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900 miles through Alaska Part 3: The Denali Park Road and Parks Highway

 

Our family spent 3 weeks biking 900 miles in Alaska. This is the third of three parts describing our journey. Read Part One Here and Part Two Here.

After a day and a half of rest, much-needed showers, laundry, and resupplying on food, while binge eating pizza and ice cream, we started the next segment of our trip. We had a week left before we needed to be in Fairbanks, to prepare for the trip home.

Over four days we biked the Park Road from the Denali Park Entrance to Wonder Lake and back. This was an 85-mile trip each way. The Park Road is 92 miles long, but we would not be going to the end of the road at Kantishna.

Denali from Wonder Lake

We camped at Sanctuary Campground on our first night out and third night, and at Wonder Lake Campground the second night. When we planned our trip we had originally hoped to camp at Igloo Campground, at mile 34 on the park road, instead of Sanctuary (which is at mile 23). To stay at either Igloo or Sanctuary, you have to get a permit in person. When we requested permits for Igloo, at the camper registration, we were warned that Igloo Campground had a lot of bears, and therefore was not recommended for visitors traveling with small children.

By camping at Sanctuary Campground our trip down the Park road consisted of a short day of 23 miles, followed by two long days of 64 miles each, and ended with another short day. We had over 5000 feet of elevation gain on our longer distance days.

On our first day of riding the park road we made quick trip to the shopping area outside the park before beginning on the Denali Park Road. The road climbed the first 9 miles and then descended, before the road switched from pavement to gravel. After mile 15, on the Park Road, the road is only open to park buses, workers, and occasionally those that have business in Kantishna.

Bikes are allowed on the road, as well. Most people visiting the park take the bus in, with options to get off and camp, hike. The buses are equipped with bike racks to take bikers into the park, that do not want to bikepack in. Even if we had wanted to take the bus in with our bikes, we wouldn’t not have been able to. The buses are not equipped to carry fat bikes.

After leaving the pavement, we saw our first caribou on side of the road. It had dark fur and looked to be quite young. We continued up a hill and then down to the river valley, where our campground was. Sanctuary campground has seven campsites, only one was occupied when we arrived.

We set up in site 4 and then went to the river to get water for cooking. Water is only available from the river at this campground. In addition to 7 campsites, Sanctuary River Campground has a cooking shelter, 2 pit toilets, and 2 bear box areas.

We were thankful for bear boxes at many campsites we visited. Where bear boxes were not available we put up bear bags in trees, or where there were no trees, we distanced the food from our campsite and prayed that no animals would try to rummage through it.

Doing dishes and getting water by the Sanctuary River

The afternoon passed quickly. A couple of European men set up camp next to us, and a woman that was traveling the road by bus, but also had a bike, set up across from us. We put our food and cookware in the bear bin before the sun had set, and snuggled into our tent for the night. The next two days would be long and challenging.

We packed our bags under the cloudy skies, and then enjoyed eggs and bagels for breakfast in the cooking area, on the second day of our Park road journey. We headed onto the road. We battled the headwinds, as we passed Teklanika River campground at mile 29, and Igloo Campground at mile 34. Shortly after passing Igloo Campground, a bus pulled alongside of us. The driver warned us that a large grizzly had been spotted about a mile up the road, on the right hand side.

We continued up the hill, and sure enough there was a large male, grizzly digging into the roots and berries, along the ridge to our right. We stopped to observe his immense size and pure awesomeness. He did not seem interested in us, though we blew our bear whistle to let our presence be known. Another bus came along, and the driver, a young woman agreed to drive between us and the bear. We passed the bear,  just before we reached the top of Sable Pass. After descending the pass, we found a pullout, overlooking the river, to cook our lunch. We cooked our lunch of top ramen, and tortilla shells with peanut butter and jelly, before hopping on our bikes for the remaining climbs that would lead us to Eilsen Visitor Center and eventually Wonder Lake.

It took us almost 5 hours from lunch to get to the Eielson Visitor Center. Along the way, we battled winds of all directions, tossing us around on the road, through Polychrome Pass. We met a guy from Colorado that was also bikepacking. He was on his way out of the park and said we were the only 2 other bikepackers he had seen on the road. We also met a photographer on a bike, that was camping at Teklanika River Campground and was returning from a 74 mile out-and-back to Eielson Visitor Center.

Polychrome Pass

We were exhausted by the time we reached Eielson Visitor Center. The interpretive area inside was closed, but we used the bathrooms and topped off with water, while we snacked. We had 20 miles left to Wonder Lake. Becky’s bike had fallen at the visitor center, damaging the rack. Fortunately it held those last 20 miles of riding to Wonder Lake

Our family arrived at Wonder Lake just before 9 pm. The camp host welcomed us and helped us find an amazing spot in the alpine tundra overlooking the Great Alaska Range. During our day of riding the clouds had cleared and Denali, the highest peak in North America, was visible.

We set up our tent, and cooked dinner just before sunset, at 10 pm. We ate greedily and then went to the tent to pass out.

Bryon fixed Becky’s rack in the morning. We cooked breakfast in the cooking shelter and then took off to climb 20 miles to Eielson Visitor Center. The views of the Alaska Range were stunning as we departed Wonder Lake.

We reached Eielson Visitor Center and cooked pasta on the sidewalk. April played, and stretched her legs, as we refueled. As we journeyed the remaining 44 miles from the visitor center to Sanctuary River Campground, we absorbed the scenery. We observed the wildlife. At one point we made our way up the road behind 3 buses following a pair of grizzly bears. The sow and cub grizzly ventured along the road for 2-3 miles. The bears had us concerned, if they turned around we could be in trouble. At the same time, it was amazing to observe them stride along.

