So I decided I’m going to write these blog posts on the bicycle trip based on the highways. So this one is from Fairbanks to Cantwell, the start of the Denali Highway. It also includes our trip inside the Denali National Park.
Unlike the Dalton Highway, I’m not going to write the number of days, I will still break them up into chunks into the days we did them though.
Fairbanks to Nenana
We tried getting an early start, but since we had to mail something, we didnt leave till noon. We also had a cafe breakfast and had to pack up our things from the hostel. Anyways, the ride to Nenana was pretty up and down climbs.
We took a break half a mile from a bar, which was unfortunate, but we didnt know.
We are still using the Milepost guide that has all the information one would need for the Northwest of North America, but for some reason I didnt read it prior. No matter.
It was 53 to 56 miles from Fairbanks. I’m not sure exactly because when we left the city it said basically 56 miles and when we got closer it would have been a total of 53.
Nenana is a small “Western” town. Like, wild west towns. They do this ice game every spring. The put this device on the ice and make bets to when it will fall through (when the ice melts). There’s a campground in town. Its decent. Free showers and wifi. The only problem is the kids that are part of the management of the campground.
We aren’t sure what was going on in terms of supervision, but we do know that it was 10pm and this little girl of 5 years was still not in bed and running around. Around midnight, as children do, she got tired…aka she started screaming and crying over losing an earring…..AN EARRING. Another reason not to pierce little girls’ ears at a young age (but that’s another feminist conversation). This child proceeded to find and lose it for a second time to find it again. But the second time the screaming and crying was worse and went on for longer until the adult we supposed was in charge came over to see what was wrong. AT MIDNIGHT.
What confused me the most was that all her siblings or the other children were quiet and no where to be found at this time.
We went to Chevron gas station to get some supplies because the store was closed in the town. We bought 2 ice creams and a potato salad for me. We wanted ice but the guy said the machine was broken. However, he did have a bag of some ice in the back that he gave to us for free due to it melting already.
Nenana to Healy
This was a long day. We thought to get to Denali, but we had such strong headwinds the last 20 miles that we weren’t in the mood even though it was 10 or so miles away. We picked up some items at the grocery store and went across the street to the campground at Healy. It is run by the gas station so that’s the office. Showers and laundry are downstairs while the actual camping sites are down the hill.
But the road was relatively flat besides the last 30 miles so the first half basically. It was a gradual uphill. We had light headwind until the end like I said.
We saw an advert for the Fireweed Roadhouse in Esther. But upon coming to it 17 miles after Nenana, it was closed….we had a few moments break before continuing 8 more miles to this bar. We stopped for a cold drink and got some cookie snacks. A little later, we stopped at a really nice rest area for lunch. We ended up taking a nap there.
Since we are close to Denali, there were a lot of car traffic specifically RVs.
Even though the shoulder is pretty good, it’s still nerve wracking to have this huge vehicle come up beside you. When biking I get major road rage haha.
We had some major headwind the last 20 miles so when we finally got to Healy I was not in a happy mood (plus the uphills).
I waited for Dad near the grocery store when a couple walked by me,
“Is your name Chelsea?”
“No.” I grunted still looking at my phone at the map to find the campground.
“Oh, sorry, you look familiar. ”
They walked away and I mumbled,
“I probably don’t.”
Like I said, I wasn’t in a good mood.
They disappeared from view and another 2 guys came up. Based on their mannerisms and how they looked at me it seemed like they were going to offer to help me in some way, but they could see my anger and quickly crossed the street, lol.
The campground is pretty nice. There was a group next to us that turns out was going to do several day back country backpacking, but they had a lot of gear so we thought they were going to do more.
Around 3 am I wake up to some loud voices. About 3 minutes later,
“Shut up! Its 3 am!”
About 10 minutes later they were talking the same volume, but I fell back asleep.
2 nights in a row of loud individuals. Though I dont blame that little girl, more the adults that were supposedly supervising her. I mean, I’m an adult and I still need to go to bed at 9.30 or 10 🤣
I was so tired from the wind that I thought I was giving a “surprise” look, but I just look tired 😅
Healy to Denali Park Entrance
We saw that it was supposed to rain all day this day. After the sunny day the previous day (we saw Denali mountain, which only 30% of visitors each year see), we were worried. We packed up early and had breakfast burritos at the office/gas station, which was delicious.
Our goal was the park, which ended up being 12 miles. Around mile 5 the rain started. We got to the visitor center a bit wet and cold. They weren’t too helpful on what we should do in terms of weather and campgrounds so we had to bike back to Riley Creek Campground (still part of the part near the entrance) and the store there had all the information. I dont really know what the visitor center/rangers do then. I suppose answer questions on back country and wildlife. But back country permits (you need one if you are camping outside set campground areas. They are free to get) is basically an hour long informational video.
The man at the store helped us out. Like all national parks, this too has a site just for backpackers and bikers. Basically people who can’t go fast. So we dont need reservations or what not.
He also told us about the buses going back into the park and what other bikers have done.
We originally thought to take a bus to the back and bike out, but the campground at the end (Wonder Lake) was full for 2 days.
So here’s what we decided:
Spend the night at Riley
Bike to Igloo Creek Campground
Bike to Wonder Lake Campground
Bus back to Riley Creek
You need to have reservations before leaving. You also need a bus ticket; however, since we are biking there. We could ride the bus back for free. Bonus.
There’s a small “town” outside the park entrance. It’s not a real town as it shuts down when tourist season is down, but there are food shops and restaurants and lodgings. The hotels offer free shuttles for everyone from the visitor center to their hotel so we took them a few times. Within the entrance area there is a free shuttle between visitor center and the campground as an example.
Denali national park isn’t like the other parks. It’s a more outdoor activity- back country park. Yellowstone or Yosemite etc have simple trails and activities one can do without getting back into nature away from the people. But Denali isn’t quite like that. Most of the pathway hikes are from places only that be gotten to from the park bus service (40 usd).
Buying this bus ticket is when you will pay entrance to the park. There are also tours available not just shuttle or camper buses.
Riley Creek Campground to Igloo Creek Campground
The morning started off eventful as we had a very cheeky squirrel rummaging around our things while we were standing there.
We also bought these drink mixes for breakfast and tried them out with powdered milk. It’s not bad. However, we also got coffee at the restaurant near the visitor center haha.
The wilderness center has lockers and so we left some things behind that we didnt need for the 2 days we would be gone. It’s just 2 quarters and no time limit.
This first day was only 34 miles and it was pretty gradual uphill. It was kind of sunny. There are other campgrounds along the way, but Igloo is the last before Wonder Lake (another 50 miles).
The first 15 miles are paved and there is a lot of traffic- buses and private vehicles. There is a check point at mile 15 and a ranger makes sure you have a permit and everything you need to continue. We had lunch at this turn around point. Unfortunately, Dad also had to do some bike adjustments on his bike.
Going into the dirt road was nice only because the traffic decreased. There are still a lot of buses, but no need to worry about private RVs.
8 miles before the camp we reached a valley with some headwind, but it didnt last long.
It was a cute campground. No running water or electricity, but there is a nice creek that is drinkable with filtration. There are only 7 tent sites and it was actually quite busy.
One of our new foods was quinoa with dried veggies. It was good and we had a nice chat with a father son pair from Montana. We also decided to make some hot chocolate with those drink packs and powdered milk. It helped the cool night.
We went to bed quite early this night, which was really nice.
Igloo Creek Campground to Wonder Lake Campground
We talked with 2 women from Boston in the morning and then saw 3 backpackers leave for a hike.
We set off and within the first mile we saw a moose on the side of the road and a grizzly bear up the mountain. I thought the bear was a rock until it moved. When I got over the little hill I saw the bus also stopped. These buses will stop to view wildlife. Most of the wildlife we saw was due to the buses haha, but the drivers know where to look as well as the other passengers help spot animals.
It’s hard spotting animals on the bike because you are focused on the road, in this case dirt and gravel.
A little after the bear, so a mile away from the campground, those 3 backpackers got off and told Dad as he passed that there was too many people on the bus. I dont know what that means….
We had lunch at this rest stop, which weirdly had a gift shop….2 men came up to us weirdly. First, took our picture without asking- I felt like I was in China again. Please see those posts. And the other started touching my bike without asking or talking to us prior.
This particular day was a bit rough because of all the climbs. We ascended in total like 5k feet.
The Eielson visitor center is the start of the “downhill.” At the center we saw a man with shorts on and one of those tank top white beater shirts. It was rainy and like 50 F degrees. It was ridiculous his outfit.
“We hike a lot.”
Doesnt seem like it buddy.
