The Denali Park Road: Riley Creek to Toklat River

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In a search of exceptional bike rides in this country, several results turn up.  The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is the longest dirt route anywhere; the GAP/C&O trail and the KATY trail are some of the longest rail-trails around and offer pure traffic-free riding.  The paved TransAmerica Trail (TransAm) is historic, winding along America’s backroads, while the Pacific Coast route is ever popular.  Every state has it’s hallmark routes, and the western states feature an incredible network of public roads on USFS and BLM lands.  Even, other National Park roads such as Shenandoah’s Skyline Drive and Glacier’s Going-to-the Sun Road are conversation pieces of places people like to ride.  However, nothing compares to the 92-mile Denali Park Road.

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Climbing from the Nenana River at the park entrance, the road travels westward along the northern side of the Alaska Range over a series of low passes, crossing several major rivers to achieve banner views of Denali and the range.  Riding high above the braided rivers– the Savage, Sanctuary, Teklanika, Toklat– several passes are carved from mountainsides to avoid the ever-changing floodplains below.  The effect is otherworldly; at least, roads like this are known only from snapshots of Himalayan and Andean roads.  In this part of Alaska spruce forests give way to sub-alpine shrubbery at about 2200 ft, and to a mossy alpine tundra further up.  The main section of the road from the Savage River entrance at mile 14 to Wonder Lake at mile 85, is mostly above treeline except when at river level.  Aside from the scenery and the wildlife, the lofty peaks and the wildflowers, it is the “atmos” of Denali that is the most engaging.

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Incoming air masses are regurgitated by the highest peaks.  The result is a witches brew of weather, with blue skies and thunderclouds competing for space.  The feeling is electric, and as Denali comes into view, shocking.  Clear blue skies are not unknown here, but are uncommon for any length of time and many visitors to the park never actually glimpse the Denali, “The Great One”.  The occasional views to the north or south of the range, toward Fairbanks and Anchorage, often show uniformly calm skies.  But these are big mountains rising from a broad flat landscape– they make their own weather.

Day 1: RIley Creek to Toklat River

I rode the full length of the road from the park entrance at Riley Creek to the gold-mining district of Kantishna at mile 92, and back.  Wishing to spend less time riding, many visitors combine a green shuttle bus with some riding and camping.  The green “camper buses” can drop off or pick up anywhere along the road, space permitting– simply wait for the next bus and flag it down.  A BRC (bear resistant container) is provided for storage of all food and scented items to hikers and cyclists.  I wasn’t sure how to pack it at first, but the Carradice Camper swallowed it up, thanks to the “longflap” feature.  I’ve been abusing this bag for almost two years, and it’s due to receive a little TLC.  Repairs are simple, and a durable needle and upholstery thread do more than solve the problem.  When I’m through, the bag will be better than new.  That’s the beauty of a durable canvas bag– it wears in.  An plastic Ortlieb-style dry bag wears out.

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Above, the Park Road is shown by the dashed yellow line as it passes the Muldrow Glacier near the Eielson Visitor’s Center at mile 66.  The Muldrow Glacier (the blue lights are at the foot) was the first route used by climbers to ascend Denali.  The impetus for Mt. McKinley National Park (renamed Denali NP in 1980) was not only to encase North America’s highest peak, but to preserve the Dall sheep and their habitat that were in danger of decimation by market hunters.  Charles Sheldon championed the Dall sheep as a unique species worth preserving, and assisted in the formation of a national park in 1917, several decades before statehood.  These days most visitors come to see the brutish bears, but it is the Dall sheep that are the most regal and unique.  From craggy perches they survey the land around them, enjoying the respite of the summer season.  Their snow white coats are camouflage in winter but make them highly visible this time of year; thankfully, few of their predators can approach their rocky dwelling.

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From atop Polychrome Pass, look a little closer:

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Descending down to the Toklat River, I made my camp on a gravel river bar.  A glacial bath washes away the dust and sweat; clean wool long underwear and a down jacket are a rare treat after a cold swim.  At 8 PM, it’s as bright as day.  Over twenty hours of sunlight right now, and we’re still gaining.  Looking south from my camp, the freestanding interior netting of the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 keeps mosquitos at bay, while letting in some midnight sun:

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Looking north, about 3:30 AM.

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