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Driving the Denali Highway, Alaska Route 8

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Can you handle a drive that takes you more than a hundred miles on a dirt road, into the wild center of Alaska?  If you want to see one of Alaska’s prettiest roads, some of its most amazing mountains, and cross over the second-highest highway pass in the state, you’ll need to brace yourself for the Denali Highway.

Location

The Denali Highway (Alaska Route 8) stretches between Paxson and Cantwell, Alaska.  The road is 135 miles long, and mostly unpaved — only the first 21 miles out of Paxson, and 3 miles out of Cantwell are paved.  The road is closed during the winter months — most years through mid-May.

My Visit

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Here I was.  At a crossroads.  A familiar spot.  A place I had been before.  A place of anticipation.  A place where an amazing journey can begin.  But, it’s a journey that might not be a good idea.  It’s a journey away from asphalt.  A journey away from cell phone coverage.  A journey that requires some level of recklessness.  It’s not smart, after all, to drive so far away from the things which keep you safe, and sustain your life.

I was at the intersection of Alaska 4 and Alaska 8 — two numbers that don’t really mean anything to Alaskans.  They prefer names over numbers on their roads.  In this case, the names of Richardson and Denali.  This is Paxson.

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And this is pretty much all of Paxson.  This is where the journey on the Denali Highway begins, for anyone headed westbound.  There’s a big building here, that used to serve as a roadhouse, restaurant, motel…

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… and gas station.  Fairbanks’ News-Miner paper reports that the Paxson Lodge shut down abruptly, just before Christmas, 2013.  And when you shut down a business that’s 30 miles from the nearest power lines, you just turn off the lights and leave.

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Looking through the front windows, I could see salt and sugar, still sitting on the counter, ready for customers.  Time was frozen inside.  Nothing had moved, I suppose, for two and a half years.  Nothing may move for two or three decades.  Who knows.

The important thing to remember is this: you can’t fill up here.  Not your gas tank, or your stomach. Take care of those needs before you get here.  You’ve got a long ways to go, if you’re really going to do this.

And that was the question for me.  Was I really going to drive from one end of the Denali Highway to the other?  I had wanted to do it for the past year.  360-some days ago, I was at this exact same spot, but I didn’t have the time.  I also *almost* didn’t have the gasoline.  I cut it very close that time — but I still managed to see the first 37 miles of the road before turning around.  I saw enough to know that it is a stunning road, with alpine views mostly unblocked by trees.  It felt like the very heart of Alaska, and I wanted to see more.

But on this day, clouds were building.  It wasn’t going to be the perfect day that I had hoped for.  Would it be worth it?

My other option was highly undesirable.  Since my motel for the night was near Denali National Park, I would need to get there using the only other roads available.  I’d have to drive up to Fairbanks and down to Healy.  It would be an extra 110 miles, through a less exciting landscape (albeit on pavement).

No, I wanted to do this for a year.  I was doing this. And so, I left Paxson, headed west,

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The first few miles quickly reminded me why I wanted to drive this road.  The beauty of the Denali Highway is on display, even as you start.  Mountains striped with snow rise above the pavement.

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Just a few miles in, a rest area provides a sweeping view to the north.  Some of the distant mountains are part of the Alaska range, although they’re hard to see in the clouds.

It’s a nice drive for the next few miles… but those clouds were getting darker.

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Looking back, the weather seemed quite nice…

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… but up ahead, it was getting darker.

I was swamped by one storm before I even made it to the end of the pavement.  I sat in the car at the side of the road, watching sleet and rain slam into my windshield.  Again I questioned my decision.  How much fun could it be to drive 100+ miles of dirt road, in the pouring rain?

The Pavement Ends

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Okay, this isn’t actually the first place that the pavement ends.  It ended and restarted numerous times over the past 21 miles, in places awaiting repairs that may or may not happen over the summer.  But this break in the pavement was the big one.  No more smooth ride, and no more yellow line for 111 miles.  Yet again, I stopped, and pondered.  Was I sure I wanted to do this?

If driving in Alaska had taught me anything, it’s this.  Sometimes it rains all day, no matter which direction you go.  But sometimes the weather changes in the blink of an eye.  Rain suddenly turns to sun, and just as suddenly turns back again.  I hoped the journey would not be a total wash-out.

But for the next few miles, it was.  I wasn’t too disappointed, because I had seen this stretch of road before.

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To the north, the mountains were shrouded in clouds.