Part of this road that is difficult I’d how dangerous the turns are. The road hugs the mountain as it has blind curves with a sheer drop off the cliff. I was glad I was going East and against the mountain side.
I said “downhill” before because according to the elevation graph or topography that is provided by the park, it is a gradual downhill, but we still had climbs. And past the visitor center, I think buses go less often, the road is more shit. The weather is less cloudy this day than the day before, but still no sun.
We stopped for a water break and looked into the valley and saw 2 big figures meandering along. I think they were bears, but it was too far away to tell.
About 5 miles away from Wonder Lake, I hit loose gravel and fell hard ending with some scraps on my hands and a huge bruise on my thigh. My bike made it ok except for a few scraps on the handle bars.
We finally rolled into Wonder Lake and though we were warned about the mosquitos, I still didnt believe it. They aren’t so bad like the Dalton, but they were more of them than what we have seen since the Dalton. I still didnt use my head net.
The campground is beautiful. I definitely understand why it is so popular and books fast. If it was a clear day it would be even better. There is a cooking shelter and the restrooms are running drinkable water.
We saw the Montana duo again, but the next day wished them well.
Wonder Lake Campground back to the Park Entrance
We were worried about getting a bus and we wanted a camper bus because it has room for big packs and bikes so we got the 6.30 am bus.
The driver was really cranky and didnt want anything to do with us. He even didnt let someone on the bus because he was camping “illegally.”
Since our tires were too big for the rack we ended up putting the bikes inside, but there was plenty of room.
We saw so many animals on this bus. Animals do like to come out early morning and late evenings so that makes sense. But we saw 2 grizzly moms with 2 Cubs each. Herds of caribou. A Male caribou just walking along and a female moose with calf on the side. Plus sheep in the distance.
The 2 women from Boston got on our bus so we talked with them more for a bit before wishing them farewell when we got off at the visitor center.
The bus ride is about 5 hours so being water and snacks. It was surreal to be riding a bus on the same road we biked on for 2 days. As if we didnt bike it at all.
We got lunch at that restaurant by the center and went to check in at Riley Creek Campground. We then took the free shuttle into the tourist town to get some food for the next leg of the trip.
We talked with a German man from our bus whi stayed near us at the campground. He started off backpacking and hitchhiking through Alaska, but things happened so he bought a cheap bike and make-shifted a rack for his backpack. He told us a story about losing his pack in the wilderness and how he was looking forward to seeing the magic bus from Into the Wild.
We had dinner at the Bake, which we saw advertisements for in Healy. The burgers were delicious. When waiting for the shuttle back a woman was in line ahead of us and asked us a few questions.
“You look like you work at the park. Are you sure you are a guest?”
We were basically in our biking outfit so not exactly cruise ship material. I took it as a compliment, but didnt really want to sit next to her on the shuttle as she was a bit talkative and I didnt feel like talking.
That night, as we were preparing for bed, a moose and her calf came walking by. We think its the one from earlier. Was so interesting to see how unbothered she was by us.
Denali National Park to Cantwell
This is only a 27 mile bike ride amd should be fairly easy. It is a general uphill, but everything is pretty gradual.
However, we had some nasty headwinds and rain, which made this ride miserable.
I fully recommend visiting Alaska only in a vehicle that can move over 60 mph with a roof.
Cantwell isnt really a town, but its at the junction of Parks Highway and Denali Highway and gets Northbound traffic from Anchorage to the park or Fairbanks.
There are 2 gas stations some lodges and a campground, which we ended up in (we stayed in their cabin).
Denali park has a village 7 miles South of the entrance with lodging and a restaurant. There is also a campground with 2 food trucks across the street.
We tried eating at the restaurant for second breakfast as all we had was a cinnamon roll at the campground store and coffee, but the electiricy went out so nothing was working.
The one food truck was also closed for the same reason, but the second one, a Mexican place, was open.
We ordered some burritos, but they came out so tiny. I guess I’m used to being really close to the border.
There was a woman ordering who made it a point to tell and show everyone how she was saving the environment by not using a fork or plastic bag. My argument to her would be that saving one fork, but using a bunch of gas in her car isnt really balancing out.
Just a pet peeve of mine, please see my post about Cambodia.
The cabin had a microwave so we got some frozen foods to heat up, which was actually good and plentiful.
It was nice having a heated cabin after the cold rainy windy day (literally the wind almost blew me over a few times).
Time for the Denali Highway!