We drove the Denali Highway on a wet, rainy July day en route from Denali to Valdez. This drive has been on my bucket list for a long time, and while I was disappointed that the rain and clouds kept the full views from being out there, the experience was tremendous.
The short version: 135 miles from Cantwell to Paxson. Maybe 23 miles are paved. There are (I think) two places to fix tires and get a bite to eat -- one looked sketchy, the other (Maclaren Lodge) was great. We were in a 4-door sedan, front wheel drive, and had no problems at all. As dirt roads go, it wasn't bad at all -- a few rougher spots, but we did 35 most of the time.
Due to our long drive and the nasty weather, we didn't get to stop much, but even the few pull-outs we took were breathtaking. Early on we came down a hill and about 35 yards from the highway a moose was belly-deep in a pond having brunch. It looked at us once, but mainly just sat there and ate its grass for the fifteen minutes we were there. No other cars came by. The only sound was the wind and the moose.
The road is travelled, mostly (that day, at least) by motor homes and campers (aka Tundra Whales). The Tundra Whales mostly were polite, but we had one or two very large ones that kicked up rocks and felt entitled to the center of the road. Drive aware, pull over and stop if needed, and you should be fine.
In some ways, beyond the moose, the most transcendent spots for me were the Maclaren River Valley and the Tangle Lakes Archaeological Area. I wish we'd had more time in each. The folks at the Maclaren Lodge serve a decent lunch (the only lunch in the area), offer lodging, boat rides, copious advice, wifi (for a fee), and a view of the Maclaren Glacier, about 15 miles away, pouring out of the Alaska Range. Tangle Lakes has several maintained trails across habitats that humans have been living and working in for over 10,000 years...as well as areas more dedicated to contemporary sportsmen and ORV folks. For most of the drive, it felt like we were alone with earth and tundra and rock and the ancestors.
This isn't for everyone. No cell service, long stretches where you see no other drivers, very, very few services...and a sense of the scope of the universe that I've never felt in more crowded climes.
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