Driving the Denali Highway
A 135-mile gravel road straight through the wild heart of Alaska holds many surprises. Together with my teenage cousins, I set off to discover them.
Denali Highway, Alaska--I must admit, the idea of driving along a potholed, gravel road for 135 miles did not entirely captivate me when my uncle first brought it up. Visions of flat tires and overheated radiators deflated any potential enthusiasm.
A few days later, though, as I stared at the snow-capped mountain range spreading itself out before me, fronted by spruce-covered hills and a swift-flowing, serpentine river, I decided that if a flat tire was the price of admission, a journey down the Denali Highway was worth every pump of the jack.
Its breathtaking vistas had a wild, untamed look, intensified by the raw fury of its rushing, glacier-fed rivers. Here, I realized, nature was in control. Mankind was but a footnote. Only the presence of the dusty, pebble-strewn highway stretching into the distance gave any hint that men had ever set foot on this remote landscape.
Completed in 1957 to provide motorists with access to Denali National Park, the Denali Highway found itself virtually abandoned in 1972 when the paved George Parks Highway opened, linking Anchorage and Fairbanks directly with the park. Since then the Denali Highway has served mainly as a passage into the back country for hunters and fishermen and as a byway for those seeking a peek at the way all of Alaska used to look, with wilderness in every direction.
And now that the once-rugged Alaska Highway, linking Alaska with the Lower 48, has been paved, the Denali Highway is one of the last accessible roads in Alaska that can provide that rustic, nostalgic glimpse.
I had come to the 49th state to visit family--but that was just an excuse. My real intent was to experience as much of the state's breathtaking beauty as my 10-day vacation would allow.
So when my uncle, Jim Calt, a long-time Anchorage resident, brought up the topic of the Denali Highway, I was...well, curious--if somewhat apprehensive.
"You can use my old van," he had enthused, pointing to a rusty, beat-up cargo van with two flat tires. But after watching him "fix" the flats by simply filling them with air, my apprehension turned to outright trepidation.
In the end, though, his evocative descriptions of this unspoiled wilderness road plunging into the heart of the "real" Alaska evoked the adventurous spirit within me. I decided to go for it.
So, with my two teenage cousins for company--and only one spare tire in tow--I set out north from Anchorage, off to find the "real" Alaska.
Our first glimpse of the Highway came in the remote town of Cantwell, the road's western terminus, about 210 miles north of Anchorage. After paying a visit to nearby Denali Park--where private vehicles are prohibited and all scenery must be viewed through the window of a tour bus--we were eager to be on our own. We filled the van with gas and turned east off the George Parks Highway, headed for the unknown.
I was instantly greeted by a cluster of potholes and slammed into them with such force that I thought I'd blown both front tires. I quickly learned to keep my speed under 30 m.p.h.
My next lesson came when a motor home rumbled past and engulfed us in a cloud of thick brown dust. I soon accepted the routine of cranking my window shut every time a vehicle approached.
The road took us upward along the side of a hill. Beside us the ground dropped off steeply from the road's edge, without a guardrail in sight to keep us from doing the same. Tall, thin spruces jutted up at odd angles from the surrounding scrub and high grass. Peering through the brush I caught glimpses of the Nenana River far below winding its way toward a rendezvous with the Yukon River.
Wild and pristine: The Nenana River threads its way through the rugged terrain.
This was how I had always pictured Alaska--wild and pristine. Untrammeled by man. Not a house, a telephone wire or a man-made fabrication of any type marred the landscape.
When the road dropped down to the level of the river, we decided to find a place to camp. I backed the van into a turnoff right on the river bank. We started a fire and cooked up stew and beans while looking out at the rushing water and the barren hills in the distance.
Shannon, myself and Shayne dining in the back of the van. We had to cover the windows while we slept because the sun was up at all hours.
Though it was 10:00 at night, the sun was still bright in the sky--it wouldn't set until nearly midnight. We tried our hands at fishing in the silty, glacier-fed river, but came up empty. By 11:00 we were ready to turn in.
The next day we rustled up breakfast under clear blue skies and, after a quick check of tire pressure, piled into the van once more. The road climbed quickly away from the river until we were looking down on it again from high above. Behind it stretched the majestic, snow-clad peaks of the Alaska Range, their valleys still packed with glaciers, reminding us that the whole area had once been similarly covered.
