The Denali Highway is certainly one of the most spectacular drives in the world. Much of the route lies above timberline, so the vistas go on forever. The mountains and glaciers of the Alaska Range form a majestic backdrop, with miles of rolling tundra punctuated by shallow lakes in between.
The Denali Highway stretches 135 miles from Paxson to Cantwell, connecting the Richardson and Parks highways. Before the Parks Highway was completed in the early 1970s, the Denali Highway was the only road access to Denali National Park. The road is mostly gravel (max speed varies from 35 – 55 mph depending on surface conditions), and winter conditions close the road every year from October through mid-May. Because of the gravel, you'll need a rental car that allows you to drive here, like Alaska 4x4 Rentals and Alaska Auto Rental. Depending on when you drive the Denali Highway, you may see only a few dozen cars the entire length of the road.
You can drive the highway in a day, but we recommend at least one overnight. There are
three lodges along the highway: Tangle River Inn (MP 20), Maclaren River Lodge (MP 42), and Alpine Creek Lodge (MP 68). But you can camp anywhere along the highway. There are pullouts every couple miles, sufficiently large and flat even for 30+ foot RV’s.
If you’re into hiking, biking, fishing, 4-wheeling, or photography, you can create a 4-7 day wilderness experience without the expense of a fly-in. Dozens of hiking and 4-wheel trails lead back into the wilderness. Clearwater streams cross the highway in many places, where you can cast a line for grayling and other fish. The landscape photography opportunities are endless. (However, the wildlife photography isn’t great, because the area is hunted heavily in the fall.)
Many of the pullouts are in such sublime locations, that you’ll want to pull out your camp chair and take in the scene for hours. Three of our favorites are:
Paxson Junction (pop. 28) This small community began when Alvin Paxson opened the Timberline Roadhouse at mile 192 in 1906. His cook, Charles Meier, later opened a roadhouse at mile 170. Paxson built a larger roadhouse at mile 191 adding a barn with two sleeping rooms and a bath. Soon, a post office, store, woodhouse and small ice room were added.
To the north is one of the state’s greatest mountain ranges, the Alaska Range. Several peaks in view have elevations greater than 12,000 feet. This range extends in a great arc from Cook Inlet through the Mount McKinley massif (a principal mountain mass) and on to the Canada border, a distance of 650 miles. The Gulkana Glacier, seen from this point, was formed from the buildup of snowfields high in the Alaska Range.
The Wrangell Mountains are about 78 air miles to the southeast. Mount Sanford (16,237’) is the prominent peak on the left, Mount Drum (12,010’) is on the right. In the center is Mount Wrangell (14,163’), which occasionally releases steam. It is the northernmost active volcano on the Pacific Rim. Look for the Denali Highway orientation sign on the south side of the road.
This trail goes north to the northern end of Swede Lake. It then continues on to the Middle Fork Gulkana Branch Trail and another half mile to Alphabet Hills Trail. It is usually a very wet trail so waterboots are usually recommended.
There are more than 500 archaeological sites in the Tangle Lakes District indicating that ancient people lived in this area for at least 10,000 years. Some of the densest concentrations of archaeological resources in the North American subarctic can be found here and the area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This BLM-maintained campground sits amid the Tangle Lakes, a series of long, narrow lakes. This is a designated put-in for the 30-mile-long Delta National Wild and Scenic River float trip. There are moose and caribou in the area, many hunters use this as a base camp during the fall hunting season.
This BLM wayside is for day-use only (no camping) and is equipped with a picnic area and toilets. The boat launch provides access and parking for extended wilderness canoe trips in the Upper Tangle Lakes system to the south, where numerous lakes of all sizes provide important wildlife habitat.
The Delta River, including Tangle Lakes to mile 212 on the Richardson Highway, is an outstanding river to float, although there is a set of falls to portage around. It offers a variety of water challenges: quiet lake, fast and rocky Class I to the falls, good Class II rapids following the falls, Class I meandering water to Eureka Creek, and fast glacial water to the takeout 7 miles More...
Landmark Gap is a glacially scoured cut in the mountains that formed during an Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago. The gap was a caribou migration route and a favorite Indian hunting area in centuries past. The Nelchina caribou herd still migrates through this area. The mountain peaks visible through the gap are McGinnis Peak (11,400’) and Mount Moffit (13,020’).
