Retro Post: The Denali Highway, AK

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The Denali Highway. If you're lucky enough to have clear skies, expect big views of Mt McKinley, the highest peak in North America.

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This was the Alaska I'd come for. Wilderness, emptiness...

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...and long summer days with barely a few hours of nightfall.

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And with only a handful of vehicles each day, it felt good to have it to ourselves.

While I rest up my hand (which I fractured back in Montana), I’ve had a dig through some posts I never got round to finishing, including this one, from the Denali Highway in Alaska – way back in July.

So here it is.

Most folks ride their bikes from Fairbanks to Tok following the ALCAN – the Alaska Canada Highway. We diverted south to pick up the Denali Highway, which, until the paved Parks Highway was opened, was the only way to reach the Denali National Park. With a tarmac alternative to shuttle up the tour group crowds from Anchorage, nowadays it’s often overlooked. In fact, the word highway is something of a misnomer; it’s little more than a remote gravel road cutting through the mountains.

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To get to there, we followed the Parks Highway south from Fairbanks. The forest fires raging around the state cast an unearthly morning light and threw the mountains into haze.

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One the one hand, Alaska teems with all but untouched, natural beauty. On the other, it's an overgrown, junk wasteland...

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...where strange Frankenstein machinery lie dormant in the summer months, waiting to be kicked back into life come the depths of winter.

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Many move to the state for its non-intervenionist government; they prefer to be left to their own devices, as seen by the proliferation of Keep Out/Private signs in the unlikeliest of places.

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This seemed to be a popular junction with boy racers, though the freshly cut flowers by the signpost lent a more sombre feel to the scene.

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I love the spontaneity of travel. As chance would have it, our ride coincided with the Anderson Bluegrass Festival, where we camped for the night. Despite Alaska's vast size, its communities are close knit, and we bumped into many of the people we'd met on our travels, hundreds of miles away. Like the 'Man with the Handlebar Moustache and Short Shorts', from Deadhorse. And Dinky Dave, who's driving round the world in his Mini.

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Alaska's bible belt.

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As time was short, we didn't head into Denali National Park itself, though even the scenery from the main road was magnificent.

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There's a real backwater feel to much of Alaska; little gems like this timewarped grocery store are waiting to be unearthed.

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Riding at the tail end of the season meant the roads were quieter, now that the RV brigade had migrated south.

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Camping opportunities were good. This spot was recommended to us by fellow tourers Nick and Leil, who had paused in their bicycle travels to work in a roadside restaurant, trading their tent for a makeshift trailer with spectacular views.

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At Cantwell, we turned off the Parks Highway, and were greeted by a clear band of snowy white peaks - the McKinley Range. Numbers-wise, 6194m Mount McKinley, or Denali as it's known to native Alaskans, may be small fry compared to the high peaks of the Himalayas. But the fact that the surrounding land lies at just 600m means its actual rise is considerably higher than Everest

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After a few hundred kilometres of tarmac slogging, it was good to be back on gravel again.

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The road is 135 miles long, and takes 2-3 day to ride, so we loaded up on supplies at a motley gas station. There, an old timer had surveyed our bikes and was clearly underwhelmed. 'When I was eight, we'd ride 50 or 60 miles and camp. We didn't have none of them fancy machines, just a Schwinn with a basket. That was seventy years ago!' He glowered at us, then smiled, and tore off on his quad.

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Lunchtime. Life is good...

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Another day, another bullet riddled signpost.

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Pitching the Megamid in the woods.

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Crossing the Susitna River. Parked up on its banks, we met a French family in a Land Rover who were travelling round the world. They invited us to coffee and biscuits and their son, who was training to be a circus juggler, gave us an impromptu show.

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There are no grocery stores along the Denali Highway, but there's a gas station and the characterful Sluice Bar. Wallpapered with dollar notes, each bill is marked with the contributor's journey details. If you're visiting, mine is on the right hand wall near the top...

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With fires raging all over Alaska, views were a little hazy at times.

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A porcupine! Perhaps the sweetest, yet ugliest creature I have set my eyes on.

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Corrugation, animal tracks and quad tracks...

