How to bike Alaska’s Denali Park road
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Seven things you should really know before you begin.
UNDER 24-HOUR DAYLIGHT, we rode through the night and covered the entire 90-mile route in 12 straight hours. Along the way, we saw moose, caribou, ptarmigans, and a porcupine. Glaciers, mile-wide river bars, rolling tundra, boreal forests, and Mt. McKinley. We watched the sun set at midnight. And since there’s no shuttle bus traffic over “night”, we had had the entire park to ourselves.
The folks at the Wilderness Access Center and the Backcountry Office can help you plan your trip, but here are 7 things to consider:
- The 90-mile park road is mostly hard-packed gravel and suitable for most bikes. But depending on weather conditions, you might experience dust, ruts, washboards, and mud.
- Expect pretty much every type of Alaskan mountain weather — be prepared for rain, snow, wind, and freezing temperatures.
- With a number of long hill climbs up numerous passes, you’ll want to be in good biking shape.
- There is nothing to eat or drink inside the park — you’ll have to bring all of your own food.
- If you want to camp anywhere or at one of the established campgrounds, you’ll need to make reservations with the backcountry office. They’ll help you plan your overnight stops and provide you with a bear-proof food container (nice).
- If you plan to take your bike into the park on a shuttle bus, you’ll need to reserve a spot at the Wilderness Access Center.
- You’ll of course want to bring your camera, but consider a pair of binoculars for spotting wildlife.
Starting the trail
We rode the 11:00 camper bus all the way back to the last campground at Wonder Lake, where we offloaded our bikes. We started riding back through the park at 17:30, pedaled all the way through the night and arrived at our car the next morning at 5:30. The brightness of the sky barely changed the entire time.
Although this was just a day trip, it was important to take small bike bags and enough food and clothing to see us through just about every weather condition imaginable during the 90 or so miles.
One of the few Denali Park shuttle buses we saw at the beginning of our ride. But aside from this guy, the only sounds were rushing streams, wind in the trees, and gravel under our tires.
Climbing up toward the visitor's center. In some places, the park road carves along steep hillsides that drop over a thousand feet down to the river valleys below. Keep a steady tow.
The Alaska Range
The Alaska Range is far from the worst backdrop to bike under. Behind, you can see the rolling terminus of the Muldrow Glacier, which flows for over 30 miles down from the flanks of Mt. McKinley and drains into the McKinley River.
Pedaling past real life illustrations of textbook mountain geography: snow-covered peaks and glacially carved valleys emptying into mile-wide gravel bars that empty between green expanses of tundra and taiga. Look hard enough and you'll see bears, caribou, sheep, moose, and wolves. Maybe even a lynx.
Pedaling towards Polychrome Pass at 23:30, a few days before summer solstice. Even after the sun set around midnight, it was still light enough to ride without any lights, even during the middle of the night.
At midnight, the sky opened up and painted rich bands of pink and orange light on the Polychrome Mountains at the other side of the valley.
As the only people on the road, we had our own display of midnight sunset light on the mountains of Polychrome Pass. I took along two cameras and couldn’t shoot enough photos to satisfy my appetite for good light.
Sunset over the East Fork over the Toklat River. Keep in mind, we're only halfway here.
Virga and alpenglow
Low sun finally nears the horizon and streams through low clouds at midnight. About three hours later, the display started again with pink alpenglow appearing on the northeast facing peaks of the Alaska Range. By then, we still had about 20 miles to go.
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