So I’m just back from an adventure I’ve wanted to embark on all summer: cycling the Denali Park Road in Denali National Park and Preserve. The Park Road is 92 miles long from the park entrance to the former mining claim of Kantishna, one of the rare privately owned spots in the park and a complete resort with roadhouse and tourist shuttles. The last public campground is at the mysterious Wonder Lake at mile 85. Another popular deep-in-the-park destination is the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66, set in a spectacular mountain setting.
There way I had heard people bike the park road in the summer is this: take your bike on a shuttle bus to Wonder Lake, arrive in the late afternoon, cycle all through the night and maybe part of the next day. The ultimate solstice experience. These people have done it like this, and so had my supervisor (several times). However, you can really only do this between mid-June and mid-July – we have nights now with real darkness (and the cool-off during the night is also greater now). So I packed up a tent, sleeping bag, camping gear etc. and set off. This is what my bike looked out at the start, Saturday afternoon:
Note the bear-proof food container right behind my saddle. The backcountry desk at the park’s Wilderness Access Center provide you with one if you get a permit to camp in the backcountry. The desk is staffed by park rangers, and they are nothing short of awesome. They have a great attitude and helped me to sort out my itinerary, given I had arrived late on Saturday afternoon and wasn’t quite sure which direction I wanted to ride the road (outward is easier – the climbs are less steep and you end with a long downhill on pavement).
The plan was this: Day 1 – ride to Sanctuary River campground (mile 22) and camp there. Day 2 – ride to Eielson Visitor Center (mile 66), visit, and camp a mile or three downhill from it in backcountry unit 34. If the ride is too long, catch a camper bus with bike rack for part of the ride. Day 3: Roll all downhill to Wonder Lake (mile 85) and catch a bus back. This isn’t quite how it worked out, but no matter.
The road is paved for the first 15 miles, which is how far any visitor can drive in. Then until mile 31 (Teklanika rest stop) it is wide enough for two buses to pass each other. Beyond that, the larger vehicles have to let each other pass.
The image above is from just before mile 7, when the first rain broke out. I waited it out under a spruce tree. There were wonderful blueberries in these woods and beyond…
The road nearly everywhere very good. My touring bike was perfectly adequate, though this is maybe one of the rare cases where a hybrid with mountain bike elements/29er would be highly appropriate. I was debating putting in wider tires, and that might have been better. Anyhow, no flats.
One of the “worst” sections was this (looking back down the climb I just went up):
The dirt is still very well packed down, and it’s easy to avoid occasional washboard. Looking towards the other side:
The elevation profile is worth looking at. Nothing too bad for someone used to hilly interior Alaska, but there’s a difference riding on a highway with no/little baggage and riding on a dirt road loaded up like I was. Mostly, I was a lot slower than I expected, and yes, those climbs can become steep. I wasn’t going to be able to do them all in a day.
To get to my first stop, I rode the paved section of the road (mostly uphill) to Savage River, then a nasty rise and somewhat steep descent (in the twilight) to Sanctuary River. My campground at Sanctuary River…
… and the river itself:
The campground has only 7 places, tent-only. It is clean (like all of them) and fairly secluded. The only other party was a bunch of young men with packrafts.
After Sanctuary, it’s a pleasant ride to Teklanika campground (water spigots available to fill your bottle), Teklanika rest stop (mile 31) and the Teklanika River:
Then follows a section of beautiful boreal forest to Igloo Creek. And then the serious climbing begins.
I made it up to Sable Pass and a little beyond, and then an enticing green camper bus with a bike rack came by. So I flagged it down and rode to Eielson Visitor Center in comfort.
View from Sable Pass:
The first bear appeared not long after Sable Pass, disconcertingly close to the road (none of the bear photos are going to be high quality, sorry!):
The willows in the foreground border the road. None of the bears I saw took the slightest interest in what was going on on the road, though. (And yes, I had bear spray readily accessible and had gotten the bear safety talk from the rangers.)
Here is an even smaller bear, this one way beyond Polychrome. Can you see him?
Same bear, zoomed out – landscape with bear dot:
And here we have a few caribou – can you see them? (This is close to Stony Overlook, already getting close to Eielson):
(They are close to the right edge of the picture.) All this is on a backdrop of alpine tundra.
