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Alaska, Uncategorized

Denali Highway: Fairbanks to Tok

After prying myself from the black hole of cozy lounging, warm coffee, the company of fellow travelers, and plate after plate of food at Billie’s Backpacker I was glad to again be on the road south, away from the hustle and congestion of Fairbanks.

The direct route to Canada follows the Alaska Highway east out of Fairbanks. But after two summers of guiding bike trips from the Kenai Peninsula to Denali National Park and passing the turnoff for the 135-mile Denali Highway each time without turning east, my curiosity got the better of me. With stories of this remote, wild, winding dirt road as my only reference, I was eager to see for myself.

Completed in 1957, the Denali highway offered the first road access to Mt. McKinley National Park, traversing the 134 miles from Paxson to its western terminus in Cantwell. In 1971, with the completion of the George Parks Highway — Alaska’s main thoroughfare between Anchorage and Fairbanks — the Denali Highway remained, gaining status as one of the more scenic drives in America.

Without the 18-wheeled trucks of the Dalton, the Denali Highway was quiet. With the exception of the occasional RV, traffic was limited to trucks hauling ATVs, gun racks and all. The Denali is a popular jumping off point for hunters, fishermen and recreational miners searching for their own secret spot in the backcountry playground of the Alaska Range. Passing through three separate drainage basins (the Copper, Yukon and Susitna River drainages) there are endless opportunities to float, 4-wheel, hike or, in the winter, snow mobile to hidden corners of the interior.

Farewell to Fairbanks. Joe framing for the new porch and Ringo lounging, waiting for the next break in the clouds.

Just as I was leaving two motorcyclists came roaring in off the road. Eddie and Stan had gotten after it , riding 5700 miles in 9 days, all the way from Wilmington, NC. Neighbors from a far away land.

Shadows on the run. Outpacing spare tires shipped from home, these two quickly slipped in and out on their way to the motorbike shop, stopping only to exchange a quick word about eastern NC.

Just shy of Denali National Park I stopped for the night along the Nenana River, a glacially fed river popular for its summer whitewater.

A quick 2 miles in the morning and I was back to the old summer stomping grounds of Glitter Gulch, eagerly awaiting some Raven's Brew at Black Bear Cafe.

In between gulps of coffee I looked up to see a familiar face. While stopped for lunch over a week prior on the Dalton, I met Chapman as he was guiding a tour group north to Deadhorse.

After meeting a few of his friends and hearing talk of hiking and swimming on a sunny afternoon followed by pizza and beer with live music, I was sold on a day off. Watch where you swim in Horseshoe Lake!

Amazing pizza at Prospector's. And to honor Alaska as the 49th state, 49 beers on tap! Try the Arctic XPA from Kenai River if you're looking for hoppy summer refreshment.

Can't spend a night at Denali Park without a trip to "The Bake." Beers and live music with Michael, Megan, Brooks, Katie, Chapman, Becca and Ryan. Thanks for a great day!

Another round of coffee and breakfast biscuits at Black Bear and I was off. Sadly, though, no views of the mountain this time around.

Buses shuttling rafters upriver whizzed by all afternoon.

And the clouds lifted for a brief afternoon sun soaking.

Dinner in an open meadow on the serene Denali Highway.

With weather and riding like this, who wouldn't smile?

I was greeted by clouds the following morning -- par for the course for the next week plus.

Clouds make for quite the dramatic background, though.

Six wheels beats two when dodging softball-sized rocks strewn across the road. But I prefer the view from my seat any day.

With strong recommendations I sprung for a night camping at The Gracious House. Run by Butch and Carol, this little lodge has been serving travelers of the Denali Highway for 55 years.

A warm shower and cold beer is the perfect way to wash away a dusty day.

Phil and Brenden of Motoquest Tours stopped in that night with a group touring the Yukon and Alaska for 6 days by motorcycle. An entertaining bunch never shy to share a beer, stories of faraway tours were swapped over the mosquito-repelling bonfire. Growing organically from his passion for leading small groups of friends on tours of his home state of Alaska, Phil now operates in 13 countries around the world, seeking out hidden dusty roads to share with his guests.

