models. Two principal implications of our study are (1) a combination of inverse and forward modeling can bring insight into earthquake processes that are not possible with either technique alone, and (2) the stress field on geometrically complex fault systems is most likely not due to a uniform tectonic stress field that is resolved onto fault segments of different orientations; rather, other forms of stress heterogeneity must be invoked to explain the observed slip patterns.