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I had hoped to take some better pictures of this lonely old trailer that I had seen last year.  But the rain was pouring so hard, I could only shoot a picture out the car window.

Maclaren Summit

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Last year, I made it all the way to Maclaren Summit before turning around.  It was much more beautiful then that it was on this day.  I was at mile 37.  Nearly 100 miles of gravel lay ahead.

Maclaren Summit is the second-highest highway pass on Alaska’s state road system.  The highest is Atigun Pass (elevation 4,800′) on the Dalton Highway (the famous Ice Road Truckers route to the Arctic Ocean).  At 4,086′, Maclaren Summit is the only other highway pass above 4,000 feet in Alaska.

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From Maclaren Summit, the road heads downhill, on its way to the Maclaren River crossing.  Along the way, it slices through “palsa”, a mound of permafrost peat, and passes by the Kettle Lakes — small ponds created by chunks of glacial ice that later melted, leaving depressions behind.

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The Maclaren River is at mile 42.

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On the bridge, if you look north, you’ll be able to see Maclaren Glacier, slowly flowing out of the Alaska Range. It’s about 16 miles away, but still impressive from this distance.

At mile 46 you’ll pass through Crazy Notch.  It’s an odd feature formed when a stream cut through a glacial moraine (the dirt pushed into a mound by the glacier as it moved). The notch naturally catches snow — and the Denali Highway can’t open each year until it all melts.

Beyond the river, an amazing and unexpected thing happened.

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Suddenly, I could turn the wipers off, and put my sunglasses on.  Just as I had hoped, the sky unexpectedly, inexplicably, turned from grey to blue!

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It was the perfect time for some natural lighting.  In this area, the road passes by the Waterfowl Lakes and some creeks that flow out of the Clearwater Mountains (part of the Alaska Range) to the north.

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I would have loved to have gotten closer to the water, but I didn’t see any trails leading down from the road.  I did, however, see some birds flying around, occasionally creating ripples in the otherwise mirror-like water.  I’m sure a bird watcher would love it here.  This isn’t just a nature preserve sandwiched in between a freeway and a subdivision.  This is nature, almost untouched by man.

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At times, it looks like the road is headed directly towards the mountains!

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At mile 55.5, you’ll cross Clearwater Creek.  Just before the bridge, there’s a rest area.  Yes, they do have a few of them out here.  Don’t expect anything that flushes.

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I’ve already taught you the word “palsa”, now it’s time to expand your vocabulary even further.  West of Clearwater Creek, the Denali Highway runs across an elevated stretch of land called “eskers” — mounds of dirt deposited by a stream that runs inside a melting glacier.  When the glacier finally melted, the eskers remained. The Denali Highway allows you to see some of the best examples of eskers in North America.

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The road comes to the end of the wide valley formed by Clearwater Creek, as it draws nearer to the mountains.  For the next 20 miles or so, there’s nothing on the official list of highway attractions — no roadside stops or natural features important enough to land on the BLM’s recreation guide.  For most of those 20 miles, the road skirts the southern slopes of the Clearwater Mountains…

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… and begins to head slowly downhill.  Another wide valley is up ahead, and as the miles ticked away…

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… more was revealed on the horizon. Yes, it looked like more rain up ahead, but those clouds were adding a lot of drama to the scene.

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Looking in the rear-view, there are more mountains.  Up until now, the hills on the north side of the road have stolen the show, but these are seen looking south.

Susitna River

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At mile 79.5, the road bottoms out at the Susitna River. And if the name Susitna sounds familiar, there’s a good reason.  It makes up half of the Mat-Su Valley – the large area that’s home to Anchorage, Wasilla, Palmer, and a very large portion of Alaska’s residents.  The Susitna River flows through the Talkeetna Mountains, then eventually drains into Cook Inlet, west of Anchorage.

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I took this picture from the middle of the bridge.  I think I was looking north.  Just upstream a short distance, the Susitna River splits into left and right forks.  Both forks begin at glaciers.

I wasn’t looking for glaciers, I was looking at the clouds.  Once again, the sky was threatening to unleash a downpour.

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I stopped on the far side of the Susitna River Bridge and looked back.  All signs of blue sky were gone, in every direction, and the rain was starting.  Once again, I feared that the rest of the day would be a washout.  But at least now, I was closer to Cantwell than Paxson.

