Denali Highway: Fall for it

Labor Day weekend was a glorious jumble of color, sunshine, and a yearn for open roads, so drive them we did, up and over one of Alaska's most underutilized roadways.

The Denali Highway, once upon a time the only way to reach Denali National Park, is often forgotten in the "hurry up and get there" mindset of most Alaska visitors (and often we residents, too) who forget that in the Last Frontier, the journey is often the destination.

A 134-mile drive between Paxson and Cantwell, the highway is extremely popular with fall hunters. Our five-day adventure was full of ATV-dodging as rifle-toting caribou and moose hunters made their way across the horizon, but they added to the texture of the highway's landscape and should be considered an integral part.

The Denali Highway opened to traffic in 1957 to improve access for visitors' arrival and departure from the national park, which had up until then been made only by Alaska Railroad trains. Obliquely following a centuries-old caribou migration route and Native Alaskan hunting trails, the highway winds its way around kettle lakes, brushy tundra, and one mountain pass, Mclaren Summit, with a vista of 4,086 feet. Mostly gravel, the Denali Highway's lore of few services, no cell service, and narrow passages deter some potential visitors; local car rental agencies prohibiting travel on the highway stymie even more.

Generally open from mid-May until October, the roadway shuts down once winter snows make travel impossible; until then, however, the Denali Highway is an open book for roadtripping enthusiasts looking for more from their Alaska experience.

Where is the information? The Denali Highway (Route 8) is managed by the State of Alaska Department of Transportation, but the public land surrounding it is under Bureau of Land Management jurisdiction, and it is the BLM that has the most information concerning activities, history and information, and a milepost map.

The Milepost, considered by many to be the bible of Alaska road travel, also has a comprehensive guide for the highway.

How long should it take? When the uninitiated read that the Denali Highway is a mere 134 miles, they often attempt to drive the distance in one day. One certainly can, but recommendations for speed (30 MPH maximum) and road conditions (potholes, washboard surfaces, or other travelers) soon prove them wrong. We took five days, driving from Anchorage to Glennallen, spending one night, then swinging left toward Paxson and the highway's beginning. We overnighted at two campgrounds (Tangle Lakes near Paxson and Brushkana Creek near Cantwell), and found ample pullouts along the road in between for our RV. Be aware that all camping is dry, and except in the campgrounds, fresh water is tough to find if not prepared.

Are there any car rental agencies that allow Denali Highway travel? For RV travelers, Great Alaskan Holidays requests a 25 MPG speed limit with frequent stops to check tires, but travel is permitted ( ). Alaska 4X4 Rentals also allows for Denali Highway travel with an all 4WD fleet ( ). Adventure Alaska Car Rentals also provides vehicles with the mettle to withstand the Denali Highway gravel ( ).

Is camping the only option? While camping is the easiest from a logistics standpoint, there are a few small (and simple) lodges available for those not wanting to overnight in a sleeping bag. Try the Denali Highway Cabins near Paxson ( ); Clearwater Mountain Lodge ( ); or Alpine Creek Lodge ( ) about halfway between Paxson and Cantwell. Note that rooms fill up fast during hunting season.

Are there activities besides driving all day? The BLM manages several excellent hiking and ATV trails throughout the expanse of the Denali Highway, and we enjoyed several strolls and more strenuous hikes during our trip. We also spent hours picking blueberries, crowberries, and cranberries (the latter are in prime condition for harvest now) on the hillsides. Wildlife-viewing and photography are also popular activities, and the Tangle Lakes Archeological District has a plethora of fossil-hunting opportunities (do remember that no artifacts may be removed, only viewed).

Erin Kirkland is an Anchorage-based travel journalist and author.