The (blue-collar) Denali Highway

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The Denali Highway is the workingman’s version of the Denali Park Road.  Constructed in 1957 as a public highway, it was a vital connection between civilization and Denali National Park before it’s utility was eclipsed by the paved George Parks Highway in the 1971, which promoted a shorter, easier drive from Anchorage.  Not to be confused: the Denali Highway is a public though-road that connects Cantwell to Paxson, and the George Parks Highway with the Richardson Highway.  The George Parks Highway is not the same as the Denali “Park” Road, but they do intersect at the entrance to Denali National Park.  The Denali Park Road is a 92 mile road to nowhere, excepting the small settlement of Kantisha.  The Denali Park Road is highly regulated; the Denali Highway is not.

Carving it’s way through the headwaters of three major river drainages– the Yukon, Susitna, and Copper– the Denali Highway is mostly situated on BLM lands with very few private land tracts.  As a result, camping opportunities abound in hundreds of roadside turnouts, or for the more adventurous down a muddy ATV track to a more remote setting.  With less pronounced climbs than the Denali Park Road, it’s still a moderately challenging ride with rolling topography and a few longer climbs including the ride up to Maclaren Pass.  At 4086 ft, Maclaren is the second highest motorable pass in the state.  The surface is generally quite good, but not quite as refined as the Park Road, which is maintained to serve tourists riding in school buses.  The 135 mile Denali Highwy is graded dirt, except for the paved end sections which remain open during the winter to accommodate local residents.  The area floods with RVs, ATVs and pick-ups during the summer.  Early June is still early in the season for this part of Alaska, and traffic is minimal.

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The weather continues to be unpredictable and I’m doing my best to dodge rainclouds.  Raindrops catch up with me while riding uphill, even with the wind at my back.  Then a downhill scorcher puts me a few hundred yards ahead.  Climbing, the raindrops return.  I did this for half the day as spoonfuls of peanut butter fueled me from breakfast until dinner.  The riding was swift and large volume tires were a treat for fast descents and washboard.  Mostly, I had nothing better to do than to dance with rainclouds.

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Further up the road, spring comes late.  Approaching 4000ft, small buds were adding to the tundra hues– deep reds and lichenous whites and yellows.  Low clouds settled like smoke from a wildfire.

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There are few services along the highway.  The Gracious House, located a short distance from the Susitna River bridge is said to have great pie, but was closed.  The Maclaren River Lodge (about 42 miles from Paxson) has nice sandwich plates, delicious Maclaren berry pie, and has offered a hot shower, wireless internet and a campsite for $5.  A hearty breakfast in the morning and a day off the bike should help me overcome a nagging cold.

I’m planning a full discussion of my curious touring bicycle soon.  Lots of changes were taking place right before I left, but the dust has settled.  For now, I’m happy to have fenders.  Lights are nice on dark, rainy days.  Big tires are always great.

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5 thoughts on “The (blue-collar) Denali Highway

  1. Thanks for all of this!

    I had a question about your trip. Did you encounter any close calls with wildlife, and would you say bear spray sufficed to do the whole Denali Highway trail on bike.

    • Alex,
      Bear spray will suffice. I have viewed all kinds of wildlife while cycling in Alaska, even at close range, and have never felt threatened. I do feel it is important to store your food properly at night to avoid being the focus of a curious bear, although a bear canister is not necessary. Most of the Denali Highway provides good sightlines so you will never feel like you will startle a bear when coming around a corner.

      Will you be cycling the Denali Park Road as well?

      nicholas

      • Thanks for this reply. My buddy and I are traveling on bike from Glennallen up to Paxson, then doing the Denali highway to Cantwell. From Cantwell we will then bike to the Welcome Depot in denali national park, and take the train back….so all in around 230 miles, I would say. Not rushing it, trying to enjoy the ride.

        Thanks for your insight, and your photos have got us quite excited.

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