Denali Highway

Denali Highway (Alaska Route 8) is a lightly traveled, mostly gravel highway in the U.S. state of Alaska. It leads from Paxson on the Richardson Highway to Cantwell on the Parks Highway. Opened in 1957, it was the first road access to Denali National Park (then known as Mount McKinley National Park). Since 1971, primary park access has been via the Parks Highway, which incorporated a section of the Denali Highway from Cantwell to the present-day park entrance. The Denali Highway is 135 miles (217 km) in length.

Alaska 8 shield

Denali Highway
Route information
Maintained by Alaska DOT&PF
Length135 mi[2] (217 km)
Existedc. 1953[1]–present
Major junctions
West end AK-3 (George Parks Highway) in Cantwell
 Old Parks Highway in Cantwell
East end AK-4 (Richardson Highway) in Paxson
BoroughsDenali, Matanuska-Susitna, Valdez–Cordova
Highway system


The highway is now little used and poorly maintained, and closed to all traffic from October to mid-May each year.[3] Only the easternmost 21.3 miles (34.3 km) and westernmost 2.6 miles (4.2 km) are paved; whether the remainder should be paved as well is a continual source of debate. Washboarding and extreme dust are common, the recommended speed limit is 30 mph (48 km/h).

Route description

Denali Highway
The Denali Highway as seen in summer.

Traveling west, the Denali Highway leaves the Richardson Highway (Alaska Route 4) at Paxson, and climbs steeply up into the foothills of the central Alaska Range. The first 21 miles (34 km), to Tangle Lakes, are paved. Along its length, the highway passes through three of the principal river drainages in Interior Alaska: the Copper River drainage, the Tanana/Yukon drainage and the Susitna drainage. Along the way, in good weather, there are stunning views of the peaks and glaciers of the central Alaska Range, including Mount Hayes (13,700 ft), Mount Hess (11,940 ft) and Mount Deborah (12,688 ft). At MP 15, from the pullout on the south side of the road, in clear weather you can see the Wrangell Mountains, the Chugach Mountains and the Alaska Range.

The first 45 miles (72 km) winds through the Amphitheater Mountains, cresting at Maclaren Summit, at 4,086 feet (1,245 m) the second highest road in Alaska. The road then drops down to the Maclaren River Valley with fine views north to Maclaren Glacier. After crossing the Maclaren River, the road winds through the geologically mysterious Crazy Notch and then along the toe of the Denali Clearwater Mountains to the Susitna River. After crossing the Susitna River the road extends across the glaciers outwash plains to the Nenana River, and then down the Nenana River to Cantwell on the George Parks Highway (Alaska #3).


There are developed campgrounds at Tangle Lakes (MP 22) and Brushkana Creek (MP 104), but there are dozens of pullouts where one can camp on public lands.

Services are scant along this road.

Year-round operations include Denali Highway Cabins & Tours (MP 0.2), Maclaren River Lodge (MP 42), Alpine Creek Lodge (MP68), Backwoods Lodge (MP134) and Cantwell Lodge (MP138); summer-only operations include Tangle Lakes Lodge (MP 22), Tangle River Inn (MP 20), Gracious House (MP 82). Winter travel on the Denali Highway is exclusively by snowmobile and dogsled. Automobile travelers are severely discouraged from attempting to traverse the road in winter; as recently as 1996 three persons died from exposure when snows blocked their progress. The road is cleared by DOT late in April and generally is passable by non-4WD from then until the first snows close it, usually late September on the eastern, tundra end and late October-early November on the lower, boreal forest western end.


Picea glauca taiga
White Spruce taiga along the Denali Highway, with the Alaska Mountain Range in the Background

The Tangle Lakes constitute the headwaters of the Delta River, a popular destination for canoeists as it is the launch point of the Delta River Canoe Trail.[4]

The Denali Highway is an important birding destination. It offers road access to alpine terrain – not that common in Alaska – and, in the brief birding season there, good viewing of a number of alpine breeders, including Arctic Warbler, Smith's Longspur, Long-tailed Jaeger, Whimbrel, Surfbird, Lapland Longspur, Horned Lark, Short-eared Owl, Wandering Tattler, Gyrfalcon and much more. A walk north along The Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Maclaren Summit Trail (MP 39) can be very productive. There are also trumpeter swans and various other waterfowl in the lakes and ponds along the route.

Fishing for grayling and lake trout is decent, if not spectacular, in any of the clear water (i.e., unglaciated) streams.

Because the area is hunted heavily, larger mammals are much less common than in Denali National Park, but moose, grizzly bear, and caribou are fairly common. The Nelchina caribou herd, approximately 36,000 animals as of winter 2009–2010, normally passes through this area after calving season ends, and some autumns and winters as many as 16,000 animals can be seen at once. The herd forms an important foodsource for many residents of southcentral Alaska, and visitors eager to view the animals may be competing with hunters. The many lakes along the road are also a destination for duck hunting in the fall.

Most of the land along the highway is publicly owned. There are several BLM-maintained trails, and dozens of informal trails. This is a stretch of wild Alaska that is pretty much unspoiled, relatively accessible and scenic.

Major intersections

DenaliCantwell0.00.0 AK-3 (George Parks Highway)Western end of state maintenance; highway continues west to Cantwell Airport via dirt road
0.40.64Old Parks HighwayAccess to Alaska DOT&PF Cantwell Station
UnorganizedPaxson134216Paxson Airport Access RoadAccess to Paxson Airport
135217 AK-4 (Richardson Highway)Eastern terminus
1.000 mi = 1.609 km; 1.000 km = 0.621 mi



At 4,086 feet (1,245 m), MacClaren summit is the highest point on the highway.


