The Denali Park Road: Toklat to Kantishna and back

Day 2: Toklat to Kantishna and back to Highway Pass

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Clear skies and views of Denali define the morning, while scattered showers and mosquitos send me looking for a dry place to rest in Kantishna, at the end of the road.  The Kantishna Roadhouse has the best saloon for ninety miles; John the wisened bartender has been around the world a dozen times, and knew a little bit about everything.  As the rain let up I climbed out of Kantishna, retracing my route back towards the park entrance.  A tempest sent me surging uphill to the Eielson Visitor’s Center to seek cover and a warm pot of food.

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Tighten those bolts!  I encountered this cyclist whose shoe was fixed to her pedal, as she sat on the ground enjoying a snack with only one shoe.  A missing bolt in her SPD cleat was the problem.  Also, the rack had been mended with a dozen zip-ties and upon closer inspection, all but one of the rack mounting bolts was loose.  I tightened things up, and supplied a bolt for the SPD cleat and the rack.  Finally, I straightened her seat, which was curiously off-center by about 15 degrees.  This detail, in addition to the loose bolts, had us all laughing.

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Wonder Lake:

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Kantishna:

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Headed back, dodging rainstorms.  With such broad views, it’s possible to plan your resting and your riding around the rainclouds.  It wasn’t foolproof, as I still got a wet a few times.

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Bears:

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Day 3: Highway Pass to Riley Creek

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Climbing and descending, sun and rain; it was a great day to practice layering and moisture management on the bike.  In total, I met six cyclists riding the road: two Germans, two young girls from Girdwood, AK, and two guys from New Orleans.  At the Toklat Visitor’s Center I spotted a 1987 Schwinn High Sierra.  I know this bike well as I converted one for touring purposes with Schwalbe Marathon tires and a Nitto Moustache handlebar several summers ago.  The owner of the bike, Charlotte, was flattered that I liked her bike so much, although she seemed a bit astonished.  Connecting the dots, it came to light that she had been involved with the nascent Bikecentennial organization beginning in 1975 when she moved out to Missoula with only a small backpack.  Bikecentennial was to eventually become the mammoth Adventure Cycling Association.  She participated in one of the first TSORV rides in Ohio in 1968, and had ridden through several South American countries with Greg and June Siple’s famed Hemistour ride from Alaska to Argentina in the early 70’s.  She was impressed that I knew about all that old stuff.  I was impressed at all that she had done.  As I described my curious touring bicycle and my lifestyle, she smiled, and pegged me as a “bike idealist”.  She’s right and that’s the best compliment anyone could give.

I found an interesting article about the development and execution of the Bikecentennial event on the ACA website.  Charlotte is quoted in the article, referring to her position with the young organization, “Bicycling to me somehow symbolized clean, moral living. I was really caught up in the whole thing. I was never going to own a car.”  Charlotte is one hell of a gal.

Charlotte’s 1987 Schwinn High Sierra: Check out the lugged Unicrown fork, smooth brazed head tube junctions, and Suntour Roller-Cam brakes.  The bike is mostly original (the copper-colored anodized stem has been replaced) and is ridden up Highway Pass from the Toklat River every day during the summer, as much as a thousand feet in elevation.

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Up and over a few familiar passes, I am once again on pavement and losing elevation.  Descending out of the park is thrilling.  While a free shuttle will take you from the Savage River gate at mile 14 to the entrance, a several thousand foot descent is a nice way to finish the ride.  In the canyon outside the park, called “Glitter Gulch”, all kinds of hot foods and cold beverages can be found.  A well-stocked outdoor store can supply any necessary gear for the road ahead.

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Spring comes late: Riding Petersville Rd.

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The Petersville Road accesses the southern foothills of the Alaska Range, to the west of Talkeetna and Trapper Creek.  Once a wagon road for miners from the Talkeetna area to reach gold claims, including the Cache Creek Gold Mine, the road is now passable up to twenty miles by standard motor vehicle in season.  In winter, the area is criss-crossed with snow machine routes.  In spring, which comes late, it’s a bit messy.