The man of the hour! Just the vehicle you want to follow on a rutted, rocky road. It wasn't meant to be. Rain ended his day shortly after I caught him.

Clouds began to stack over the Amphitheater Mountains as I approached the Maclaren River crossing.

On the run! The liquid sunshine left me scampering for shelter, which turned into breakfast for dinner at the Maclaren River lodge. With food prices nearly twice what they are in the lower 48 -- and my appetite twice what I'm used to -- my budget is being blown to pieces for the month!

A soggy final day on the Denali.

The name isn't necessarily directed at the clientele...

Covered head to toe in mud, and most likely smelling like a Grizzly Bear, I wasn't so well received by the waitress when I stopped in for coffee. A disgusted look up and down was all I needed to know the rain gear had to come off before I sat down.

Roadhouses like the one at Meier's Lake provided my only resupply options along the way to Tok.

With stock thin on the dusty shelves, one has to be creative to whip up a hearty meal at the end of the day. Stagg Chili with pasta, Ramen, garlic and olive oil and a side of peas did the trick along the shores of Paxson Lake.

I dodged construction for the next 125 miles to Tok, careful to avoid being rolled or crushed.

Nine days after leaving Fairbanks I’ve arrived in Tok, ready for laundry, a shower, a day without bike shorts. With over three full weeks of solo riding the flood gates opened wide as soon as I hit town. I met up with Andy, an outdoor instructor with Yosemite Institute, riding from Deadhorse to Vancouver, BC and shortly after met Lang, from Korea, Kanetomo, from Japan, and Mario, Pablo, Alex and Lou riding from Anchorage, home to Guadalajara, Mexico.

With a campfire heating in anticipation of grilling steak and potatoes, we’ll share one last meal in Tok before riding out of town tomorrow as a group of 8, headed for Canada and Haines Junction — where I hope to convince them to join me for a couple days in SE Alaska.




22 thoughts on “Denali Highway: Fairbanks to Tok

  1. I’m really enjoying your postings. Thank you so much for sharing your big adventure!

    Posted by Judi Costa | July 2, 2011, 9:14 pm
  2. I find myself checking The Simple Pleasure each day hoping to see the next posting. Greg, you have a way with words and photos capturing your adventure. What is most important to me is I can feel and sense your spirit and devotion. Do you have any video capability on board withyou? Would enjoy seeing you enjoying new friends along the way. Be safe, have fun, keep it coming!!!

    Posted by Chuck Kellogg | July 2, 2011, 9:31 pm
  3. Your blog is great, Greg! I had no idea that you were such a descriptive and interesting writer! You need to keep it up! I especially liked the “liquid sunshine”…

    Beautiful pictures, by the way –


    Posted by Susanna Pantas | July 2, 2011, 9:52 pm
  4. Awesome, love that it’s so visual! Thank you!

    Posted by Brooke Toczylowski | July 2, 2011, 11:23 pm
  5. Let the stories continue! These next few days shall prove to be quite interesting.


    Posted by Andres | July 3, 2011, 1:58 am
  6. The Denali Highway looks pretty sweet! I’ll make my way down there one of these days, maybe later this summer. Hope the ride out of Fairbanks wasn’t too hard on that knee, just getting started again. I made a handle bar and grip change on my bike after seeing yours, hoping to tame down the numb hand issue. Ride hard and love it, because that’s the easy part, Jared.

    Posted by Jared Block | July 3, 2011, 3:28 am
  7. Greg, So happy to hear from you yesterday as you know I remain the worried mother. Loved seeing your blog this am, all of us posting comments are jealous for sure. You need to send a sample of this to Outdoor Magazine or Bicycling, maybe you could make a few bucks for your food budget. I know I am not the only one who is impressed with your photos and writing. Have fun with your new friends. Love you.

    Posted by Dorie | July 3, 2011, 6:58 am
  8. Ahhhh the Denali highway and the Nenana River. Brings back memories of our ride through the parki and rafting the Nenana last August. Very nice. Enjoy.