Eielson Visitor Center is in a place of extreme natural beauty. View to the south, towards the gorges below and the creeks full of glacial runoff:
Mount Eielson (just to the right of the picture above):
The sun coming out for a moment between the clouds and illuminating the tundra:
A view back towards the road we came on:
And a view up north… towards the ridge 1000 feet above, which I hiked up to camp just beyond on the plateau, out of sight in the backcountry. Access is particularly easy here as the Alpine Trail zig-zags up this mountain side to cross the ridge in the U-shaped depression at the left edge of the picture:
Also, my ride back was in one of these buses.
The weather held just until I had reached “my” ridge. Then it started raining and rained all night. It was also quite windy on the north side of the ridge. The next morning (this morning), after hiking back down the mountains side looked like this:
As for my bike…
I decided that rolling on the wet dirt road in the fog and drizzle down to Wonder Lake, only to catch a bus as soon as I arrived, wasn’t going to be all that much more fun. So I left back from Eielson on the early bus, and came home in time to dry my tent and write this post.
It was a great trip, just too short! I learnt so much about traveling, touring and camping, and will sure do it again. I also increased the number of bears I’ve seen (all grizzlies) by several hundred %.
To finish up, some tips:
- Travel as light as possible. Don’t take as much water as I did. A filter system (just for backup) and three bike bottles worth of storage is perfect. Teklanika campground and Eielson have 24h accessible water refill stations. I carried more than twice that. I also carried too much gas for the cooker.
- You’re going to be slow. Painfully slow. Touring with a full pack is VERY different from travelling lightly for an overnight solstice ride. I wasn’t surprised about the effort expended, but hardly ever rode faster than 10 mph. Seriously, it’s very slow – and the downhills on gravel with a loaded bike aren’t something I’m going to take fast either. I have no trouble doing a 40 mile evening ride in the hills around Fairbanks and think that 40 miles as a day goal on the park road is pushing it.
- Don’t save on a mat to sleep on. It got pretty cold at night. Also, carry a variety of snack foods.
- Maps: Get this one – it’s a good topo map and has the backcountry units marked off. Especially if you want to stay longer in the backcountry. Cyclists, print out the elevation profile, and of course pick up all the maps they have for free at the park entrance.
- What performed well: My Kona Sutra touring bike, the Ortlieb panniers, the REI 1-person Quarter Dome tent, my new Marmot rain pants, Melinda’s JetBoil cooker. I’ll get a waterproof stuff sack for the sleeping bag and a better (and longer!) rain jacket next time.
- The rangers at the backcountry desk will help you sort out what a good camping spot for a cyclist would be (that is, with bushes to stow your bike out of sight, not too much bushwhacking to get the required ½ mile away from the road etc.)
- We saw tons of bears between Sable Pass and Polychrome and even some after Toklat. Caribou up around Stony Overlook. Some moose around the park entrance.
- The best campgrounds for tent-only, in my opinion, are Sanctuary River and Igloo Creek. Beautiful country around Igloo Creek.
- For doing this again, I would take at least three full days of cycling. These guys are doing it right, for fit guys, I think: Park entrance to Igloo Creek is doable in a day. Igloo Creek to Stony Overlook is … tough. I probably would camp somewhere on the rise after Toklat. Camping near Polychrome would be harder (open country or steep slopes), and it’s also very bear-rich country. Then on the last day you don’t HAVE to go all the way to Wonder Lake – the campground is bound to be packed with people who took the bus in (reserve ahead if you want to stay there) plus there are a lot of backpacking kids in the backcountry. You will have to do at least one backcountry camping night – so why not do two? Or of course be super-tough and ride all the way from Igloo Creek (the last campground before Wonder Lake) to Wonder Lake Campground, with reservation: then you can safe on the bear-safe food container, which is heavy and bulky.
- Other than cycling, day-hikes are very well catered for, either on your own (from Igloo Creek for example) or with the ranger-led program. I wasn’t aware that they organise hikes, including shuttle bus to the starting point, every day. That would be a fun and safe way to experience the amazing park and wildlife.