Denali Highway Paxson to Cantwell (Hwy 8)

Aerials from a road trip we took on the Denali Highway

Denali Highway  (:53)

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. 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 over night. There are four lodges along the highway: Tangle River Inn (MP 20), Maclaren River Lodge (MP 42), and Alpine Creek Lodge (MP 68) and Clearwater Mountain Lodge (MP 82.2). 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.

MILE 37 Misty view from Maclaren Summit

A misty view from Maclaren Summit

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:

If you choose this route, there are many scenic viewpoints and trails along the way. This guide covers the highlights.

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Driving Guide Points

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.

The Denali High­way climbs quick­ly from the Gulka­na Riv­er bot­tom land into a vast realm of brushy tun­dra with sweep­ing views of foothills, moun­tains, wet­lands and lakes. You are dwarfed by immen­si­ty and qui­et at every curve. A four-wheel­er track off a pull­out leads to a rise that over­looks Sum­mit Lake and its com­mu­ni­ty to the north. The view begs your attention.

A quar­ter-mile grav­el road leads north down­hill into an inti­mate val­ley with a serene lake and an unof­fi­cial boat ramp. Amid camp­sites, you find brush thick with blue­ber­ries in sea­son. It’s one of scores of unmarked pull­outs and access roads along the high­way that lure you into secret places.

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 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. 

Difficulty: Easy Distance: 10 miles

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 rub­ber boots 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.

Difficulty: Easy

This trail can be accessed via the Swede Lake Trail. It par­al­lels the Mid­dle Fork of Gulka­na Riv­er and can be extreme­ly wet. Rub­ber boots are recommended. 

Locat­ed at mile 19.5 of the Denali High­way — just shy of the Tan­gle Lakes area — this foot trail can be stren­u­ous. After a wet ini­tial quar­ter-mile, the short steep route climbs 1,500 feet over a mile or so up the moun­tain to the south, deliv­er­ing stun­ning views of the Tan­gle Lakes, Amphithe­ater Mts., and Alas­ka Range. No vehi­cles on this trail!

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 below Eure­ka Creek. The scenery is superb with canyon,…  ...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.

Count­less paths mean­der into the tun­dra foothills above the lake. If you fol­low these tracks, you climb up ridges and final­ly reach dra­mat­ic promi­nences — clear­ings with good rock under foot and sweep­ing views beyond.

Difficulty: Easy Distance: 3 miles

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. 

Difficulty: Moderate

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. 

Difficulty: Moderate

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. 

Difficulty: Moderate Distance: 8 miles

The trail starts in Maclaren Sum­mit and trav­els south to the north­west shore of Osar Lake. It cross­es glacial eskers and is fair­ly dry. The grav­el trail­head area offers park­ing with space to bivouac for the night away from the highway. 

Difficulty: Difficult Distance: 3 miles

This 9.5 mile trail con­tin­ues almost flat to the west end of Sev­en­teen mile Lake, a water body tucked into the foothills. 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. It is kid friend­ly, suit­able for bik­ing and running.

The sum­mit area is a must stop attrac­tion, a place unique even in Alas­ka for its stun­ning views and easy access to alpine tun­dra. Sev­er­al pull­outs offer room to safe­ly park in a long the shoul­der, but you’ll find off-road park­ing at the Osar and Maclaren Sum­mit trail­heads on either side of the high­way just before it begins its descent. What might you do?

An ice age land­form haunts the val­ley bot­tom. Con­struc­tion of the high­way in 1957 stripped the insu­lat­ing cov­er from the ice-and-peat core of a par­tial­ly col­lapsed pal­sa, and this road side exam­ple of a com­mon sub­arc­tic phe­nom­e­non has been dete­ri­o­rat­ing ever since.

The low­land approach­ing the Maclaren Riv­er con­tains sev­er­al geo­graph­ic fea­tures with glacial and ice age ori­gins. Look to the north side of the road for what appears to be a steep pit with a con­i­cal shape. This is an exam­ple of thermokarst.

