Cycling the Denali Highway
The Denali Hwy has a reputation. It’s a somewhat hardcore dirt road of 200 plus kilometer that sees few tourists, has even fewer facilities and filled with wildlife. The road is exposed to the worst of the Alaskan winter and not usually open until mid / late May. Its everything I wanted from an Alaskan cycle trip.
When I first dreamed of this trip and then later started to make the plan to travel to Alaska one of the first things that I really wanted to do was cycle the Denali Hwy. I saw it as a remote road that runs through the rugged wilderness areas of central Alaska. It had everything I wanted.
We chose to cycle the Denali Hwy from East to west, starting at the abandoned ghost town roadhouse at Paxson. The three of us, Johann, Lucile and myself started the slow but steady uphill climb from the Richardson Hwy. Only 10 minutes onto the journey Johann spotted yet another Porcupine that raised its spines rudely at us before trying to hide itself in the bushes. When we approached to close it would flare up its spines and point its rear end at us. I guess that’s how they defend themselves from threats. The weather for the first day of the trip could best be described as overcast and cold. It didn’t reach above 5 degrees Celsius, so for a boy from the tropics like myself it was hard. I am slowly getting used to the colder temperatures, I have enough layers to be comfortable. Its just a case of working out how many layers to stay warm but not start sweating, if I start sweating then I get cold again. I haven’t quite worked out the balance yet. At home if it dropped below 20 degree Celsius it would make the local news with the headline ‘Cold snap hits Darwin‘. Anybody living in Darwin or elsewhere in the tropics will know what I mean.
The steady and scenic climb at one point turned into a great spot for lunch with cold snowy views over the still frozen Lakes and snow covered mountains. I’ve had lunch in some scenic places before and I rate this one. We stocked up on fresh food supplies in Glennallen a couple of days ago as we knew there was little in the way of supermarkets out here. So for the first couple of days at least we would be eating gourmet. Fresh bread with hommus, carrots, coleslaw, cheese and tomatoes. I say that we have cheese with us but, it looks like cheese, tastes like cheese but has the consistency of rubber. I think it would outlast a nuclear winter!
After 21 miles we made it to Tangle Lake Inn, a remote roadhouse that had recently opened for the summer season. The large burgers were consumed quickly when we noticed a cyclist appearing out of the blue. It is not a common sight to see a proper cycle tourist at this time of year, specially on such a remote highway. The cyclist was Mark Boyd, who had a somewhat sad yet inspiring story to tell about the recent loss of his wife to cancer and how he is continuing their journey. We chatted for a while, yet not long enough before he set forth in the direction that we had came from. As for us we were stuffed full of calories and headed to the nearby Tangle Lakes Campsite. The lakes were still frozen and the campground only just recently opened, in fact the Denali Hwy was only recently open to traffic. If I was here this time last year I would be under 2 meters of snow. The road was not opened until late July! We have been blessed with an early season this year. We planned a rest day for tomorrow to eat, sleep, hydrate and generally relax.
We planned a rest day in the campground to rest, relax and do what cyclists do, eat, lots. We were greeted with a large smoke haze which at times made it difficult to see the surrounding mountains. The overcast, dreary weather didn’t help either. Alaska gets a lot of wildfires during the summer season, some started by lightning, some by campfires gone wrong. While visiting the roadhouse I heard and loading up on calories I heard a rumour of a Moose that given birth overnight in the campground somewhere. Truth or just a story to suck people like me in, not sure. When I returned to the campground I spoke with almost everybody staying there, most people at some time or another had to make their way to meet the 3 crazy cyclists, so we had a good chat. Great to hear how Alaskans live. Not to dissimilar to people from home. Similar outlook on life, similar views but polar opposite weather. None of the people I spoke with had heard the Moose story. Maybe it was just a story belonging in the fiction section. All the thoughts of how dangerous bears are is overshadowed by the potential dangers of Moose. They kill more people than bears and are giving birth to their young now so are even more dangerous. I’m very wary of them.
Rested and ready we set forth on the journey to the high point of the Denali Hwy known as the Maclaren Pass at 4086 feet. The road turned from narrow but good quality bitumen to unsealed dirt road. There are horror stories abounding on the internet about this road but my experience with dirt roads of varying degrees of quality would have me say that this about as good as it gets. No corrugations, no sections of soft sand, no washouts. no large stones or boulders to shunt the tyre into crash mode. In fact the road was in such good condition I was able to spend most of my time gazing at the splendid mountain scenery, stopping on way too many occasions to take photos. Only 2km from the campground I spotted 2 caribou on the nearby hillside, our first for the trip. Caribou seem to sometimes be in solitary groups, sometimes up high away from the mosquitoes or in large migratory herds. The climb up from the camp to Maclaren Pass was broken by a small side trip to a still frozen lake. Its late May and standing on a frozen lake in Alaska at this time of year is not recommended. But I just had to do it, why not, and I’m still here. The ice still seemed very thick with only minimal places near the edge that showed signs of melt. The was even a faint outline of bicycle tracks where somebody had recently cycled on the lake! The journey continued up the steady climb into snow covered ground and high mountains. I spoke with a Fairbanks local at the campground yesterday about the road to Maclaren Pass, the answer was, ‘it’s still winter up there’. The snow, frozen lakes and mountains lay testament to that comment. During most of the climb to the pass we were kept amused by the antics of the local Squirrels, darting across the roads or rearing up just outside one of their tunnels. Shy yet extroverted at the same time.