For a few miles beyond the bridge, the road heads north, and runs alongside the Susitna River.  Because of the rain, I didn’t stop along here — but I have read that you can look across the river and see the remnants of the Valdez Creek Mine, which operated from 1903 to 1995, producing nearly half a million ounces of Gold.

The BLM recreation guide also recommends a short hike at mile 85.5, up a hillside to a viewpoint of the Alaska Range.

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Once the road leaves the river behind and continues west, you’ll enjoy great views on the north side of the road.  Around mile 88, a small pond helps fill the wide-open valley that stretches out before you.

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I found an even better view of the wide valley to the north, around mile 92.5.  A turnout, apparently meant for use by road crews, provided a big parking area. Look closely, and you can see a very limited rainbow in between me and the Alaska Range.

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This small cross stands at the edge of the parking area, but I don’t know why it was placed here, or by whom.

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The entire scene can’t be captured in one frame.  Check out this panorama, looking north.

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Even over the mountains, the clouds were hit-and-miss, allowing slivers of light to shine through, along with shafts of rain.

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This fantastic display of northern views continues for several miles.  I took this picture around mile marker 96. Still 39 miles to go.

Brushkana Creek Campground

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A few miles further, at mile marker 104, the Denali Highway crosses the Brushkana Creek.  Look to the south as you cross the bridge, and you’ll see a scene that’s definitely worth photographing.  An old cabin is perched on the edge of a small cliff, which will almost certainly erode some day.  Capture this scene while you can — although I can’t guarantee the ideal placement of a moose during your visit.

I pulled into the Brushkana Creek campground, looking for a better shot of the cabin.  I didn’t find one, but as I exited, the campground’s caretaker flagged me down.  He had noticed the Drivelapse cameras on top of my car.  I get a lot of questions from everyone, so I wasn’t surprised.  We ended up chatting for at least 10 minutes, maybe more.  And he told me the same thing almost every other Alaskan said to me, when I revealed that I was a Floridian.

“It’s too hot down there.  That’s why I live up here.”

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I’m okay with 90-degree temperatures, but this sure was a nice break from them.  I switched between two and three layers of clothing during the entire drive along the Denali Highway — as beams of sun kept trading places with rain clouds.

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Ready to learn one more word before the end of the road?  In this area, the Denali Highway passes through a “taiga”, also known as a boreal forest or a snow forest.  Many months of snow, and a relatively short growing season, cause the trees in a taiga (mostly spruce trees) to remain very short.  The tough life for the trees means unobstructed views along the road.

Around mile 116, the road meets up with the Nenana River.  This river starts at the Nenana Glacier, in the Alaska Range nearby, then flows alongside the Denali Highway, before turning north, and following the Parks Highway north.  If you’re driving on to Fairbanks, you’ll cross it several times before it empties into the Tanana River at the town of Nenana. Yes, that’s a lot of n’s and a’s to keep straight.

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At this stunning spot, I stopped by the side of the road for a few minutes, changed the batteries and memory chips in my cameras, and spent a few minutes appreciating where I was.  I could tell that it was going to get rainy again. I had a feeling it was going to be the last beautiful moment on the Denali Highway, and I was right.  From here on out, it rained.

Around mile 124 (just 11 miles in from the Parks Highway) you’ll find a good viewpoint of Denali (formerly Mount McKinley). At least, that’s what I’m told.  I didn’t get to see The Big One on this trip, due to the cloudy weather.
It might surprise you to find out that there are some services along the Denali Highway.  At mile 20, the Tangle River Inn offers food, gas, and lodging.  At mile 42, the Maclaren River Lodge provides food, lodging, and tire repair.  You’ll find lodging at mile 68, at the Alpine Creek Lodge.  At mile 82.3 (west of the Susitna River bridge), you can eat, sleep, fill up your gas tank, get a tire repaired, and catch an air taxi.  And just before arriving at Cantwell, you’ll find accommodations at the Backwoods Lodge.  All of this information comes from the Milepost — a very helpful road guide for any trip to Alaska or northern Canada.

The Bottom Line

Driving the Denali Highway is an essential part of the Alaska road trip experience.  It’s not for everyone — you have to be prepared for long stretches of solitude, few services, and almost any kind of weather at any time.  If you’re willing to devote a day to this drive, you won’t regret it.

Drivelapse Video

Here’s a time-lapse look at the entire length of the Denali Highway, headed westbound…

… and eastbound (reversed video from the rear-view camera:

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