Going Remote: Driving the Denali Highway

Tangle Lakes BLM campground. Danielle Benson photo.

Tangle Lakes BLM campground. Danielle Benson photo.

by Danielle Benson

This is it, one of my favorite times of year. In Alaska, it is planning season. Each spring, my nuggets splay out their large plywood Alaska maps, a holdover from a 3rd grade school project and our inspiration for endless opportunities. These kids are growing fast, and our Alaska adventures are ripe for the picking.

Last August we ventured out on our annual wilderness pilgrimage, and for this specific trip, parameters were as follows:

 

  • Destination was limited to where we could drive. Unpaved roads always preferred.
  • Accommodations included the trusty North Face family tent, purchased in 2008, and individual sleeping bags.
  • Cell phones reluctantly flickered into “No Service” range during the drive out, and remained in this wonderfully silent no-man’s land of connectivity until the drive home.
Checking out the boat launch. Danielle Benson photo

Checking out the boat launch. Danielle Benson photo

We drove the Denali Highway as a family camping and hunting adventure. A 134-mile-long, mostly unpaved sweep of wild beauty stretching from Cantwell to Paxson, the Denali Highway was originally the only road to Denali Park and Preserve before the Parks Highway was completed in 1972. We soaked it all in, the vastness of this Alaska space repeatedly taking our breath away. On past trips, we stayed at both established campgrounds along the Denali Highway. (yes, there are only two). While the Brushkana Creek Campground closer to Cantwell has more private, wooded campsites, we spent more evenings this trip at Tangle Lakes BLM Campground, closer to Paxson.

The Tangle Lakes fee in 2015 was $11 per night, with plenty of dry firewood available for a $5, well-maintained pit toilets to the point that my daughter referred to the facilities as “luxuriously clean.” I snuck a couple of very inexpensive inflatable boats into the back of the van before we left, puffed them up with a battery powered air blower, and wiggled excited kids into rain gear, and they blissfully paddled in large, lazy circles by the concrete boat launch. Before dinner, the nuggets and I hauled our buckets up the steep hill right next to the campground to picked our fill of plump wild blueberries.

Blueberry picking along the Denali highway is bountiful and seemingly endless, and we all ate more than we picked, and still carted home pounds and pounds of blueberries for muffins, cakes, smoothies and other treats. More often than not, my daypack snacks went uneaten, because every hike included a “pick as you go” blueberry feast. Every morning after a camp stove breakfast, we loaded up into the van and hit the pitted, gravel road in search of adventure. We huffed up hills south of the road one warm afternoon and collectively froze, in awe, as a small herd of caribou crested the hill just 20 yards above us. The caribou were as shocked to see us as we were to see them, but after a 15-second staring contest, they turned around and galloped back the way they came.

On another afternoon we snacked on salami, cheese, and crackers and hiked the north side of the highway near Maclaren Summit. At 4,086 feet, it is the second highest highway pass in Alaska, and the views of both Maclaren and Eureka Glaciers were gorgeous. With lips stained purple, but not yet sick of blueberries, the nuggets strayed off the path, and popped in some more. We also hunted for geocaches along the way, since geographical geocaches are a family favorite. The question “Why are there little ponds everywhere?” was answered by our geocaching GPS. The small, dotted ponds plopped all around are kettles, formed when chunks of retreating glaciers broke off, were buried and eventually melted. The area is also part of the Tangle Lakes Archaeological District, where, according to BLM, “more than 500 archaeological sites indicate that ancient peoples inhabited this area for at least 10,000 years.” The area is on the National Register of Historic Places due to the densest concentrations of archeological resources in the North American subarctic.

Alyeska Pipeline

I couldn’t grasp how lucky we were to spend the week exploring. Another adventure motored us back out onto the Richardson Highway north from Paxson for the day. After glimpsing of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline through the trees, the nuggets begged to examine it more closely. We found a pullout with access, and hiked up to marvel at it. A nearby salmon lookout also paid off, and displayed bright red salmon that managed to swim far upstream. The area also provided a bit of modern, yet still rustic civilization. Our daily drives back and forth along the highway had our fuel gage dipping below my comfort level, so we pulled into the Tangle River Inn for a fill up. The Inn has a restaurant, liquor store, gas, cabins and canoe rentals, but we just bought the gas and moseyed along.

Another fun pit stop was Gracious House. The family residing here rents out cabins, runs a bar lined with dollar bills, and sells delicious baked goods. There are also tire repair services.

Picking blueberries among the "kettles" near Tangle Lakes. Danielle Benson photo.

Picking blueberries among the “kettles” near Tangle Lakes. Danielle Benson photo.

Next time we want to try…

Primitive camping. While the campsites along the Denali highway were top notch, the nuggets seemed ready to take the next step and try staking our tent in more remote areas, away from the security of an established campground.

We’ve also been interested in meeting up with Zoya DeNure at Crazy Dog Kennel. She runs her competitive dog-mushing outfit near Milepost 42, and lives along the Denali Highway year round to train for races. My kids are always up for a puppy fix.

Before heading out, don’t forget to bring enough water, a full-size spare tire, bug spray, and plenty of adventurous spirit. Since communication is limited, leaving travel plans and dates with a local friend or family member is also a good idea. Additional Information, including a mile-by-mile log is available in the Milepost, and the BLM has a wonderful brochure about the Denali Highway.

Danielle Benson Danielle Benson lives with her family in Eagle River, Alaska. She, her husband, and her “nuggets,” a set of boy-girl twins and an older son, spend many hours exploring the Alaska wilderness. 

 

 

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