Driving to Alaska Day 14: Denali Highway

Welcome to post 14 of 18 in our Driving to Alaska series. We hope you enjoy the stories from this unforgettable 4,000 mile road trip. //

It rained most of the night but luckily ceased by the time we got up. The only thing we can do inside of the truck we’ve been loaned is sleep.  Cooking, eating, getting dressed, going to the bathroom…it all happens outside; so rain makes all of those tasks a bit tricky.  A real bathroom sounded nice this morning so we packed up as soon as we got up and found the nearest outhouse.  We made breakfast right there in the outhouse parking lot and then got in the truck and pointed north to our next destination.  We were headed to the Denali Highway, a 135 mile long stretch of gravel and pavement through no man’s land.  This was the original route to Denali National Park and had since been replaced by the Parks Highway.  It was now simply a gateway to the vast Alaska wilderness.  

Our morning view upon leaving camp.

From Glennallen all the way to the Denali Highway turnoff was nothing but rolling, forested hills that stretched on for as far as the eye could see.  Massive snow-covered peaks appeared in the distance as we neared our turn.  Once on the Denali highway we were completely encompassed by snow and mountains.  We were 140 miles north of where we began the day and it felt like we’d reverted back a month or more in time.  Every lake was still frozen and several feet of snow still blanketed the ground. 

The cold and barren Denali Highway.

After reaching the summit of Maclaren Pass at 4,086’ above sea level (Alaska’s second-highest highway summit) we descended and were met by slightly drier conditions.  Free, dispersed campsites along either side of the quiet highway appeared frequently telling us we’d have no problem finding a place to stay.  Every hill we crested presented yet another stunning view of glaciers and majestic snow-covered peaks.  

We covered about 90 miles of the Denali Highway before finding a turnoff that led to an idyllic campsite.  Giant peaks rose around us in every direction.  For the remainder of the evening our heads would be on a swivel. 1) so that we could take in the 360 degree views and 2) to be sure a grizzly didn’t creep up on us.  Mark’s senses told him that this spot felt more like grizzly territory than anywhere we’d been so far.  For that reason we kept our cooking to a minimum and enjoyed two quick and easy dehydrated meals.  

At 10:30pm routine told us it was time to get to bed.  However, this was only the second night of the trip that the sun was not obstructed by a thick layer of clouds.  The golden light of sunset was enticing us to experience an Alaska sunset in its entirety rather than go to sleep.  Due to the earth’s angle to the sun this time of year at this latitude (63º north), sunset lasts for hours rather than the half hour or so that we’re used to in the lower 48.  We’ve both longed for years to witness this and so it was an easy decision to pack up and go for a drive, especially since 40 miles down the road was the possibility of a view of Denali, North America’s tallest peak at 20,310’.  

We made it 1/4 mile down the road before spotting a cow moose and her calf grazing on a hillside.  After admiring them we picked up speed only to come across another moose and a half mile later, another.  They were especially majestic with the snow-covered peaks rising up behind them.  A short mile later was a stretch of ponds, each one delighting us with mirror reflections of the sun-kissed mountains. The majesty of it all had us as giddy as kids on Christmas morning. 

Over the course of two hours we covered 40 or so miles of the west side of the Denali highway.  In that time we saw 8 moose, 6 porcupines, and one very fast and large grizzly bear.  It was the first time either one of us had laid eyes on a grizzly.  After it ran across the road in front of us we turned to one another with our eyes wide and jaws dropped.  Pink clouds hung in the sky for nearly the entire drive, it had just begun to feel like nightfall when we stopped at 12:30am.  Denali never revealed itself, it remained shrouded in clouds, but it didn’t matter.  Our first Alaskan sunset was everything we’d hoped it would be and so much more.



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About

We’re Mark & Michele, modern-day nomads perfecting the art of slow, full-time travel.  Our tiny home on wheels and slow-paced travel style allows us to minimize our expenses while maximizing our freedom.  May our unconventional way of life inspire you to design a life that you love.

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