This trail extends approximately 3 miles to the south end of Landmark Gap Lake. The trail is rocky and dry with one marshy spot. Except after heavy rainfall, you can sidestep the marshy area without getting your feet wet. This is one of the easiest and most popular hikes in the Tangle Lakes vicinity. It's 3 easy miles, with very little elevation gain or drop. The surface is wide and well-developed, because it's a 4-wheeler trail. Even with kids, it only takes about an hour to get back to the lake. When you get within about a half mile of the lake, there a few places where the river comes right next to the trail, with deep pools, good for grayling fishing. At the lake itself, you can catch lake trout, though the lake is really shallow along much of the shoreline.
At the beginning of this trail there is a muddy area. This trail travels south then branches into two. The southeast trail goes about 5 miles to a viewpoint of the upper Tangle Lakes and the southwest branch goes on 8 miles to Osar lake. Water crossings may be difficult after heavy rain.
If you're hiking this trail to the glacier across the valley, it's highly recommended that you not only take repellent for all kinds of critters, but that you also have a mosquito net with you. (And follow the high road where the trail splits.) Well worth the effort, it's been described as "Tolkien's Misty Mountains."
You are now at an elevation of about 4,000 feet, just a short distance from Maclaren Summit (4,086’), the second highest highway summit in Alaska. Stop and enjoy the panoramic view of the Alaska Range and the Maclaren River. Mount Hayes (13,832’) and the Maclaren River and Glacier are dominant features, but Aurora Peak, Mount Shand and Mount Geist may also be seen.
This trail has fantastic views. Because this trail is in the Department of Fish and Game's Controlled Use Area, you must stay on the trails provided and not continue on where the trail ends. The trail is mostly tundra.
MacLaren Summit. (4,086 ft) This is the second highest highway pass on the Alaska road system. Atigan Pass on the Dalton Highway is the highest. From here you can see spectacular views of the Alaska Range, MacLaren Glacier and the MacLaren River. This is a great spot to see wild flowers, ground squirrels and ptarmigan.
Road construction in 1957 cut into the partially collapsed palsa on the south side of the road and initiated its deterioration. A palsa is a small dome-like frost mound, usually 10 to 20 feet high, containing peat. Closer examination reveals individual ice and peat layers typical of a palsa. Be aware that there is no parking spot.
Melting ice lenses in permafrost create sinkholes like this one, which can undermine roads, foundations, and whole villages. Warming climate is causing increasingly rapid and more profound changes in northern landscapes, as shown by ever more common thermokarst holes and lakes.
Several small lakes and depressions in this area were formed when chunks of ice broke off retreating glaciers and were buried in the glacial debris. The ice eventually melted, leaving circular-shaped depressions called kettles.
This old lodge and roadhouse has served hunters, trappers, and prospectors for half a century. It's still open today - and is the last lodge on this highway open all winter - and still serves outdoors people of all kinds. Wifi available now!
This notable geologic feature was formed by the MacLaren Glacier, which once flowed through this valley. The glacier deposited a buildup of rocks on either side creating a lateral moraine. A glacier stream cut through the moraine creating Crazy Notch. This acts as a natural snow catchment, which can sometimes close the highway in the winter with huge snowdrifts.
You are driving on an esker, a ridge of silt, sand, gravel and cobbles that were carried and deposited by a stream that flowed within a glacier between two walls of ice. These elongated mounds were left after the glacier melted away. Look for more eskers along the highway; they are some of North America's best examples of this type of glacial feature.
Look east across the Susitna River and you'll see the old Valdez Creek gold mine in the foothills of the Clearwater Mountains. The mine was started by the Peter Monahan Party in 1903 and produced about 495,000 ounces of gold before it closed in 1995.
There are several spots along this stretch of the road where you can take in beautiful views looking down at the Nenana River. The road also comes right down to the river in a few spots. We like to stop here, pull out a camp chair, and cool off our tired feet in the chilly water. If you're up for it, you can also take a dip and a bath in the river, but you won't stay in for More...
During clear weather, there are excellent views of North America‘s highest peak on this six-mile section of the Denali Highway. Approximately 80 percent of its 20,320’ elevation rises above the surrounding landscape, making its base-to-summit rise greater than that of Mount Everest.