First Time on the Denali Highway (Alaska Route 8)

Over time, most RVers develop preferences for how they like to see an area.  Some of the favorites are hiking, canoeing, fishing, ATV’s, or jeeps, and although we will try variety, we do all seem to have our favorites.  For Lee and I, our absolute favorite is scenic drives.  These drives are generally on the kinds of road we would never take our rig on and are often twisty, turny, bumpy, and sometimes scary, but the views and the things we see are always very special.  They are literally the roads less traveled, and we love to explore them when we get a chance.

I am telling you all that to give some context to my next statement, which is that this road was in the top 5 scenic roads I have traveled on in my life.  The pictures I am going to show you don’t come anywhere close to doing justice to what we saw, and honestly I don’t even care.  I will forever have the pictures in my mind of this place and nothing we could ever take can come close to that.  In an effort to do it justice though I did tweak the tone and contrast on some of the pictures, which helped sharpen the images and compensate for a cloudy day, but in no cases have I enhanced the color.  It was even greener than you will see in the pics…truly.

We also started out the trip with a BLM guide to Denali that has 27 points of interest.  You can pick up this pamphlet for free at the Glenallen field office or the visitors center and I highly recommend it.  It is hands down the best pamphlet of it’s type I have ever used and added exponentially to the enjoyment of the day.  I felt so strongly about it that I called the BLM office this morning and thanked them.  It was that good.

A little more background and then I swear I will get to to it.  Highway 8 is the road the locals use for hunting and recreation.  It is paved for 20 miles on either end, but is 100 miles of dirt and gravel in the middle.  I knew this was going to be a long trip (roughly 5 hours estimated) so decided to spend some of our unexpected tax return on a room in Denali that we could stay at when we arrived.  I have been on the fence about seeing Denali National Park at all (I’ll talk about that more in the next post), but since I knew it would be too long for us to drive round-trip, I thought I would kill two birds with one stone.  The reason that is important is because we couldn’t just do this drive on any day.  We had a reservation, so when the forecast was cloudy and rain, I was a bit bummed.  Luckily, the day cleared as we went on, and anyway it truly didn’t matter.  The vistas were so vast and the colors so rich, overcast or not, it was still amazing. And more importantly it was not one landscape for many miles.  It kept changing and surprising us.

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MP 6.5 Gulkana Glacier

 

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According to the BLM pamphlet glacier erosion created the jagged appearance of the Alaskan range

 

The Wrangel Mountains were largely obscured by clouds but there is a great viewpoint on a clear day at MP13

MP 13 The Wrangel Mountains were largely obscured by clouds but there is a great viewpoint of Sanford, Wrangell, and Drum on a clear day

We started at Paxson, and the first 21 miles of the road were paved and in really good shape. There are multiple lakes in the beginning of the journey and a group of them called Tangle Lakes.  Right after the road ends there is a pretty awesome BLM campground that is $12 a night and has a river, views of the lakes, and even had a camp host on site.  I loved the vibe of the place and would absolutely recommend staying there if you need to drop your big rig before exploring the road.  I wouldn’t take anything larger than a Super C on this road by the way and wouldn’t recommend trailers of any kind at all, unless they are beat up already and you don’t really mind what happens to them.

Where the road ends, In places it was graded and actually quite pleasant but those sections never lasted for long

MP 21 Where the road ends, In places it was graded and actually quite pleasant but those sections never lasted for long

 

To give you some scale

MP21.5  Tangle Lakes Campground.  Some of the sites looked down on the lakes

I’ve never been to the Scottish Highlands, just seen pictures and movies of it, but the terrain quickly turned into views that I imagine look just like it.  Rolling green hills that go on forever with lakes and ridges and mountains in the background.

 

The little houses give you some feel for the scope '

The houses give you some feel for the scale.  The green unfortunately I couldn’t come close to capturing

 

MP 22.5 Landmark Gap which was formed in an Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago. This gap was a favorite Inidna hunting area and the Nelchina caribou herd still migrates through this area.

MP 22.5 Landmark Gap which was formed in an Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago. This gap was a favorite Indian hunting area and the Nelchina caribou herd still migrates through this area.

We had heard that there was some discussion at one point about paving this road but a combination of cost, the fact that the road is closed in winter, and unpopularity with the locals caused it to never happen.  It’s unpopular with the locals because this is where they come to hunt, and my understanding is that in the fall there are tons of people.  It can support that many because you can park and camp almost anywhere and we must have seen over 50 fire rings in pull offs right off the road.  It’s also a great route for bicyclists because the traffic is sparse and traveling slowly.  Remember to check your spare tire before you take off though, because cell coverage is minimal and you really need to be able to rely on yourself if you have a problem.

The McLaren Summit is a great place to see the McLaren river and get a panoramic view of the Alaska Range.