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At the intersection with the Parks Highway at the Trapper Creek Inn and and gas station at milepost 115, ten miles of pavement are found toward the west with minimal elevation gain– simply follow the sign towards Moose Creek and Peter’s Creek.  Thereafter the road turns to dirt and the scenery flourishes.  On a clear day, the views of Denali tempt further travel as it peers higher and higher above spruce at each successive body of water.  Crossing Kroto Creek and several other drainages presents a few short, challenging climbs, and a mild net elevation gain.  An upward turn in the road and several structures mark the settlement of Peter’s Creek at mile 19, and the road becomes less suitable for standard automobile traffic, although it is easily passable on a hybrid or mountain bike.  In the spring, or after recent rain events, the road may be muddy and rutted.  What I found in late May, after a record setting snowfall, were melting snowdrifts and mud.  And, lots of locals enjoying the holiday weekend on roaring ATVs.  A nice weekend with the family includes driving a truck until it can pass no further, then the ATV until blockaded by snow and mud.  Crack a beer, shoot a gun, then come roaring back for dinner.  Welcome to Alaska.

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Despite the busy holiday weekend, it’s still wild out there and the road continues at least 12 miles beyond the melting snow piles that stopped me.  It passes through the Peter’s Hills, and provides access to several gold mines, and it is said that some routes eventually end at the National Park boundary.  There is also rumored to be a scenic canyon as you pass through the Peter’s Hills, about thirty miles in.  I made it about 27 miles until I was pushing through snow more than riding.  I retreated a few miles for the night and made camp high above Kroto Creek, which was flush with spring melt.

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The last set of ATV tracks.  I later learned that they had traveled only a few hundred feet further before encountering an impassable snowfield.  Aside from wet feet and a heavy bike, passage by foot was tolerable.

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This was the end of the road for me, about two miles short of the abandoned settlement at Petersville, and only a few miles further into the Peter’s HIlls, pictured in the distance.  It would have been a convenient time for fat tires on the Pugsley.

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Camping:  Private lands surround the paved road until mile 10, at which point the dirt road is dotted with turnouts suitable for camping.  Some private lands are signed along the roadside, although they become less numerous as you go.  There are public restrooms at Kroto Creek and a large parking area, full of RV’s on holiday.  A map will not be necessary if you stick to the main road, although there are some interesting side trails which were flooded with mud this time of year.  There were very few junctions, although the road may become less defined as it diverges toward gold mines and hunting camps further in.   I wasn’t even a bit concerned about how to find my way back in the first 27 miles.  There is plenty of surface water along the route.  Certainly, bear deterrent and proper food storage are advisable.

Retreating the next day, I found sunny skies and quick passage as I lost elevation back toward the Parks Highway.  I became successively happier when I returned to dry dirt road, then graded roads, then finally pavement and 20 mph riding back to Trapper Creek for a coffee and a mid-afternoon breakfast sandwich.  The Trapper Creek Inn has free wifi and great sandwiches.

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Schwalbe Big Apple 26 x 2.35 tires on Surly Marge Lite 65mm wide rims.  The low-profile tread rolls well on pavement, and the tire volume and wide footprint do well to smooth bumpy dirt roads and float over mud and loose sediment.  I was especially impressed at how I was able to float over wet spongy sections of unconsolidated glacial till– silty, sandy, gravelly stuff with a mix of clay that swells with water.  Traction on heavy, melting snow was terrible, but that didn’t stop me from trying to ride through every section of snow in my path.  I did little to adjust my tire pressure, which may have helped, as traction and ride quality were generally quite good.

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Plenty of existing campsites along the road.

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And views of Denali, especially between Trapper Creek and Peter’s Creek in the first 20 miles.  The views would have been incredible from atop the Peter’s Hills, beyond mile 30.

