"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Monday, June 24, 2019

Notes from the Denali Highway: The Road Itself

I’m sitting in a remote roadhouse located in the foothills of the Alaska Range, enjoying French toast made with homemade bread and perfectly cooked bacon.  This is a treat for me, but the news I just heard has me concerned.

“We’re expecting three buses at lunch time,” says the server.   That absolutely floors me.   She names the well-known cruise ship/land tour company, and that makes it even more worrisome, but I keep my reaction to myself.

This is the Maclaren River lodge at Mile 40 on the Denali highway.   I’m here with my friend Leilani for two reasons:  to meet with four friends and enjoy some homemade jellies one of them is bringing, and to photograph a little flycatcher bird called a Say’s phoebe.

To call this road a “highway” is to elevate it to a status it has never enjoyed.  It’s 137 miles of gravel cutting through spectacular vistas by a narrow two-lane road.   Okay, 22 miles on one end and three miles on the other are paved.   It’s the kind of road where you can stop side by side and talk with people in another car, or just stop and aim your camera.

It’s seldom traveled and…   Well, some websites call it 'poorly maintained,'  but I’ve been over it several times and this year it’s in the best condition I’ve ever seen it.  After a heavy rain, the surface can become wash-boarded and will jar your teeth and toenails and several of your internal organs loose.

Most of the land is publicly owned by BLM and some of the adjoining state boroughs.   There are a couple campgrounds, but you can camp anywhere in the numerous wide spots, pullouts, or gravel trails.

The road climbs quickly from Paxson on the eastern end into the Alaska Range foothills, wandering through tundra and willow scrub, zig-zagging around lakes and glacier-carved kettle ponds teeming with waterfowl.

Much of the road is built on eskers, which are long and winding ridges of gravel and other sediments deposited by moving and melting glaciers.

Though it’s called the Denali highway, these days it has nothing to do with the Denali National Park and Preserve.   Once upon a pre-1971 when the Parks Highway was opened, this road was the only road access to the park, then called Mt. McKinley National Park.   You could take a long railroad trip, or fly in, but you couldn’t get there in a car unless you took the Denali highway.   (Note for those days: Bring a number of spare tires.)

That the major tour companies are sending their behemoth 44-passenger coaches concerns me.  Yes, it’s an economic windfall for Maclaren lodge.   I grant you that and good for them.   However, I’ve seen what has become of some small Alaskan towns after the cruise companies began calling there.   They lost their identity, the things that made them special enough to visit.

I remember visiting the old gold rush town of Skagway a few years ago and was dismayed at what it has become.   “TANZANITE” shouted several store signs.  Well, there’s a genuine Alaskan souvenir for you.   Except tanzanite comes from Africa.  Mount Kilimanjaro, specifically.

You want Alaskan?   Gold, jade, hematite.

Juneau, Ketchikan, Skagway, Seward—all influenced by the cruise companies.   Which stores are locally owned and which are cruise company-affiliated?   You’ll never know unless some brave local posts a sign in a store-front window.

Scattered rain showers on a summer's eve.

Why is this particular company traveling the Denali?  I guess it's the shortest route between one of their mega-lodges and another.  That there are few non-company cash registers along the route is a boon.

To give the tour companies their due, their customers expect a certain level of value from the package they purchase, and what better way than for the company to own and control all the venues?   No, the company doesn't own Maclaren Lodge and I rue the day a tour company mega-lodge is constructed along this road.

What really worries me is whether the tour companies will lobby the state to have the entire route paved.   That means widening, perhaps re-routing, and installing the dreaded guardrails.   More traffic!  Maybe fewer pullouts.   Maybe less of what people like me go there for:  the silence, the solitude.

The road is heavily hunted during the appropriate seasons, so sightings of big game animals are infrequent.   But birds?   It is a paradise for birders and photographers.

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Rob Tappana's photo of his jellies--Rose petal. dandelion, and spruce tip.    I contributed a jar of current jam, not shown.

So, while the wonderful French toast lay heavy in my stomach, the jellies were delicious and I saw the Say’s phoebe!

The Say's phoebe, a member of the flycatcher family, nests through much of the Alaskan Interior and Arctic, even on the Trans Alaska Pipeline itself.   This particular bird has returned to Maclaren Lodge for five years, making it accessible to birders and photographers.

Image result for Denali highway map


  1. This post makes me realize and appreciate all over again how it came to pass that I came to Alaska to "spend a summer" in 1963 and never left. The Denali Highway is yet pretty much unspoiled and I hope the tour company(s) are not able to change that. Stunning pictures of how beautiful it is! And, you captured the Say's phoebe with your camera. Sweet! Still enjoying our sojourn in Siberia, but this does make me a bit homesick!! Patti and Cap

  2. Patti has friends who have a ranch on the Denali Highway near the Cantwell end. We drove from Paxson heading West as you seem to have done to visit with them. It was late summer and it was bone jarring as you describe it so aptly. How nice you got to see the bird you wanted to see. Five years it has returned. Wow. Thanks for a nice reminder of our trip some years ago. Smiles from the two of us.

  3. Wow! What a gorgeous environment! And a Say's Phoebe as a bonus!

    I empathize with your trepidation about the cruise lines. When I was a kid here in central Florida, a lot of time was spent in a small boat pulling fish from clear lakes. Then - Disney.

    Now all the bigger lakes seem to have "Eco-Tours" where a dozen customers pile onto a very large air boat and are whisked to the other end of the lake at 60 mph to see - an alligator. Which can be found in any local puddle in the state. Sigh.

    Those jelly jars tell me its time for more coffee.

  4. This is a wonderful narrative and photos, Jeanne. I share your concerns for what the "highway" may become in the future.