MP 37 has the McLaren Summit which is a great place to see the McLaren river and get a panoramic view of the Alaska Range.

 

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Alaska range. On clear days you can see the McClaren Glacier and Mount Hayes

 

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The McLaren River

The BLM pamphlet isn’t just about cool vistas though.  It also talks about geological points of interest like Palsa’s which are “small, dome-like mounds” 10-20 feet high which contain peat.  I have read about peat in many books but never actually seen it and was very interested when we ran across this one around MP 41. It was so big I didn’t know what it was at first.

Palsa

Palsa

The pamphlet also talks about kettle lakes which are formed when ice breaks off from a receding glacier and eventually melts leaving a circular depression.  There were tons of these along the drive, but here is one of my favorites.

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Kettle Lake

Next up was the McLaren River bridge and one of the most beautiful views we saw all day.  The McLaren Glacier is only 16 miles away and the view was spectacular.  We actually crossed the bridge and turned right into a small camp/picnic area, but we also saw people stopping and walking right out on the bridge to take pics.  It is also the only spot we saw along the entire highway with a small concentration of businesses.  A couple lodges and a small store are located here.  No gas though, so don’t forget to fill up before you enter the highway.

McLaren River

McLaren River Lodge

The bridge

The bridge

How would you like to live here :)

How would you like to live here 🙂

The McLaren Glacier

The McLaren Glacier

We spent several minutes here and then headed down the road towards Crazy Notch.  This lateral moraine (buildup of rocks on the sides of glaciers) was cut by a stream and created a natural snow catch.  It has several twists and turns inside and is the main reason the highway is closed in the winter because of the difficulty of clearing the pass of snow.  It was fun to drive though, I really enjoyed it.  Oh I should probably mention that I drove almost the whole way.  Lee’s arm was really bothering him from all the painting he has been doing, so when the road got rough I took the wheel so he could rest his arm as much as possible.

The outside of Crazy Notch.

MP 46.  The entrance to Crazy Notch

Around MM50 there are a series of small lakes, several of which had ducks on them and the literature saif to look for shorebirds, moose, caribou, beaver, and fox in the vicinity.  Sure enough, a little while later we had our only animal sighting of the day, a fox which was walking down the road.  It was a great sighting though as the fox allowed us to take some great pics and it was our first fox in the wild sighting ever.

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We even got to see him poop!!

We even got to see him poop!!

Around MP 59 we started seeing eskers which are sinuous ridges of silt, sand, and gravel that were deposited by a stream flowing within a glacier.  They were confined by walls of ice, but when the glacier melted away the mounds were left and they were beautiful and fun to drive on.

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As you can see from the previous picture, the dark clouds were clearing up and we started to get even more beautiful views.

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The road looks deceptively smooth. It was pothole heaven lol.

 

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Some sections were recently graded though and those were a little better.

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Around MP 79 we saw the Susitna River which runs from the Susitna Glacier and is a major drainage system

Around MM 88.5 we stopped at a huge pull out with great views of the Alaska Range and an unexpected surprise.

One of the many campsites we saw

One of the many campsites we saw

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My favorite lake of the day

Lee found an intact caribou skull. Very rare to find these with the horns still on them

Lee found an intact caribou skull. Very rare to find these with the horns still on them

We decided to take it with us and I know one young man who will be very happy once we figure out how to clean the darn thing

We decided to take it with us and I know one young man who will be very happy once we figure out how to clean the darn thing

The views continued to be stunning but I was getting a little tired and was glad when we finally reached the Brushkana Creek Campground which is another BLM campground about 20 miles from the Cantwell entrance to the highway.  I didn’t like this campground at all, but the road got much better from this point forward. And then something really magical happened.  Between MP 107 and 108 we found an unexpected Roadside Attraction.  You know how much I love those, and out here in the middle of nowhere there was a tree with lots of little special trinkets on it.

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The mentos cracked me up for some reason

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I thought bug spray was particularly appropriate 🙂

The sighting refreshed us and we knew we were in the home stretch.  What I didn’t count on was another different terrain and some of the most beautiful views of the day.

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I loved, loved this one

I loved, loved this one

 

And if that wasn’t enough when we got closer to the end we got to see the Nanana Glacier at MP 116.

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Nanana River

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Finally we hit the end of the road.  It took 4 hours and 48 minutes to travel 138 miles, but it was worth every moment of it.  Next up you get to see what happened when we entered Glacier National Park.  Thanks so much for following along, I hope you enjoyed it.

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11 thoughts on “First Time on the Denali Highway (Alaska Route 8)

  1. Loved seeing your views. This road was probably the highlight of our Alaska trip, even though we got a flat tire. We were lucky with a sunny day as well. Our camp at Little Joe Lake was probably the best boondocks of our ten years of rv travel.

  2. Pingback: Second Year – By the Numbers – Camper Chronicles

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