During the last few miles of our ride to camp, our muscles ached. We walked a little and stopped to rest. After hours in the saddle. We set up camp and ate most of the food we had remaining. By the time we went to sleep it was 11 pm. Bryon had tied a tarp up above the tent, as rain was predicted the next day. We had been fortunate for three dry days in a row of riding but didn’t think the rain was gone for good.

We woke to light rain, thankful we had put our tarp, this had helped us set up and tear down, while staying dry, on several occasions. We planned to finish off the ride from Sanctuary to the Park entrance, where we would stay for a day or two at Riley Creek Campground. We would go into the tourist area for pizza, clean up, and rest. We did not have a lot of food left at this point. We had our last oatmeal packets for breakfast. We were looked forward to donuts and coffee at the Mercantile near the Park Entrance.

We reached pavement 8 miles into our ride. We each had half a Reese’s and then took on our last climb of the park road. We enjoyed the second half of the Reese’s, before descending 10 miles into the park entrance area.

Grizzly Bears

We saw a moose on our way out of the park. During our time on the park road, we saw numerous caribou and snowshoe hares, grizzly bears on nine occasions, 1 moose, an eagle, a loon, and a number of grouse. We felt privledged to have had the opportunity to witness these critters in their natural habitat.

Caribou

We reached the Denali Park Mercantile around 1:30 pm. We secured a campsite and devoured half a box of donuts while we drank coffee drinks. We had found the park road to be a huge challenge. We also find it hard to describe the immense beauty that surrounded us during this portion of the trip.

After setting up camp we went into the tourist shops and enjoyed a large pizza followed by milkshakes. We were approached by a number of people during the next day and a half, as we rested near the park entrance. Many individuals that approached us had witnessed us following the buses with the bears on the park road, from there bus. They were all curious about our adventure and wanted to know what was in the Burley. Many people thought it was a dog or gear and were surprised to see April in there.

Biking on the Park Road

We had two days of riding left from Denali National Park to the where our adventure would come to an end in Fairbanks. We planned on camping in Nenana and then making it to Fairbanks by Friday the 24th of August.

Nanette

On our way to Nenana, we stopped in Healy, 12 miles from Denali, to resupply. Healy had the first full grocery store we had been to since Glennallen. We stocked up on snacks and meals for the next two days. We planned to reach Fairbanks by mid-afternoon the next day. From Healy it was about 50 miles to Nenana. Nenana has one of the few campgrounds/RV parks between Denali and Fairbanks. Most of the land along the Parks Highway in this section of road was privately owned, so dispersed camping is not advised.

April at the Nenana RV Park

There was not much in Nenana, the shops all seemed to be closed by 6 when we pedaled through the town. We did find a neat little book exchange, where we left the books we had recently finished.

We woke to rain our last day of pedaling to Fairbanks. We made breakfast under a shelter and then began to ride in the rain. We climbed for many miles into the fog covered hills, before descending on our wat to Skinny Dick’s Halfway Inn. We went into the strange bar/gift shop. The woman tending bar said she did not cook, but agreed to make us coffee. We needed to warm up before we pedaled another 25 miles to the city. We had our coffee and a bag of chips, before going back into the rain.

On our way to Fairbanks from Nanette

The George Parks Highway climbed for a while longer, and then we descended to town. We ventured through Ester and then onto the bike path that took us to Fairbanks. When we got to Fairbanks we biked past the Alaska DNR complex, that Becky had spent a previous summer as an intern. Then we tried to find our mail.

We had sent a package from Anchorage general delivery with duffle bags, tools, and clothes for the flight home. The post office I had addressed it to did not have our parcels and directed me downtown. We raced to the downtown post office, and found they had returned the package to sender. I had called the USPS at the start of the week and arranged for it to be redelivered to general delivery. The postal worker sent us away and we were left to find duffle bags and make due without the stroller wheel for the Burley in the airport.

We had coffee, downtown, after leaving the post office and booked a hotel for the night. We biked 5 miles to our hotel, where we ordered pizza and began to figure out what needed to be done before we left town, Sunday night.

Saturday we found a case for our gun, duffle bags, and then shopped for groceries before checking into an Airbnb for the night. We made lasagna and cookies and watched a couple of DVDs. We had a vehicle rented for Sunday, so we could get bike boxes and complete the remaining errands we had to do before going home.

Sunday we awoke and rode to the airport to get the rental truck. We acquired the truck for the day and then made our way to get bike boxes. The bike shop I had arranged to get boxes from, had mistakenly set aside boxes for road bikes, not fat bikes. Thankfully though Goldstream Sports saves all of their bike boxes and we were able to get one that would fit Bryon’s bike and pieced two together to fit Becky’s bike. Each box was $15, a piece, still much less expensive than it would have been to ship empty boxes from Anchorage to Fairbanks.

Sunday we drove out to Lower Chatanika, where Becky had worked for her internship five years ago. We drove through Fairbanks, a bit, and then finished packing bikes and bags. We went to the airport around 10 pm, bringing an end to our great Alaska adventure.

We dream of returning to Alaska someday, hopefully, sooner than later. The massive state has so much more left for us to explore.

Thank you to Fat-bike.com and Why Cycles for working with us to test and review the Why Big Iron bikes, during this trip. Thank you to Fitzgerald’s Bicycles in Victor, ID for tuning our bikes before we departed. Thank you to Burley Design for setting us up with our Burley Solo. April has now explored over 3000 miles in the Solo. Thank you for the support from Robert Axle Project, Love the Pain, and Big Agnes. We are fortunate to have relationships with these supporters. Our trips would not be possible without it!

 

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One Response to 900 miles through Alaska Part 3: The Denali Park Road and Parks Highway

  1. Shane September 19, 2018 at 4:09 pm #

    Awesome trip and thanks for sharing!