Fairbanks, AK to Denali Highway (August 15, 2015)

This travelogue installment covers my journey on Saturday, August 15th, from Fairbanks, Alaska, along the the George Parks Highway, designated AK-3, south to the Denali National Park, and finally eastward along the Denali Highway, designated AK-8, to Gracious House Lodge near the Susitna River.

The following map shows my route for this day’s journey of only 231 miles.

My route from Fairbanks to Denali National Park and east along the Denali Highway

My route from Fairbanks to Denali National Park and east along the Denali Highway

In the morning I encountered the three Canadian riders, Bryan, Luke, and Steve in the breakfast area of the Travelodge Hotel and we had a nice parting conversation. Perhaps our paths may cross again in the future.

At 9 AM AKDT, I started out from the hotel heading west along Airport Way through Fairbanks until it merged into the George Parks Highway. I followed this highway nearly 118 miles to the turn-off into Denali National Park. Along the way I took several photos despite the overcast sky near the park. Thankfully, no rain.

On a hill towards the north from the highway just after that junction, I noticed the buildings of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and took this photo of the impressive buildings and large radio antennas atop the buildings on the left.


As I rode southwest along the Parks Highway, I came to the bridge over the Tanana River at its confluence with the Nenana River near the village of Nenana and pulled into an overlook to take this photo of the bridge.


To the right of the bridge was a large tugboat. named the MV Grayling, beached on the opposite bank.


Continuing south from the village of Nenana, these next two photo show views ahead as the mountains became larger and the cloudiness increases.

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At six miles from the turn-off into Denali Park, the highway again crossed the Nenana River and I took this next view of the river, the adjacent railway track, and the hills beyond.


By the time I was near the entrance to the Park, I was feeling ready to stop for some lunch and to take a break. When I spotted a sign for a Subway sandwich shop, I decided that would do just fine. After parking in front of a row of small shops with a boardwalk stretching along the length of the shops, I took photos to create this next panoramic view of the storefronts. The row of shops extended much further in both directions.


This next panoramic photo shows the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge across the highway. That lodge is obviously very upscale and expensive. Perhaps I’ll return someday by train to stay, be pampered, and partake in the various vacation activities available.


To the north of that lodge is a large mountain looming over the valley.


Forty minutes later after finishing my lunch, I resumed my ride, entering the Denali National Park and Preserve.


About 1.5 miles from the main highway, I came to the visitors center and went inside. There are numerous exhibits about the park and its history, biological diversity and, of course, the Denali mountain (El: 20,310 feet / 6,190 m), until recently called Mount McKinley. Unfortunately during my visit to the park, the mountain was so shrouded in heavy clouds that I could not see the peak at all. Online I found this photo of the mountain taken on a clear day.

Denali a.k.a. Mount McKinley

Denali a.k.a. Mount McKinley
Wikipedia photo licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons.

In the visitors center I took photos of several information panels, which still refer to the Park as Denali and the mountain as Mt. McKinley. The panels will presumably be updated in due course.

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One of the exhibits is a diorama, which I photographed from a level above on a stairway.


After leaving the visitors center, I rode as far into the Park as I could without getting special permission, but only about 13 miles to the Savage River Bridge. There are several campgrounds in the Park, some further in than most visitors are allowed to drive to without permission or arrangements. I did pass the entrance (on the left) to the Savage River Campground and took this photo as I passed by. I was not interested in camping out at the time. Perhaps I may do that during a future visit to Alaska.


Continuing further into the Park, I took several photos, including this one of the view just ½-mile past that campground.


After turning around at the Savage River Bridge, I stopped at an overlook to take several photos to create these panoramic views. The photos would have been so much better, if the sky had been clear.

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Just before reaching the visitors center again, I took this next photo of the view to the side that includes a railway bridge over a river.


After exiting from the Park, I turned south along the George Parks Highway to the start of the Denali Highway. Nearly halfway there, I took this next photo of the view ahead.


Along the Parks Highway, the Nenana River is often quite close to the road, as can be seen in this next photo.


Upon reaching the junction of the Parks and Denali Highways, I stopped for fuel and a break at a gas station. I met another motorcyclist and we chatted for quite a while. In all my stop took nearly 50 minutes. I wasn’t actually in any hurry.

Heading east along the unpaved Denali Highway, the weather ahead was looking ominously like rain. However, after looking at my route on the GPS screen, I estimated that the road would bend to the north and pass by the rain cell. Fortunately my plan worked out perfectly. I did pass a group of other motorcyclists who had stopped to put on their rain gear. Since I no longer had any rain gear to put on, I just forged on without needing it.

The Denali Highway is rather narrow, gravel and dirt covered, often bumpy, and with numerous potholes. Since there are almost no significant landmarks nor any mile markers along this road, nearly everyone refers to the distance from either the west or the east end of the road. Thus my next several photos will reference the distance east from the Parks Highway junction as my own mileposts even though there are no actual posts to be found.

This next photo shows a view ahead along this road at milepost 21.

IMG_3593sThis next photo shows the view towards the north from a vantage point at milepost 23. The Nenana River can just be seen in the photo.


At milepost 38, I stopped to photograph this next view as well as the telescopic view of a glacier visible in the distance.

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The sky cleared up just a bit and I was able to get a clearer photo of the view of the road, vegetation and the distant mountains. This was taken at milepost 47.


At 4 PM AKDT, I arrived at the Gracious House Lodge at milepost 52 and a short distance from the Susitna River. I had made a reservation in advance and was looking forward to seeing this area. I had hoped for clear weather for a clear view of the night sky.

These next two photos show the room in the main lodge that I occupied. Sitting on the desk my computer was able to access the lodge’s Wifi in another building. The Internet connection was usable, albeit slow.

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This was my view out the window towards the east.


These next three photos show the interior of the lodge. The two community restrooms with showers are located behind the mounted deer head.

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The kitchen is at the far end.


The sky cleared a bit allowing the sun to cast some shadows. Another panoramic photo of the exterior view towards the southeast and the cabin units.


An exterior view of the lodge building along with my motorcycle to the left. My room was behind the second window from the left.


I wish I could recall the exact story behind this elevated shack and why it’s tilted. It probably was used early on to store food away from bears.


They also have a bar with numerous adult beverages. Unfortunately I neglected to take any photos inside.


There were other guests also staying overnight at the lodge. One was a colleague or employee of the owner. Another was Walter Pries, a businessman from Hamburg, Germany. Although he spoke English reasonably well, he and I conversed at some length in German. I certainly welcomed the unexpected opportunity to speak German and he seemed more relaxed then too. We shared more than one beer in the bar.

That evening, the hostess prepared a very nice meal for us. Although I can’t recall, it probably included salmon and caribou.

That night a weather system moved into the area and rained heavily into the next morning. Thus I decided to extend my stay an extra night.

That concludes my travelogue report for August 15th. The next day, after the rain let up, I did do a short excursion to the other side of the Susitna River to follow a gravel mining road for a distance north. More about that excursion in the next report.


About Don

I'm a retired computer programmer who enjoys touring the country by motorcycle.
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