The Denali Highway: The Drivable Denali
From Cantwell, 27 miles south of the Denali National Park entrance, the Denali Highway leads 133 miles east to another tiny village, Paxson, on the Richardson Highway. The little-known road is a lesson in how labels influence people. It runs due east from the Denali National Park border, a natural extension of the park over the Alaska Range, with scenery that's equal to and in some ways more impressive than the park's. Yet without the national park name, the terrain along the Denali Highway is comparatively little used.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) controls the land along the Denali Highway, and it's pretty much open for any recreational activity. Much of the highway passes through high, alpine terrain, with views that extend infinitely and good chances of seeing caribous, moose, and black and grizzly bears. At Maclaren Pass, at 4,086 feet, you stand in high Alaska Range terrain of tundra and rock, with views of Maclaren Glacier. The land invites you to walk at least a little way out across it. The Tangle Lakes are perfect canoeing waters, where you can see an extraordinary variety of waterfowl, including trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, and loons. Tangle River Inn, at mile 20 (tel. 907/822-3970; www.tangleriverinn.com), rents canoes for $5 an hour or $35 a day.
Simply driving the road is an experience. If you're traveling to Denali National Park from Anchorage or Fairbanks, consider making a return trip via the Denali Highway and Richardson Highway. But check out road conditions first. The road is gravel and sometimes in poor condition. Consult the Alaska Department of Transportation's road condition hot line (tel. 511; http://511.alaska.gov). When the road is good, you can cover its length in less than 4 hours. Most rental companies don't allow their vehicles on the Denali. For the adventurous, biking the road is one of the best ways to see it. Trails and remote roads from the highway offer some exceptional mountain-biking and hiking routes, especially in the Tangle Lakes National Register Archaeological District.
Lodgings on the highway are limited to a few small roadhouses. At mile 42, the friendly Maclaren River Lodge (tel. 907/822-5444; www.maclarenlodge.com) makes a welcome break with good basic food from the grill and boat tours on the river. Check the cabins before deciding on a night's stay; although inexpensive and clean, they are definitely no-frills. One reportedly has a ghost. The BLM maintains campgrounds at Brushkana Creek and Tangle Lakes, and you can camp anywhere you want outside a campground.
For more details, get the BLM's Denali Highway Points of Interest road guide and its Trail Map and Information Guide to the Tangle Lakes Archaeological District. They're available at the Alaska Public Lands Information Centers in Fairbanks, Anchorage, or Tok, or directly from the BLM's Glennallen Field Office, where rangers can give advice on a Denali Highway trip. The agency also has a website devoted to the highway at www.blm.gov/ak/gdo/denali.html (or just Google it at "BLM Alaska Denali Highway").
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.