From the top of the pass it was a great decent to the Maclaren River Lodge where we shared lunch with some bus tourists who I photographed on the decent. People like to photograph me from the window of their car or tour bus as I’m cycling along, usually uphill in the cold with a look that says I’m struggling please give me chocolate, now. So it was time I took pictures of them! I was hungry. I consumed 3 bowls of chicken soup with 10 thick slices of home made bread. I was not alone, both Johann and Lucile did the same. The cyclist metabolism is in overdrive. We cant seem to eat enough calories in a day.
After several hours of eating and digesting we set of again. It was a slow start for me as my body was still in food hangover mode. But eventually I settled into a pace that was only broken to stop and take one of the hundreds of photos I took during the afternoon. Wide landscapes with lakes, rivers and mountains. Once again I was impressed. I have only posted a couple of the many photos that I took that day.
By late afternoon I was beginning to bonk again and so we made camp just as we started to descend off the high plains. The campsite was only meters from the road but that was not a problem as there was so little traffic. The late evening light was particularly dramatic, with the smoke haze starting to appear again after being blown away from the previous days.
The were no trees to hang our food overnight so we tossed them on a tree branch away from our tents and hoped for the best. We hoped that by having the food inside our waterproof panniers it would somehow, by some miracle keep them smell proof against inquisitive bears. We new this was not true but by morning all was well and we set off downhill towards the Susitna River. It was not long, however, before we sighted a Moose near the side of the road who looked at us for a while before deciding that we were way too scary and it took off.
The weather was overcast and the sky had every shade of grey in it, which didn’t do much for the photos but not everyday is meant to be perfect. As we ascended from the river we should have had great vistas of the mountains but it appeared that the cloud had settled in at a height of about 1500m and anything above that was not visible. We saw more Caribou in a couple of occasions including one that was only meters from the road which lingered while we photographed it. Well, tried to photograph it, I had not noticed that I had accidentally bumped the settings on the camera which produced black photos with no Caribou. National Geographic would not be impressed, neither was I. A beaver was also annoyed with us as we looked at its dam near the side of the road.
By late afternoon we called it a day at the campground and had a bush shower and washed some clothes. A bush shower means different things to each of us. For me it means heating some water up to tropical temperature and hanging a 10 litre water bladder from a tree and having a shower. Johann went for an evening walk and sighted some large bear tracks near the river about 1-2 kilometers from the camp, but no sighting of the offender.
At this point we were running low on food, mostly because the amount of food we catered for did not take into account our ravenous need for food. We were all so hungry. For example, today I ate the following and it wasn’t enough: 3 x coffees, 150grams of muesli with a handful of blueberries, handful of apricots and coconut, 1 x soup, 1 1/2 sandwiches which was soaked in Olive Oil and filled with carrots, tomatoes and cheese with dressing on top, 2 x carrots, 6 x snickers, 1 x packet of candies, 1/2 an apple and one big bowl of pasta with tomato sauce mixed with Olive Oil and topped with about 6 tablespoons of Parmesan……….all that in one day and I was still hungry and not getting enough calories to replace what I was using!
On our last day leaving the Denali Hwy we had only 50km to cover so planned and hoped to be in the small township of Cantwell for a large feed. Our peace was shattered by a huge amount of aircraft traffic high above the clouds. At first I thought it was a huge amount of flights between Anchorage and either Fairbanks or Prudhoe Bay. That was until there was a large sonic boom which echoed in my chest and stomach. Must be the naughty military flying supersonic playing war games or something. Soon after leaving the camp I saw a shack off in the bushes that hunters must use from time to time, all the windows were broken, bet they are pissed!
We made great time following the Nenana River downhill to Cantwell, or as we called it the Na-na-na-na – Na-na-na-na River, spoken in a somewhat musical tone. Cantwell is on the Parks Hwy which takes us to our next destination, Denali National Park. So we fed up big and rode off in the late afternoon. The downhill run with a strong tailwind has us cover the 49km from Cantwell to Denali National Park campground at Riley creek in record time of 90 minutes.
So one of my first big goals of the trip is now done, the Denali Hwy. How do I feel, awesome, recommend it to anybody heading to this part of the world and not afraid to get a bit remote. Next stop 7 days hiking and cycling Denali National Park. Oh, and didn’t see temperatures above 10 degrees Celsius for the whole trip, but I’m cool with that.
Paxson Lake Campground on the Richardson Hwy to Tangle Lake campground – 56km
Tangle Lake to Bushcamp near Susitna River – 80km
Bushcamp to Brushkana Camp – 56km
Brushkana Camp to Denali National Park campground – 94km
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