The Denali Highway, which stretches 136 miles east–west across the waist of mainland Alaska from Cantwell, from 30 miles south of Denali Park to Paxson at Mile 122 on the Richardson Highway, may be the best-kept secret in Alaska. Originally the Denali Highway was the only road into Denali National Park, and this beautiful side trip has been largely ignored by visitors since the opening of the George Parks Highway in 1971.
Denali Highway is paved for 21 miles on the east end of the road (from Paxson to Tangle Lakes), and for three miles on the western end, but the rest is well-maintained gravel, which has received an undeserved bad rap—usually from folks hoping to set world land-speed records on their Alaska vacation.
The Denali Highway offers a varied selection of outstanding scenery and wildlife-viewing opportunities. Much of the route punches through the foothills of the magnificent Alaska Range. This area is part of the home range of the huge 30,000-strong Nelchina caribou herd. In the fall they begin to group in the greatest numbers—sightings of several hundred caribou are not unusual.
The Denali Highway is closed October–mid-May, but in the winter it becomes a popular trail for snowmobilers, dog mushers, and cross-country skiers. Die-hard Alaskans also use this trail in the winter for access to unparalleled ice fishing and caribou and ptarmigan hunting.
As always, travelers on the Denali Highway should be prepared for emergencies. Always carry a spare tire and tire-changing tools, water, some snacks, and warm clothing. Towing is available from Paxson, Gracious House, and Cantwell, but it ain’t cheap, so take your time and be safe.
The Denali Highway began as a “cat” track in the early 1950s when a man named Earl Butcher first established a hunting camp at Tangle Lakes. Known for years as Butcher’s Camp, it’s now the site of Tangle Lakes Lodge. About the same time, Chalmer Johnson established a camp at Round Tangle Lake. Now known as the Tangle River Inn, this lodge is still operated by the Johnson family.
A minuscule settlement (pop. 160) at the junction of the Parks Highway and Denali Highway, Cantwell began as a railroad settlement, and a cluster of decrepit buildings are strewn along the tracks two miles west of the highway. Cantwell is less than 30 miles south of Denali National Park, and a couple of businesses provide the staples: fuel, food, lodging, and booze. Most folks stop to fill up on the expensive gas, get a soda, and tool on up the highway. There aren’t a lot of reasons to stay in Cantwell itself, though the surrounding country is grand.
Two miles off the main highway, Cantwell Lodge (907/768-2300, www.cantwellodgeak.com) houses a café, a bar, a liquor store, a laundry, showers, and Wi-Fi. Just a quarter-mile up Denali Highway, Backwoods Lodge (907/768-2232 or 800/292-2232, www.backwoodslodge.com, $140–170 d) has modern motel rooms with fridges and microwaves.
Blue Home B&B (907/768-2020, www.cantwell-bluehome.de, $120 d) is two miles off the highway, with two guest rooms that share a bath, full breakfasts, and Wi-Fi. The owners also speak German.
Park RVs at Cantwell RV Park (907/768-2210 or 800/940-2210, www.alaskaone.com/cantwellrv, mid-May–mid-Sept., tents $18, RVs $30), an open lot near the junction with the Parks Highway. Services include Wi-Fi, showers, and a dump station.
Denali Sightseeing Safaris (907/240-0357, www.denalisights.com, June–mid-Sept.) operates from the igloo on steroids at Mile 188 of the Parks Highway (22 miles south of Cantwell). These unique tours are in customized big-tired trucks to allow them to cross glacial rivers and take you up old mining roads into the spectacular alpine area. Seven-hour treks are $160 adults, $80 children under 13.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition