Denali Highway

Cantwell, Alaska (Denali County)

Last Updated: 05/26/2021
5 / 5 ( 2 reviews )
Information
Nearby Trails
Status: Open
Typically Open: 05/15 - 10/15
Difficulty: 1-1
( EASY )
Length: 135 miles
Highest Elevation: 4160 feet
Duration: About 4 hours
Shape of Trail: Connector
Best Direction to Travel: N/A
Nearest Town: Cantwell
Nearest Town w/ Services: Cantwell
Official Road Name: Denali Highway, Alaska Route 8
Management Agency: Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities
District: Fairbanks Office
Distance:
Showing 0 trails within 2 miles

Highlights

Highlight: Denali Highway
Connecting the outside world to Denali National Park for over a decade, the Denali Highway provides spectacular views of Alaska's interior. Stretching from the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains to North America's tallest summit, Denali, at 20,310' is surrounded by the Alaska Range. This historic route is guaranteed not to disappoint. Sprawling over three different river drainages to include: Susitna, Tanana/Yukon, and Copper, this dirt road provides spectacular views and river crossings of narrow wooden-decked single-lane bridges. This route really is special with its scenery and guaranteed to carve a special place in your heart that only Alaska can fill. Several different lodges are found along the way and are worth grabbing a warm meal and friendly company along your journey. Wildlife Viewing is a common attraction along the 135-mile stretch, so keep an eager eye, and you may find some of Alaska's wildlife looking back at you!

Video

Weather

7 day forecast for Denali Highway

Route Information

Advanced Rating System

Recommended Vehicle:
2WD Vehicle with High Clearance
Concerns:
Summary:
The Denali Highway often has washboards and soft spots that like to grab the steering wheel, with no obstacles along the route that would obstruct vehicle travel in summer conditions. Plenty of RV's and trucks with campers pulling ATVs make the trip but often drive much slower due to the rough road surface.

Technical Rating: 1-1
( EASY )

Dirt and/or rocky road. Potential rocks and/or tree stumps less than 5" tall and/or vertical ledges less than 5" tall and/or near vertical ledges or waterfalls less than 6" inches. Good tire placement likely. Can be steep, but with good traction.
Read more about our rating system

Description

The Denali Highway was the only way into Denali National Park from 1957 to 1971 before the Parks Highway (Wasilla to Fairbanks) was created. Routing through some of Alaska's most beautiful scenery, this road is mostly unpaved gravel and dirt with a few miles of pavement at both ends. The BLM Brochure shows some of the popular attractions that are shown below. The route is 135 miles and may be easily completed in a few hours, although spending a week or more for overlanding, exploring, and hiking is highly recommended, Almost any passenger vehicle is capable of driving the Denali Highway in its entirety from June through late September, but beware, many vehicle rental policies do not allow travel on the Denali Highway - verify if applicable. The highway is closed every winter due to snow, so check Alaska DOT for updated conditions and current road status.
No cell reception, gas, or services are available for the majority of this 135-mile, mostly dirt road. Bears, caribou, moose, and other wildlife are common along the route, so plan and act accordingly.

