Two old roadhouses—one in ruins and one closed down—stand like sentinels near the intersection of the Denali Highway and Mile185.5 of the Richardson Highway. Before embarking into the wilderness on the 135-mile trip toward Cantwell, take a stroll through history along a roadside pioneered more than a century ago.
Both facilities delivered decades of service to weary travelers. They bustled with tourists and freighters driving horse wagons and dog sleds, then cars and trucks. And then, each shut down, one gutted by fire or the other slowly crippled when people began driving the Parks Highway to Denali National Park. Now they stand as monuments to long-gone commerce, a bit surreal and lonely, in the foothills of the Alaska Range, while indifferent modern traffic zips by at 60 mph.
The original pioneer lodge was built there in 1906, when Alvin Paxson moved his roadhouse operation from the Gakona River Trail in Isabel Pass to a spot just north of the present Denali Highway intersection on the new route connecting Valdez with Fairbanks along the Gulkana River. Alvin built a two-story 30-by 80-foot log structure on the east side of what would become the Richardson Highway in a grove protected from the wind. A pioneer community grew around the colossal building, which fed and lodged people on the Fairbanks-bound byway for almost 20 years. But like many Alaskan roadhouses, the Paxson Lodge caught fire and burned to the ground in 1923.
Starting with the old roadhouse’s horse barn and tact drying room, entrepreneur Dan Whiteford rebuilt the operation in 1928, creating another sprawling log structure with new wings that contained bedrooms and dining areas. This second Paxson Lodge operated for nearly three decades, until another fire swept through and destroyed its central and southern wings in 1957.
Old Paxson Lodge
You can still find chinked log wall shiding in the alders a quarter mile north of the Denali Highway intersection, just across the pavement from the state highway maintenance shop. The roof has fallen in, the weeds have overgrown planking and walls have collapsed. Peek through broken windows into open-air hallways and bedrooms. They are festooned with moss and littered by leaves.
A rusting bedstead hunkers in one corner of the ruin, still standing beneath weathered roof beams. Hold your breath and listen: Can you hear the whisper of bedsprings across a half century of time?
New Paxson Lodge
Paxson rebounded from the 1957 fire. That same year, a new two-story roadhouse with gasoline pumps and generators rose at the intersection of the new Denali Highway. It catered to adventure travelers and bus tourists taking what was then the only highway route to Alaska’s most famous attraction, the national park nearly 150 miles away across the mountains. But the good times didn’t last. The opening of the Parks Highway in 1971 created a more direct route to the park, and the traffic passing through Paxson began to fall. By the turn of the century, Paxson had evolved into a sleepy outpost, with winter recreationists and fall hunters outnumbering the park-bound tourists. The Lodge finally closed in 2013, unable to cover fuel costs and make ends meet.
The huge building with large block windows now looms over a vast empty lot, with outbuildings and parked equipment and debris trapped in the weeds. Old time gas pumps rust outside a moldering log shack. The site feels like more like an entire ghost town than just one empty building at a lonely highway intersection. But don’t count the Paxson Lodge out just yet. As of summer of 2019, the property remained for sale.