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!

View Maclaren Glac­i­er 16 miles south.

Melt­ing glac­i­ers can leave behind ridges of grav­el and sand that snake across the land­scape with such per­fect form that they almost seem man­u­fac­tured. A grav­el road lead­ing south just before the road begins climb­ing into the Crazy Notch gives easy access to one of these ice-age remnants.

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. 

North Side of Road, Lake & out­let excel­lent for large grayling.

This string of lakes along the high­way serves as a sum­mer home for a great vari­ety of water­fowl. Some, like the trum­peter swan, stay until the lake is freez­ing up. Sev­er­al pull outs and wide spots along the shoul­der allow safe park­ing, with many trails lead­ing down to lakeshores. Watch for cari­bou cross­ing the high­way in stretch­es with gaps between lakes.

Prob­a­bly the best free camp­site along the Denali High­way. With a large park­ing area next to a main­tained pit toi­let on the south­side of the high­way, and an infor­mal park­ing area on the north, you can install an RV or set up a tent in many loca­tions with a bit of pri­va­cy and then be ser­e­nad­ed by the melody of rush­ing water all night long.

The high­way mounts the spine of an esker, and fol­lows it for a few miles — veer­ing and curv­ing with undu­lat­ing coils of a land­form deposit­ed eons ago inside the bow­els of a thou­sand-foot-deep glac­i­er. It’s ser­pen­tine and a bit weird, so styl­ized and con­sis­tent that you might won­der if it could be the arti­fact of a human civilization.

Season: Year Round $15+ Camping, $90+ Rooms

Live off-the-grid, Alas­ka-style, at this fam­i­ly-run bed-and-break­fast lodge off the Denali High­way, in the heart of Alas­ka. Camp or stay in a lodge room and indulge in the nat­ur­al beau­ty sur­round­ing you.

The high­way twines with count­less feed­er trails and pull­outs — many pio­neered and kept open by fall hunters using ATVs. But out­side hunt­ing sea­son, these access points beg for explo­ration and overnight stays.

Pull off on the north side of the road as you approach the east side of the bridge, where a path leads to the shore. It’s a young riv­er here, roil­ing with whirlpools and bulges. It hiss­es as it surges past. It’s dis­con­cert­ing to real­ize this pow­er­ful cur­rent descends toward some of the most dan­ger­ous and chal­leng­ing riv­er rapids in the world.

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, trig­ger­ing a small gold rush and an out­post set­tle­ment known as Denali. The orig­i­nal dig­gings and set­tle­ment are long gone.

As the high­way climbs into the hills from the Susit­na Riv­er Val­ley on its way east, it cross­es from one of Alaska’s great water­sheds into anoth­er. There’s no easy way to pin­point exact­ly where the road cross­es the divide — it’s not marked and it’s not obvious.

An unmarked side road leads down a grav­el lane to a large park­ing area with an inter­pre­tive sign that’s a bit worse for wear. This old grav­el pull­out fea­tures one of the most spec­tac­u­lar panora­mas in the state, with the Alas­ka Range dom­i­nat­ing the north­ern hori­zon on clear days like a colos­sal snow-crowned palisade.

The old, well-appoint­ed camp­ground on the west bank of Brushkana Creek is very pop­u­lar among sea­soned Denali High­way trav­el­ers. The 22 camp­sites are well laid out, offer­ing a mod­icum of pri­va­cy, with excel­lent access to the wide grav­el bars along the clear-run­ning creek and its famous grayling.

A trail beck­ons from the brushy expanse south of the high­way, call­ing for a spon­ta­neous hike or bike into unsigned wild coun­try in search of cari­bou and berries and oth­er wild crit­ters. But only a few yards away, is an unex­pect­ed road­side dis­play — two trees adorned with orna­ments and beer cans and Mar­di Gras beads, with flags and play mon­ey and busi­ness cards.

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.

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.