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.