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Detail of the area, posted inside the Trapper Creek Inn.  It’s a good reference to look at before you go.  They also sell maps of local snow machine routes, and the DeLorme Alaska State Gazetteer.  I was about two miles short of the Petersville, indicated by the number 9 on the top left of the map.  In dry summer conditions, medium volume tires would be adequate for most of the Petersville Rd.

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An idyllic homestead only a few miles from Trapper Creek.  Views of Denali, The Great One, are inspiring and precious.  Many park visitors never see the peak due to the unique weather patterns in the Alaska Range.  This home has no shortage of amazing scenery.  A sign indicated it was for sale, if you’re interested.

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Biking to Denali: Anchorage to Trapper Creek

Sunset over Susitna, from the cycle path in Chugiak:

By coincidence of low traffic volumes and ample shoulders for snow removal, most Alaskan roads are quite agreeable to cycling.  The road to Denali in particular, along the Parks Highway, is a safe and enjoyable ride even for the first-time cycletourist.  In town, naysayers will warn of grizzlies and long stretches without supplies.  The reality is a pleasant 3-6 day pedal with enough services and scenery to make a perfect getaway from town.  At the park entrance, you can visit the park interior in several ways: on foot, by bike, or by bus.  The best approach may be to combine a bus ride with a hike into the backcountry, or a bike ride with some day-hikes.  Biking the Denali Park Road is highly recommended, and the camper buses can transport several bikes so that you only have to ride one direction or part of the distance

Leaving Anchorage, cycle paths shuttle you out of town alongside the Glenn Highway to Eagle River, and along the Old Glenn Highway to the town to Chugiak, about 25 miles out.  Here, you ride the broad shoulder of the Glenn Hwy for about 20 miles, crossing the Knik River plain until the path resumes in Wasilla alongside the Parks Highway.  This is a good place to pick up any forgotten supplies, but it is not the last place to buy food, so there’s no need to overpack (the grocery at the Talkeetna turnoff is well stocked).  The path continues through town, and passes within several blocks of the Alaska Bicycle Center if any repairs or parts are needed, which is located near the skate/bike park off Lucille St. (on W. Nelson Ave.)  Follow the path on either side of the Parks Highway through Houston and on to Willow, at mile 68.  The path ends, and from here to Denali the road has a broad shoulder and a rumblestrip, which acts as a buffer to traffic.  Only a short section south of the Talkeetna turnoff has a narrower shoulder, although is it safe, even with higher traffic volumes found during summer months.  Overall, a pleasant escape from town, even if the full trip to Denali doesn’t suit your schedule.

Lael joined me on the ride out to the cabin in Willow, as far as the bike path goes.  I’ll be riding solo for a while, as she is off to Europe.  She packed all her gear for the two night trip into a Carradice Lowsaddle Longflap, a Revelate Gas Tank top-tube bag, and an Inertia Designs frame pack.

Coastal Trail to Kincaid; mountains on all sides

20120109-220014.jpg More moose than people out on a beautiful Monday. Following significant snowfall over the last few days, skies cleared and temperatures dropped, exposing a glistening wonderland and snowy peaks, both near and far. The Knik Arm of Cook Inlet and the Chugach Range frame the city. Mt. Susitna– The Sleeping Lady– figures prominently on the horizon, as does the Tordrillo Range to the southwest and the Talkeetna Range to the northeast. The Alaska Range, including the disproportionately represented Mt. Foraker (17,400 ft) and Denali (20,327 ft) are visible one hundred miles to the north. The Coastal Trail is a nine mile section of trail connecting downtown Anchorage and Westchester Lagoon with Kincaid Park, a woodland park with an exceptional network of cross-country ski trails situated on the westernmost point of the Anchorage peninsula– Point Campbell. The Coastal Trail had been groomed since the snowfall, but was still soft and slow with no signs of snow bikes on the ride out to Kincaid. 20120109-203414.jpg20120109-203454.jpg20120109-203516.jpg20120109-203537.jpg20120109-214726.jpg20120109-214741.jpg20120109-215004.jpg