The Denali Highway connects Paxson with Cantwell by a 135 mile long, mostly unpaved road. While travel was slow, 35-40 mph, the road was better maintained than we were expecting and the views phenomenal. The Paxson end of the highway has the more dramatic views as well as more visitors. All in all this is a very doable and pleasant trip across the Alaska wilderness.
Get the BLM Denali Highway Points of Interest brochure with a map and a listing of what can be seen at various mile posts (MP).
Coming from Denali National Park we started the Denali Highway from the Cantwell end of the road at MP 135. Our plan was to camp two nights on the highway.
We made the mistake of thinking Cantwell was a real town and we could pick up a few last minute supplies and lunch. It is not. You can get gas, ice and snacks, but that’s about it.
On a beautiful day the views are amazing. While clouds had moved in, the mountains were surprisingly clear with snowy peaks in the distance. Even Denali was visible in the far distance. At MP 99 a short climb gave us a panoramic view of the Alaska Range.
We checked out Brushkana Creek Campground MP 104 but thought it had too many mosquitos and the adjacent property across the river looked unkempt. Instead, we found a spot at MP 97 with views of the Alaska Range through the trees. There were still lots of mosquitos but not quite as many as at the campground and they were easily controlled with head nets. The spot has several fire rings and a flat spot for a tent. As it is a dry camp, stop to get water at one of the streams before you arrive.
Scoping out the area the next day we found out there are a number of good campsites along this stretch, MP 98-90. The best ones have unobstructed views of the Alaska Range.
With our tent in full sun and sunset not being until midnight it stayed hot in the tent until late. Sometime during the night we put the light quilt over us, and by morning it was chilly enough for the heavier quilt.
At sunset, about midnight, rain showers in the mountain glowed pink in the late evening light.
We woke to a beautiful bluebird day. Some clouds were massing over the mountains but mostly just high white puffies around.
We had a leisurely pack up and were on the road by 9:30.
From the south side the summer morning light on the Alaska Range was harsher than yesterday afternoon, still the views were impressive. Though now having seen the entire Denali Highway on this beautiful summer day, the whole thing is magnificent.
The Alaska Range viewpoint at MP 85.5 is definitely worth the 600 yard uphill walk. The point is not marked from the road, but it’s where the BLM brochure says it is and there is a road that goes up the hill to a viewpoint with sweeping views of the Alaska Range and Susitna River.
The road had been quite good but starting sometime after crossing the Susitna River, there were bumpy sections. Not really anything that a car couldn’t handle if you go slowly, i.e., 30 mph.
Between the Susitna River crossing at MP 80 and Clearwater Creek at MP 60 you lose views of the Alaska Range for about 20 miles, where the views open to a valley to the south.
At Clearwater Creek views of the higher peaks start to return. If you are anxious to see them, there are a couple of high points on left, north side, a mile or two past Clearwater Creek with views.
From here the mountain views only get better and better, really this is the more scenic end of the highway. It is also the busier end. Still there were relatively few other vehicles. We could stop pretty much anywhere we wanted.
The road is also paved in spots and then turns to a tar and chip road, still better than gravel. Bad sections remain but become less frequent.
We stopped for lunch at Waterfowl Lakes MP 49.5. Although a great place for birders it was way too buggy to eat outside. I’m sure the birds are very happy. There are also great mountain views above the lakes.
The Maclaren Bridge MP 42 offers great views of the river and up the glacier in the distance.
We contemplated camping at Tangle Lakes Campground MP 16 but found the sites too exposed on a sunny day. Like the day before the tent would be hot. The sites themselves are on the small side, but it’s a pretty area with lakeside views from a few of the sites.
Near the end of the highway heading east is the best panorama of the highway, the State of Alaska-maintained wayside at MP 6.5. Miles upon miles of mountain peaks and glaciers.
Finding a Bed for the Night
With the uncomfortably hot tent conditions, plethora of mosquitos and deteriorating air mattresses we decided we would try to find a real bed for the night. We were off the highway at 2:30, but on a Tuesday in mid-June there were few accommodations available. Heading south we finally found a cabin with a shared bathroom at Northern Nights Campground and RV Park in Glennallen. Of the 4 cabins we were the only ones in them.
There was a lot of construction on highway 4 heading south with 2 long sections of traffic going in only one direction at a time. Probably cost us close to an hour, for the hour drive south to Glennallen.
Worse, the sky was amazing, a mix of puffy whites and dark blue rain clouds some virga and the Wrangell Mountains getting closer all the time, with no place to stop to take in the view or photograph it.
Northern Nights Campground and RV Park
The cabins at Northern Nights are reasonably well-appointed with a microwave, coffee maker, fridge and sink. The shared bathroom has a shower that takes tokens for a 7 minute shower. The room is small, but the bed and sheets are comfortable. With everything else full, we were happy to find it.
For links to all the posts in this series see the Alaska page.
June 14-15, 2021