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By the time we made it to the Tangle Lakes near Paxton, our smoky skies had given way to stormy clouds, bringing with them a deluge of rain that seemed to tail us for the next week.

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That day, we made it, cold and drenched, to Meir's Lake. There wasn't much more than a few husks of rusting cars, and an old fashioned diner and a dilapidated campsite that had just been bought by a German lady. She served us up a nice, cheap bowl of Chili con Carne, and warmth coursed once more through our veins.

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By now, we were close to Canada. From Gakona Junction, there was just a couple of hundred more miles to go...

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We didn't stay here. But (no offence to Dan) it would have been a wonderful place if I'd been in romantic company. It's a beautifully converted Russian log cabin from the early 1900s, at Read Eagle Lodge in Chistochina. We camped there, availing ourselves of the immaculate, piping hot shower block, and were treated to marshmellows on the fire that night. In the morning, we tucked into an all-you-can-eat $5 breakfast - freshly made muffins, delicious hash browns, fruit, yoghurt, toast, cereal. We ate and ate and ate. I'm not sure if cyclists are good business...

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A moose! What a bizarre looking creature it was too. Along this stretch of road we also saw a beaver building its dam.

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A couple of days later, we emerged at Tok, back on the Alaska Canada Highway... Following the road less travelled had proved to be excellent advice.

14 thoughts on “Retro Post: The Denali Highway, AK

  1. sage

    Love those brown arms and white hands…
    More importantly- I’ve ridden that road 3 times and never saw the beauty of it. I always thought of it as dusty, bumpy and not particularly scenic. You captured something in your lens that makes me think it might be worth another try.
    Are you back in the UK?

    Reply
    1. otbiking Post author

      They’ve been working on it – didn’t feel too bumpy, just corrugated over a few stretches. The traffic was light so we didn’t get much dust, though it was a bit hazy unfortunately. The last day we got rain on, on a stretch that’s meant to be a highlight. Still, I loved it. Very peaceful, and lots of great camping and side trips. For me, the stretch on the Parks Highway was the dull bit, until Denali at least.

      Back in Fruita, getting some rides in, before heading off to Moab…

      Reply
  2. Mark

    Great photography. Loving that you’re telling the story. It’s what I always strive to do, though usually I do it in a few too many frames. And it’s a lot easier to tell stories in terms of landscapes I think. I guess I’ll have to go on a road trip and try my hand at it.

    Keep up the great work. I’ll be dropping by.

    Reply
  3. Anna

    Nice to have a review of all that! My journey in Alaska seems so very distant now.

    Your photos are great!

    How close to Mexico are you?

    Anna

    Reply
  4. Pingback: The trailer | gypsy by trade

  5. nicholasgault

    Hi Cass, did you make it up the Denali park road? I.e. detour west? From the George Parkes highway? Considering my route to Tok.
    Just finished the haul road. Had a bear completely maul my tent whilst I watched from 20 metres away. Very sketchy moment! Nick

    Reply
  6. Walter

    Great post. Been wanting to explore Alaska for years now. Your words are so much extra strenght to your photos. Keep up the good work. One of these days when up in the beautiful country I’ll remember the local from your posts.
    Thanks again,
    Walter
    Hip.old.man@aol.com

    Reply
  7. Mike

    Hi love your website so much good information and interesting reading. I now there hasn’t been a comment here for a while but really want to ask someone that has done it and you have, my question is that me and my girlfriend are going to cycle tour through alaska canada and america and mexico next year 2017 and my girlfriend has a real consern about bears and wolfs. Are there many? if any? and did you experience or now of anyone that had any issues while camping and riding?. Just need to have some re-assurance for her and who better to ask!.

    Great work and keep it up i love all your posts and gear reviews and tips.

    Cheers Mike and Harriet

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Hi Mike,

      I’ve no experience of wolves, but I saw several bears – including grizzlies – along the way. Especially in Alaska and Canada. I followed protocol (make yourself, big, flap arms, shout) and all was well. Other than that, it’s a case of hanging food away from camp, eating away from your tent etc… Bears are always a concern (especially for us Brits – we don’t have anything like that!) but I think the chances of an issues is extremely low. And – it’s a pretty incredible sight to seem them in the wild!

      Have a great trip!

      Reply

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