Waypoints

1. Denali Highway Beginning (Historical End) (0 mi)
This is the beginning of the Denali Highway from Cantwell. Historically, the Denali Highway ended at Denali National Park, which is now accessed by a quick jaunt up the Parks Highway, which was eventually completed in 1971. Until the Parks Highway was completed, the Denali Highway was the only way to drive into the Denali National Park for approximately 15 years.
2. Gravel Road Begins (2.65 mi)
This is the end of the paved section along the Denali Highway when starting from Cantwell. The Reindeer Hills are just north of here.
3. Lake Pullout (7.91 mi)
A large pullout with a magnificent view of an unnamed lake (approximately 1% of Alaska's approximately 3,000,000 lakes are named). No permit is required for dispersed camping here along the road.
4. Ahtna Campground (8.17 mi)
Ahtna owned and maintained campground with picnic tables and fire pits, but no bathroom at this time. A Ahtna Permit Application must be completed to camp here. At the time of writing, some blank forms were left in a dropbox on site.
5. Nenana River (14.39 mi)
The Nenana River comes up to the side of the Denali highway. The Nenana Glacier primarily feeds this river and, as such, is quite cold even in the summer months. It is a tributary of the Tanana River and is approximately 140 miles long, which eventually flows into the Yukon River before heading to the Bering Sea. This is a popular river for rafting due to its rapids, but it is not known for its fishing due to such a high glacial silt load.
6. BLM Plaque (18.28 mi)
A large pullout with scenic views and a plaque provided by the BLM that covers the history of the Denali Highway and its construction in the 1950s.
7. Seattle Creek Crossing (22.79 mi)
A large pullout to the side of the Denali Highway is a great place to stop and stretch or disperse camp.
8. Brushcana Creek Campground and Crossing (29.18 mi)
Brushkana Creek Campground has potable water and pit toilets. A fee is required to camp here, and a hiking/ATV trail heads right out from the middle of the campground.
9. Sand Dunes (30.11 mi)
A small sand dune is present along the side of the road. Sand dunes pop up around Alaska in various places but are quite rare for the most part. The Great Kobuk Sand Dunes is a massive set of dunes in the Kotzebue region encompassing 30 square miles..
10. Mountain View Pullout (30.98 mi)
A little bit of a bumpy steep climb to this flat pullout offers great views of the 400-mile long Alaska Range to the north and the smaller Talkeetna Range to the south. This would be a great place to park for the night and stay in a vehicle-mounted RTT or ground tent.
11. Clearwater Mountain Lodge (39.43 mi)
Clearwater Mountain Lodge is the only lodge along the highway on this side of the Susitna River. Check their website for more information. The dumpsters out front are for public use and are free to use.
12. Susitna River Crossing (53.32 mi)
This is the mighty Susitna River. This bridge offers spectacular views and has made its way into many Alaska travel videos, including the 2016 Nitto JK Experience. The river is 313 miles long and is the 15th largest river in the United States which winds its way through the Alaska Range, then through the Talkeetna Range before eventually emptying into Cook Inlet near Anchorage.
13. Alpine Creek Lodge (64.94 mi)
The Alpine Creek Lodge is open 365 days a year and offers some excellent food at reasonable prices. Check out their website for more info on what they can offer to enhance your trip, including lodging, hunting, excursions, gold panning, mountain biking (they even have bikes to rent too), and more.
14. Scenic Lookout (73.8 mi)
This is a great spot to photograph the Clearwater Mountains reaching up to 5781'. These mountains are part of the greater Alaska Range (which includes Denali) that begins near Lake Clark and terminates near the Alaska/Canada border that follows the Denali Highway. This is a great spot to stop and look for bears, moose, and caribou as well.
15. Clearwater Creek Crossing and Rest Area (77.54 mi)
This crossing offers pit toilets and a large pullout with several fire rings for visitors to enjoy.
16. Maclaren River Lodge (91.02 mi)
The Maclaren River Lodge offers many services to help you partake of Alaska and to help you on your way. Check out their website to see what they can offer you.
17. Maclaren Summit (96.19 mi)
This large sign and pullout offer great views of the surrounding area. Hiking and ATV trails are plentiful from here to Paxson. Maclaren Summit is at 4,086' and forms the second-highest highway pass in Alaska, only surpassed by Summit Pass at 4,250'.
18. Glacier Gap Trailhead (102.51 mi)
This is one of the hiking and ATV trails that are plentiful from Maclaren Summit to Paxson.
19. Tangle Lakes Lodge (111 mi)
Tangle Lakes Lodge is the last lodge before reaching the Paxson side of the Denali Highway.
20. Tangle Lakes Campground (112.24 mi)
The Tangle Lakes Campground is a large campground with potable water, boating, pit toilets, hiking, and more. The nearby Tangle Lakes Lodge is a great place to get a warm meal from after a day of adventure.
21. Swede Lake Trail (117.98 mi)
A popular trail amongst the ATV community and the hunting community for access to caribou and moose habitat, the Swede Lake Trail offers loading ramps, pit toilets, and an extensive parking area just off the highway. The ATV trail is quite wet and marshy even into June and July.
22. Rest Area (127.46 mi)
This rest area with pit toilets is the last prominent stop along the Denali Highway before reaching the Paxson side. A bathroom stop here is recommended as not many facilities offer a public restroom in Paxson.
23. Denali Highway End (Historical Beginning) (135.34 mi)
This is the end of the Denali Highway! The Denali Highway terminates here at the Richardson Highway. Historically, this is where people would embark on their expedition into Denali National Park before the Parks Highway (connecting Anchorage to Fairbanks directly) was completed in 1971. Since the Parks Highway opened, this route is much less traveled.

Directions to Trailhead

Trailhead Coordinates: 63.390716, -148.901446

Starting Point: Cantwell or Paxson, Alaska

From Cantwell (with a full tank of gas), take the Denali Highway - Alaska Route 8 east. (How this guide was written.) From Paxson (with a full tank of gas), take the Denali Highway - Alaska Route 8 west. This was the traditional way to travel into Denali National Park before the Parks Highway was opened in 1971.

Camping

Dispersed
Improved
Designated
Dispersed camping is allowed along the highway on frequent pullouts, with three developed campgrounds. Two of the campgrounds are publicly owned (Brushkana Creek and Tangle Lakes), fully developed with vault toilets and potable water. The third campground is owned and operated by Ahtna, which does not have a toilet but does have fire rings and picnic tables. All three developed campgrounds require payment. There are also many lodges along the route for those not wishing to camp.
Camping: Denali Highway

Trail Reviews (2)

Author: Official Crew
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
Amazing fall colors and blue berries were plentiful once found. I did spend the night in the area and it did freeze but did not pose any problems. The road was very pot holed in many parts.

Author: Official Crew
Status: Open
Offroaded on:
Rating:
My wife and I went for a mini couple weekend retreat with our 4Runner on the Denali Highway and Denali National Park. We had an amazing time on our trip and are planning other trips soon.

Questions & Answers (0)

Writer Information

Kyle Todd

Mapping Crew - Alaska

Kyle has been into off-roading since getting his license at 16 and wheeling the family SUV (possibly without informing his parents of these wheeling trips in their vehicles). He graduated from the University of Alaska Anchorage with an Electrical Engineering degree. He lives in south-central Alaska and is raising his two young kids. Kyle stays busy year-round by working full-time as an Electrical Engineer who spends his weekends wheeling, hunting, fishing the local lakes, and raising his family. He is eager to share his love of the outdoors with others, especially when it involves a 4WD. His goal is to create an amazing resource for locals and travelers alike to enjoy the endless beauty Alaska has to offer while respecting the trails and keeping them open for years and generations to come.
For individual use only, not to be shared.