Road Trip: Denali Highway, Alaska

This mighty Alaskan road trip has a certain sort of rawness—it’s 135 miles of two-lane road, which is almost entirely gravel. It was completed in 1957 and became significantly more quiet and unused from 1971 when the the George Parks Highway opened. You start your trip by entering this historic road from a junction of the Denali Highway in Paxson. It runs along the foothills of the Alaska Range, and climbs up to the Maclaren Summit, which is over four thousand feet high, making it the second highest road pass in the state.

The beginning of the route is paved, and you’ll be grateful for this smooth introduction, because you make a rapid ascent, going up from forest level to tundra level in a very quick time. Even after twenty miles you’ll be treated to incredible views of the mountain range and the expansive wilderness that surrounds it. From that point onwards, the views only get better, as you will pass through the Tangle Lakes region and see the wondrous glacial eskers. As the paved road ends, you really start to feel that you’re on a road trip for purists. As you begin to travel across the Amphitheater Mountains and up to the Maclaren Summit you get a clearer look at the gigantic Mount Hayes. Then you gradually descend into the river valley, where you are treated to more views of glaciers. Eventually you come to Clearwater River and a view of the dramatic Clearwater Mountains. After a hundred miles you descend into boreal forest, from which you get more views of mountains—this time the Talkeetna Mountains.

This journey takes you to places that have escaped human impact. It’s just you, your travel companions if you have any, the road, and endless wilderness and mountains. It is closed in winter —we recommend going between late May and early October. If you’re renting a car, check that the rental company permits driving on the Denali Highway. While this isn’t technically mountain driving and most vehicles can handle it, we recommend driving at a leisurely pace of 30-40mph, as the gravel road is rough and could damage your vehicle at higher speeds. This shouldn’t be a problem, as you’ll want to have as much time as possible to breath in the tremendous views and revel in the isolation that this route affords you. Still, there are some repair services near the beginning and end of the journey, and a few places to stop and rest, so you won’t feel too isolated!

Image: “Fall Colors on the Denali Highway” by Frank Kovalchek on Flickr

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