Drive the Denali Highway With Kids

Travel the Denali Highway and be assured of views around every corner. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

AKontheGO made one final push toward road trip bliss over the Labor Day weekend with a traverse of the Denali Highway, spanning 134 miles between Paxson and Cantwell.

We woke up morning before last to a film of frost covering anything not moving at the Brushkana Creek BLM campground 20 miles east of Cantwell. The temperature read 32 F and it felt like it too as I shivered into my down jacket to walk the dogs. Blue sky overhead explained the chilly day, and the air held an autumn smell of damp leaves, drying grass, and mud. It was a perfect beginning to what had turned out to be a pretty perfect adventure on Alaska’s Denali Highway. 

Winding along the ridges and tundra plains between Paxson and Cantwell, the Denali Highway is one of Alaska’s most intriguing drives, and one of the most underutilized as well, at least by visitors. Alaskans know about the highway, hunters flock here each August and September (and sometimes into October) to hunt caribou, moose, and some waterfowl, but lots of us have not taken the time to explore its rugged, remote course. 

The road, a gravel, often-potholed route, is passable between the end of May and early October. Usually, said the BLM official at the Glennallen field office. “Be prepared for anything, really,” she said, and we listened. Our RV was packed with necessities for days on the highway far from services, and enough extras to placate three kids, two dogs, and four adults for five days of autumn travel in Alaska’s Interior. 

Since most Alaska guests arrive in the summer months, that’s generally when the road fills with tourists anxious to see a Last Frontier they’ve only read about. Some try to drive the stretch of road in one day (hint: don’t). Others forget that a typical rental car sedan is not always hardy enough (and sometimes forbidden by the rental company) to tackle the potholes, washboard, and dusty surface the Denali Highway delivers. 

Great Alaskan Holidays allows RVs to travel the Denali Highway, but users must adhere to the 25 MPG rule, and check the vehicle often. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

We chose Labor Day weekend instead, for a few reasons. First was the color palette Mother Nature throws out in August and early September, and she didn’t let us down. Vibrant reds, loud yellows, and the browns and greens of meadow grasses provided a riot of color we just couldn’t stop exclaiming over. Every vista was met with a “Oh my gosh,” or “WOW,” even from the youngsters. 

And then there were the berries. Lowbush cranberries are best after a frost, and we picked gallons one afternoon in the lazy autumn sunshine. Blueberries were still abundant too, and crowberries attracted the youngest member of our party with a joyous “Look, I found some more!” every time he came upon a patch. It was foraging at its finest. 

We purposefully took four nights to cross from Paxson, traveling east to west to better follow the Denali Highway Guide provided for us at the BLM office. The kids could follow the simple map easily, and the special interest spots made for nice stops to stretch our legs or even camp, depending upon our whim. 

But we did learn a few things to note if you are considering such a road trip. It all comes down to planning, preparation, and persistence, and all three were necessary to pull off an adventure in our favorite season. 

AK Kid stands at Maclaren Summit, elevation 4,000+, along the Denali Highway’s highest point.

IF YOU GO: 

When: We chose Labor Day to maximize the fall colors and make “one last hurrah” before winter sets in. If you do choose this time of year, realize you’ll be sharing the road with many, many hunters in big trucks pulling ATVs, and some of them are impatient to get to their destination. Go anyway. 

How long: Don’t be in a hurry to drive the Denali Highway, you’ll kick yourself upon arriving back home. We drove to Paxson (4 hours from Anchorage); stayed at Tangle Lakes BLM campground one night (Camp Host Denny is the best of the best); drove just past Maclaren Summit to a scenic vista and parked overnight; drove to Brushkana BLM campground for one night; and wound up the trip at the Alaska State Parks’ Kesugi Ken campground near Trapper Creek, just because we love it so. 

Also remember that the word “highway” does not mean “fast.” Speed limits with our RV were limited by the company to 25 MPH, and we heeded this requirement without question given the road conditions. Take your time. 

What you need: RV travelers will want to make sure to fill up on gas, water, and propane, and empty the holding tanks before setting out. There are really no services to speak of between Paxson and Cantwell. Bring a tire gauge and “fix-a-flat” cannisters just in case a sharp rock meets a tire. 

Pack extra water, food, and snacks for every member of the party. Bring warm clothing, including rain gear and boots, so you can take advantage of the many trails all along the route. We loved the Tangle Ridge trail at Tangle Lakes, the Maclaren Summit trail, and a delightful meadow at Brushkana that overlooked the Alaska Range, Brushkana Creek, and was also a blueberry bonanza. 

Kids will enjoy peering through binoculars for wildlife and other people (we found a plethora of beaver dams in the kettle lakes), journaling their experiences, and searching for animal sign (the kids found caribou bones from past hunting expeditions, and scat and tracks and all kinds of things). 

Take a current copy of The Milepost, a Gazetteer map book, and do stop at the field office in Glennallen for the most up-to-date road conditions and cool information. 

Tangle Lakes Campground is an excellent family destination, four hours from Anchorage. Erin Kirkland/AKontheGO

Cell service/wifi: No. It all cuts out just after Paxson and doesn’t come back until Cantwell. Be prepared to act in any sort of emergency on your own, and embrace this opportunity to spend quality time with your family and friends. 

What we’d do differently: I’d stay two nights at Tangle Lakes to savor the amazing (and kid-friendly) hiking trails, paddle our canoe, and pick berries. Our crew also unanimously agreed that two nights at Brushkana would be of benefit as well. So really, a week total would make us very happy campers. 

 

Will we return? Absolutely. We’re already planning next year. Who else is in? 

~EK 

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