Glacial features abounded in the area. The dense, slow-moving ice had left numerous drift deposits--called moraines--and conical hills of gravel and sand--known as kames--in its wake. We drove on eskers, ridges of sand and silt once carried by streams that flowed deep inside glaciers; when the ice melted, the silt was deposited in the form of elongated mounds.
Continuing, we passed a collection of RVs at the 17-site Brushkana River Campground, which sat peacefully beside the narrow river's clear, rippling waters. Stunted trees and shrubs became commonplace, their growth checked by permafrost, high elevation and the area's frigid winters.
I stopped the van frequently to gaze across the flat open tundra, dotted with kettle lakes and ponds and speckled with purple and yellow wildflowers. With binoculars I scanned for grizzly bears and caribou but saw none. The air was so still and quiet that the loudest noise I could hear was the chirping of nearby birds.
The highway is, in fact, a bird watcher's paradise. Bald eagles, ptarmigan and about a hundred other species frequent the area.
About 51 miles in, we encountered a slight reminder of civilization in the form of a remote inn called the Gracious House. Inside, silent guests slurped soup around a counter. Rooms and even showers could be rented here to those unaccustomed to "roughing it." Nearby, a trailer called The Sluice Box served as a bar, the likely nighttime hangout for miners working the local Valdez Creek Mine.
Soon after this pit stop we crossed a wooden bridge over the Susitna River, which flowed south out of the Susitna Glacier. Here we pulled out fishing rods and made a few casts into the shallow water as we ate lunch. Had we arrived at the end of July, we could have supplemented our menu with the vast supply of wild berries that reportedly grow to monstrous proportions all along the highway.
The sky began to darken, so we tumbled into the van and took off just as it started to drizzle. As we topped a ridge, though, we saw an amazing sight. To our right, a solid curtain of rain dropped mercilessly onto the open, treeless tundra. But to our left, the sun shone brightly from a clear, blue sky and glistened off the dozen or more ponds and lakes dotting the flat, open plain. We were caught in the middle of meteorological extremes.
At mile 91 we stopped to check out the Maclaren River Lodge, a guest house and restaurant situated on the shore of its namesake river. The proprietors showed off their Alaskan hospitality by offering us free soft drinks and chatting with us about life in this remote part of the world.
They had worked as realtors in Fairbanks, until they "got sick of the rat race." Here, their only worries were stoking the fireplace, preparing steak and halibut for hungry guests and leading boat trips to nearby Maclaren Glacier, where the grayling fishing was reportedly "excellent." In the winter, when the highway is closed by deep snow, visitors come to the lodge on a large snow-track vehicle to marvel at the vibrant Northern Lights as they swirl across the nearly continuous night sky.
Leaving there we entered the heart of the Tangle Lakes Archaeological District, where more than 400 archeological sites testify to the presence of ancient people in the area for at least 10,000 years. A number of hiking and mountain biking trails, some more than 10 miles long, veer off the highway and stretch across the tundra, threading through the wildflowers and alpine vegetation to the area's various lakes, where grayling and lake trout reportedly abound.
Intermittent rain thwarted our hiking aspirations, but later, when the skies cleared, we decided to drag our bicycles out of the van and try them out on the highway, which had smoothed out considerably. While Shannon took control of the van, his brother Shayne and I plummeted down the mountainside on our bikes, descending though the crisp mountain air into a breathtaking valley surrounded by jagged, snow-covered mountains.
We reboarded the van after a few miles and continued driving, stopping for a brief look at the rustic Tangle River Inn, with its lakeside cabins and restaurant.
We were now just 20 miles from the end of the highway. The van's tires had thankfully held out, and any remaining breakdown fears began to dissipate. In fact, from this point on, the road had been paved to allow the public quick, painless access to the area's recreational opportunities. Though this toned down some of the feeling of remoteness, the landscape's striking beauty had not diminished a bit.
As we rounded one bend, high atop a hill, the glacier-laden peaks of the Alaska Range unfolded before us one last time. We stopped for dinner near the spot, prolonging our enjoyment of the panoramic display.
As I drove the remaining distance to the town of Paxson--the end of the Denali Highway--that was the scene that stuck most vividly in my mind. It represented Alaska at its finest: fresh air, blue skies, mountains in every direction and not a soul around for miles.
On the Denali Highway I had found the "real" Alaska.
Land of the Midnight Sun