    Posted by Gary Toczylowski | July 3, 2011, 8:25 am
  9. Greg, great update! The scenery (without the rain) reminds me of our Backroads trip. I’ve got to say, after hearing from you every other day the 5 day hiatus was a bit unnerving. Your fans are checking you every day for updates so there’s no problem boring us with frequent posts. I’m ready to come joint you with 3 caveats: only downhill; no rain; no bugs. Somebody (Chuck?) suggested you contact SI and offer to do a running column for them as you progress on your trip. Just ask them to spring for your food, they won’t know what they’re getting into.The photos are outstanding. Dad

    Posted by Dad | July 3, 2011, 9:42 am
  10. You can count us among the many people who are so excited when you have updated the blog. We made ourselves eat breakfast first and then sat down to our fast-becoming-a-ritual of sitting down together to read your writing and ooh and ahh over the photos. How’s the knee? And are you still thinking you will be in Juneau sometime between the 11th and 14th? We had a little Type 2 fun yesterday in the Adirondacks and thought of you. Hope your fun level stays around a 1.5 for most of the time and that your new friends can keep up with you. Much love to you.

    Posted by Leighton & Zpora | July 3, 2011, 12:02 pm
    • Knee’s good–a day off was the perfect medicine! I’ll definitely be in Juneau b/w the 11th and 14th and can’t wait. I love that place. Type 2 trail running, perhaps? I miss running in the woods. Come visit and we’ll find some sweet ridges to explore!

      Posted by The Simple Pleasure | July 3, 2011, 1:08 pm
  11. Awesome Greg! I’m watching the Tour de France on tv and I think I’m more inspired by reading your blog than watching the biggest bike race in the world! Over the last few days, when I have lacked motivation to go for a ride, and it’s been hot and humid out, I think of your trip and it spurs me to get out the door. Keep it up, and keep up the writing. I love following along…maybe someday I can do more than follow along on a computer!

    Posted by csproul | July 3, 2011, 1:50 pm
  12. Great reading your adventure and progress, your photos are interesting and appreciated, stay safe and continue to enjoy your travels.

    Posted by Bob Newsham | July 3, 2011, 9:47 pm
  13. Another great blog, Greg! Everyone here is so psyched on your writing and pictures. I, too, check it nearly daily to see some more awesome pictures and stories. We’ve been getting out a lot lately (to climb) but you’re truly having the better adventure. I don’t think a night goes by at Roger’s that we don’t talk about you and wonder where you are and what you’re up to. Stay safe.

    Posted by Matt Moody | July 5, 2011, 4:39 am
  14. Greggy!! So good for the AT soul to read about your adventure!! I can totally feel al your highs and lows… I wish you the best, I miss you and hope our crazy paths cross somewhere sometime soon!! xoxox
    My LIttle Pony

    Posted by courtney alampi | July 7, 2011, 10:16 pm
  15. Greg, This clip conveys a taste of the magic you are weaving there in the vastness.

    Putting a package full of caring in the mail this afternoon.

    Posted by ruby | July 8, 2011, 8:26 am
  16. Really enjoying travelling down memory lane with you Greg!

    How are you getting on with the Troll?

    Posted by While Out Riding | July 11, 2011, 3:00 am
    • Thanks for checking out the blog!

      The Troll has been great. Just prior to the trip I moved everything over to the 20″ Troll from my 18″ 1×1 and after adjusting to the size difference am really glad I stuck with the tried and true geometry. My only regret is the short steer tube, originally cut w/o me around. Think I’ll have to replace that soon.

      Haven’t ridden too many miles of singletrack with it loaded but the everyday dirt and pavement riding has been amazingly stable, yet responsive. With the fat knobbies and a little titanium in my hands and under the saddle the rough, rutted roads have been pretty manageable. I’m curious to see how that holds up over long stretches of truly bad dirt.

      Still happy with yours?

      Posted by The Simple Pleasure | July 13, 2011, 5:08 am
  17. There will come no end to the good times my friend. Ride on!

    Posted by Andres | July 12, 2011, 12:54 pm

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