As my brother and I pedaled over the first crest of the first hill we encountered along the Denali Highway, he stopped his bike at the top. We were just a few miles outside of Paxson and the sun had swept away the early-morning clouds.
I was confused. Tom was fit, an avid cyclist. Was he tired already? Had I overestimated his Virginia-grown skills and underestimated the difficulty of this trip?
I caught up to him, about to ask if he was OK, when he turned to me and said, “I’ve got to get a picture of this.” There was a big grin on his face, the vastness of the land around him overwhelming. To longtime Alaskans, it can be easy to forget how huge this state’s vistas can be. What we pass by each day are stop-in-your-tracks moments for people seeing the country with new eyes.
I knew right then I had hit the bulls-eye on this trip I’d planned for Tom’s visit.
The winding, rutted Denali Highway is 136 miles of mostly gravel road that connects the eastern part of the state with the Interior. A car passes every 30 minutes or so. Sometimes, it will be hours before the rumble of tires on gravel can be heard. Other days, not one car will go by at all.
Because it requires patience to traverse the Denali, not many visitors come here. The washboards are many and the potholes can be cavernous. And the services — a couple of lodges here and a campground or two there — are far and few between. But those who do venture onto this frontier highway are blessed with a rolling, self-guided tour of Alaska bisecting some of the state’s most spectacular mountain ranges.
We hit the Denali Highway at its eastern end, in Paxson, just off the Richardson Highway; one of us driving while the other two cycled. The support vehicle eased the difficulty of carrying all of our camping supplies, although a trip of this nature is completely doable with a BOB trailer or paniers. We packed our vehicle with tents, food, clothing, spare bike parts and sleeping bags, and planned to split the days into 25- to 30-mile segments, so we could ride slowly and enjoy the other benefits of the highway.
The pedaling is difficult as we immediately climb, but this section of the road is paved, so at least our tires aren’t spinning on gravel. We go slow, stop often, take in the views that open ever-wider. Plants are just budding green. Snow fields several feet deep cling in the shadows and lakes are still partially covered in a thin, dull layer of ice. Although it’s June, it feels as if we’ve just ridden into winter, Tom says.
Our support vehicle, driven by my husband, Andy, stops often and we take advantage of the well-stocked cooler like marathoners at an aid station. The clouds drift in, which immediately makes it cooler, and Tom adds another layer over his clothes. At mile 13, we have climbed nearly 2,000 feet and crest the highest hill, after which we’re rewarded by graceful descents that take us to Tangle Lakes campground.
The beauty of the Denali Highway is that it can be whatever you want it to be. No guides are necessary. No special skills, no thousand-dollar down payments for fancy tours. Hiking is accessible from just about anywhere along the road. Just pull over and start walking – and always carry a compass and map, or GPS. The area attracts thousands of birds, including the rare arctic warbler and Smith’s longspur.
Anglers are drawn to the noncrowded fishing, where grayling and trout are abundant at the height of summer. Mountain bikers love the congestion-free travel: Many a day, we steer down the center of the road just because we can. Camping is easy, too. Free, makeshift primitive campsites are scattered along the road’s length, and two Bureau of Land Management campgrounds are situated near either end of the road.
In fact, driving the Denali Highway offers almost equally magnificent mountain and wildlife views as Denali National Park to the northwest. Only the park, with its own long and graveled road, gets tens of thousands of visitors each summer, and tour buses snake along the road’s 92 miles from daylight until late in the evening. Not so, here, I remind Tom.
At the Tangle Lakes Campground, we settle into a hilltop site with a view of the outhouse. We amuse ourselves watching the antics of a protective arctic tern, whose nest is within a few feet of the facilities. As campers approach the outhouse, the tern dive bombs them with loud, angry clucks, flapping its wings frantically. Flustered campers flee, hands protecting their heads. We laugh at the scene until it is our turn to use the facilities. The arctic tern shows us no mercy.
The next day, our riding becomes more laborious, as the smooth pavement gives way to gravel washboard. Ask locals about the road conditions, and you get mixed sentiments. Some want it paved all the way through, while others are afraid that with pavement will come hordes of buses and visitors that will ruin the remote feel.
We stay out of the politics and manage as best as we can. My arms and wrists tingle, and I shake them from the elbows to wear off the road-jarring sensation. The teeth-rattling is not enough to sway my good mood, though, and at our campsite overlooking the Clearwater River that evening, I enjoy the view while Andy and Tom go off to try their luck grayling fishing.
For two more days, we pedal the Denali Highway slowly, stopping often to hike, take photos and just soak in the view. We could have easily done this trip in two or three days, but we stretch our time as far as we can, and the weather, while not perfect, cooperates.
Our last campsite is Brushkana Creek campground, on the west side of the highway. Overcast skies have blocked views of the Alaska Range, but the immediate scenery is astounding. Huge kettle lakes look like puddles in the distance. Caribou graze like cows in the flatlands. Less than a dozen vehicles pass us, leaving us feeling like the sole beneficiaries of the beauty.
At camp, we get a fire going and celebrate our last night with a bottle of champagne. A cow moose and calf wander ever closer to our campsite and we steer clear, relishing in the up-close view, but wary of spooking them. A brazen squirrel jumps right on our picnic table and makes off with a pistachio. A little later on, the campground attendant stops by to warn us of a mama bear who’s been frequenting the area.
What a send-off, we say. It’s a veritable zoo here.
In the morning, we prepare for our final day of riding to reach the Parks Highway to the west, this time with me as chauffeur and Andy and Tom on the bikes. Heavy clouds spit a slow drizzle that threatens to let loose. We are ending our trip at the perfect time – if the washboards were tough before, they’d be like small rivers after this downpour.
Still, I wouldn’t change a thing about this off-the-main-path trek. Progress may be inevitable, but on this cold, wet day, I’m glad for the crude road. My arms may throb and my hands may be numb, but the challenging conditions forced us to slow down, look around and truly see the beauty around us.
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