Biking to Denali: Trapper Creek and beyond

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Once, twice, or three times a year I get the itch to ride my bike a lot.  Awake in my tent down the Petersville Rd. at ten in the morning, I stretched like a well-rested lioness.  I didn’t have anywhere to be and I wasn’t racing to slip into wet shoes.  I mechanically packed my things and rode away, pushing through the first few snow patches and churning my tires through mud on the all-too new, experimental bike.  Soon, I was pedaling down dry dirt roads, and then pavement.  Faster and faster I rode until a brief coffee and internet stop at the crossroads in Trapper Creek enlivened me.  I almost stopped for the day, but a light tailwind encouraged me further.  The bike is heavy and the day was cloudy, but the wind was in my favor and I wouldn’t miss it.  I know how fortunate a tailwind is to a cyclist.  At first, twenty miles forward, then a break.  Then thirty.  Stop. Lube the chain, regain feeling in a cold, wet right foot.  An exact handful of raisins and six almonds.  Nice to have this new crank.  The broken creaking yellow Race Face crank was driving me crazy.  Then forty.  Then fifty miles without a rest.  And then, at half-past midnight, I had arrived at tomorrow’s destination.

As cold rain had began to fall in the early afternoon, I set into a comfortable gear and found a rhythm, hoping to reach Carlo Creek at mile 224 on the Parks Highway.  At that time, it was still over a hundred miles away.  It was here, at 224, that I had spent a summer in 2009 working as a baker in a cafe.  It is here, at the Panorama Pizza Pub that I could expect a lively scene and some fresh pizza along with some familiar faces past midnight.  Across the creek at McKinley Creekside Cafe I would awake to Raven’s Brew coffee and a traditional breakfast, finishing with a square of strawberry-rhubarb coffee cake.  The cake recipe is from Lael’s family, and it’s legendary along that stretch of highway.  Or I could stop and camp in the rain.  At the thought of the cake, I pedaled.

I pedaled twelve hours to get here, I told them, but nobody really cares.  They shouldn’t.  That’s not why you do these things.  I did recognize some faces at Panorama, and I quickly ordered up three slices and a pitcher.  I found a roof for the night, and wandered in for some coffee and eggs, over easy, at Creekside in the morning.  That’s why you do these things.

This is the greatest distance I have ridden on the Pugsley in a day, and nearly as much as I’d ridden in one day on any bike.  I like to reignite my legs several days into a tour.  It’s a way to remind myself that, “I can do it.  But I don’t have to.”  On this day, it wasn’t about me as much as the bike.  Two hundred and twenty clicks on a snow bike with fenders in the rain.  It’s sort-of a road bike I suppose.  The bike experiment is proving to be a success.

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On the same day, the Alaska Endurance Association and the Alaska Randonneurs held their Denali Highway 200/300K in an out and back format from the Brushkana Campground in three distances from 60K to 300K.  This is the longest gravel event in the state, and seems to be growing with popularity  Here’s a set on flickr: looks like a great time when the sun is shining.  I’m rarely willing to spend money to ride my bike, so I thought my ride was a fair consolation.  I’ll be riding out the Denali Highway soon.

Camping is possible all along the road, including several established campgrounds within Denali State Park.  After Trapper Creek, there aren’t many services until the entrance to the park.  Cantwell has one dusty gas station and Carlo Creek, fourteen miles further (MM 224), is where Panorama Pizza and the Creekside Cafe are found.

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.

Alaska bikes

Fatbikes are the S-10s, 350s and Rams of the bike world and it’s no wonder that Alaskans love them.  Ride them all winter on snowmachine trails, then float over gravel along the Susitna River and venture into the thick on unsigned, unmarked and unmapped ATV trails.  These are Alaska bikes.  Mine is an Alaskan road bike.

Jeremy’s Salsa Mukluk 3 receives it’s first mudbath while creek-crossing near the Susitna.  It endos and wheelies like a bike should, and passes the rigorous testing of an ex-BMX rider.  A Revelate framebag has permanently converted him from his usual habits of riding with a backpack.  A rack will serve as overflow capacity; never again a backpack.