Denali Highway: 135 Miles to Explore this Summer
Denali Highway. Don’t be fooled by its name; it’s not a smooth-paved highway that runs through a city. It’s 135 miles of rugged gravel road that connects two remote towns and highways in interior Alaska. This Highway was the only access to Denali National Park before the Parks Highway was completed in the early 1970s. Now it’s driven by visitors and residents who want to experience a bit more of the wild side of Alaska.
Over the 4th of July weekend, we explored the full length of this road in all its glory. The weather was perfect, a mixture of sun, clouds, mist, and stormy-rain over the four days: classic Alaskan weather. It’s only 135 miles but it took us almost four days to drive the whole way. A group of us chose different ways to explore the Highway; we drove it, we hiked it, we tent-camped it, and we biked it.
Denali Highway – some important facts:
- Don’t rely on your cell phone. Most of the Denali Highway is without cell service. Unless you are near Paxson or Cantwell (towns on each end), the phone signal is hard to find.
- The Denali Highway is paved for 3 miles on the west end and 21 miles on the east end. More than 100 miles are graded gravel with a recommended speed limit of 30 mph. Some car rental agencies do not allow driving on gravel roads. Check your rental agreement.
- This route is popular with cyclists, and people are often camped on the side of the road. Be courteous and slow down. It’s safer and keeps the dust down.
- Fill up your tank before entering the Denali Highway: Glennallen has gas stations but not Paxon. If entering from the west, fill up in Cantwell. Many drivers carry backup fuel in the car. There’s a small gas station in Clearwater (we paid about double price)) but always have a backup solution.
- Bring mosquito nets (head net, net tent, etc.). If you are car camping and if you can afford it, bring a screen house which would save you suffering from mosquitoes. Expect thick clouds of swarming mosquitoes!
- Download the Denali Highway brochure and georeferenced map from BLM’s website.
It takes almost all day to drive the whole Highway. Take your time, I recommend spending at least one overnight along the way. After all, one doesn’t drive the Denali Highway to hurry along, am I right? The ideal driving speed is somewhere between 30-50 mph. But oftentimes we drove even slower due to the road conditions and to be courteous to cyclists and campers. Sometimes, we just had to slow down to enjoy the views. Each pull-out has a unique view.
Although the Denali Highway isn’t primarily known for hiking, there are a few established trails that will bring you into the wilderness. The first day, we hiked up to Seven Mile Lake Trails, 7.8 miles each way. The scenery was amazing. The vastness of the landscape in this region is really hard to describe. You’ll just have to see it for yourself. The trails were well established due to ATV traffic; and there wasn’t so much elevation gain either. Note that there are two substantial water crossings; so be prepared with water shoes or sandals if you don’t want to get wet as we did.
On the last day, we explored up to Wolf Point Trail which provided a beautiful view of the gorge. Maclaren Summit Trail is another fine hiking trail along this Highway.
There are established campsites but as this area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, visitors are allowed dispersed camping along the highway. If you are traveling with an RV or camper, there are many available pull outs to camp along the road. Just choose a spot with a view you fancy, and that’s your home for the night. If you’re tent camping, the options are unlimited. As long as you’re prepared for wildlife (bear-proof food container for one) and find a soft level patch of tundra to pitch a tent. There are also many tent camp opportunities along the road.
The Denali Highway is a popular place for avid cyclists. Most cyclists take 2 to 4 days to complete the 135-mile journey, it depends how much weight you’re carrying on your bike. But it is a great bike packing journey. There is a fair amount of climbing over the road but the gradients aren’t steep. Most of the gravel is graded so you don’t need a mountain bike. A gravel bike is ideal but many cyclists ride a mountain bike.
The Denali Highway is very popular with ATVs. It makes sense because this wild, remote area is a perfect place to explore by ATV. Even the ’trails’ we hiked were mainly used by ATVs. I don’t know if it was a hiking trail first and then it became an ATV trail or vice versa. Nonetheless, if you have an ATV and want to put to good use, consider Denali Highway. But be aware, there are many sections of trails that motorized vehicles are not permitted.
And Many Other Ways…
We also saw pack-rafters, fishing boats, people who are walking the Highway, backcountry campers, and so on. The Denali Highway is also a popular place for hunting later in the year. There are also some lodges along the way if you’re not keen on camping or want to go on a guided activity from the lodge. Everyone has their own methods of exploring the 135 miles of the Denali Highway. No matter which way you choose, it will be a great experience with amazing views of the Alaska Range and the Wrangell Mountains.
1 thought on “Denali Highway: 135 Miles to Explore”
oh what an amazing place to roam free! you are so lucky Juno!