Portions of the road are built directly on top of glacial eskers.


On a clear day, westbound travelers can see Denali


Numerous kettle lakes line the eastern portion of the highway.


The Susitna River crossing is the only large bridge on the highway.

MacLaren River crossing the Denali Highway

The Denali Highway crossing the MacLaren River.

Monahan Flat and the eastern Alaska Range mountains

Monahan Flat and the eastern Alaska Range, as seen from the Denali Highway.

See also

  • Flag of Alaska.svg Alaska portal
  • Blank shield.svg U.S. Roads portal


  1. ^ Staff. "History Time Line For Denali National Park & Preserve" (PDF). National Park Service. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 1, 2009. Retrieved April 20, 2012.
  2. ^ Alaska Department. "Denali Highway". Bureau of Land Management. Retrieved April 20, 2012.
  3. ^ Whitfield, p. 399
  4. ^ Staff (2007). The Milepost (59th ed.). Augusta, GA: Morris Communications. p. 497. ISBN 1-892154-21-8.
  5. ^ Google (April 20, 2012). "Overview Map of Denali Highway (AK-8)" (Map). Google Maps. Google. Retrieved April 20, 2012.

Further reading

  • Glennallen Field Office (2007). Denali Highway: points of interest. Glennallen, AK: United States Bureau of Land Management. BLM Recreation Guide BLM/AK/GI-88/023+8351+050, Rev. 07.
  • Whitfield, Paul (2004). Rough Guide to Alaska (2nd ed.). London: Rough Guides. ISBN 978-1-84353-258-3.

External links

Route map:

Alaska Range

The Alaska Range is a relatively narrow, 650-km-long (400 mi) mountain range in the southcentral region of the U.S. state of Alaska, from Lake Clark at its southwest end to the White River in Canada's Yukon Territory in the southeast. The highest mountain in North America, Denali, is in the Alaska Range. It is part of the American Cordillera.

The range is the highest in the world outside Asia and the Andes.

Cantwell, Alaska

Cantwell (Yidateni Na’ in Ahtna Athabascan) is a census-designated place (CDP) in Denali Borough, Alaska, United States. As of the 2010 census, the population of the CDP was 219.Cantwell is the western terminus of the Denali Highway. Once an Alaska Railroad flag stop at the junction with the Denali Highway, it was founded off the Parks Highway.

Copper Plateau taiga

The Copper Plateau taiga is an ecoregion of North America, as defined by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) categorization system and the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, in the Taiga and Boreal forests, Biome, Alaska.

Delta River

The Delta River is an 80-mile (130 km) tributary of the Tanana River in the U.S. state of Alaska. Its name in the Ahtna language is Saas Na’ . Fed by the Tangle Lakes of the Alaska Range, the river flows north to meet the larger river near Big Delta.In 1980, 62 miles (100 km) of waterways in the Delta River basin, including all of the Tangle Lakes and the main stem to within 0.5 miles (0.8 km) of Black Rapids became part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Of this, 20 miles (32 km) are designated "wild", 24 miles (39 km) "scenic", and 18 miles (29 km) "recreational".


An esker, eskar, eschar, or os, sometimes called an asar, osar, or serpent kame, is a long, winding ridge of stratified sand and gravel, examples of which occur in glaciated and formerly glaciated regions of Europe and North America. Eskers are frequently several kilometres long and, because of their peculiar uniform shape, are somewhat like railway embankments.

George Parks Highway

The George Parks Highway (numbered Interstate A-4 and signed Alaska Route 3), usually called simply the Parks Highway, runs 323 miles (520 km) from the Glenn Highway 35 miles (56 km) north of Anchorage to Fairbanks in the Alaska Interior. The highway, originally known as the Anchorage-Fairbanks Highway, was completed in 1971, and given its current name in 1975.

The highway, which mostly parallels the Alaska Railroad, is one of the most important roads in Alaska. It is the main route between Anchorage and Fairbanks (Alaska's two largest metropolitan areas), the principal access to Denali National Park and Preserve and Denali State Park, and the main highway in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. The route's Interstate designation is not signed; rather, its entire length is signed as Alaska Route 3.

It is a common misconception that the name "Parks Highway" comes from the road's proximity to the Denali state and national parks; it is in fact in honor of George Alexander Parks, governor of the Territory of Alaska from 1925 to 1933. However, the aptness of the name was recognized when it was chosen.

Mileposts along the Parks Highway do not begin with 0 (zero). Instead, they begin with Mile 35 (km 56), continuing the milepost numbering of the Glenn Highway where the two highways intersect near Palmer. The 0 (zero) mile marker for the Glenn Highway is at its terminus in downtown Anchorage at the intersection of East 5th Avenue and Gambell Street. Thus mileposts along the Parks Highway reflect distance from Anchorage, which is not actually on the Parks Highway.

There are two sections of the highway that are built to freeway standards. These include an area near the highway's intersection with the Glenn Highway in Palmer and a stretch known as the Robert J. Mitchell Expressway in Fairbanks leading to the highway's junction with the Richardson Highway (AK 2).

Gulkana Glacier

Gulkana Glacier is a glacier that flows from the ice fields of the south flank of the eastern Alaska Range. It is accessible by gravel roads from the Richardson Highway near mile post 197 at the Richardson Monument, just two miles north of Summit Lake and 12 miles north of Paxson and the junction with Denali Highway. Closer to the glacier, a suspension bridge allows pedestrians to cross over Phelan Creek. Wildlife includes moose and bears. The peak of a hill just southwest of Gulkana Glacier has a post labeled PEWE 1975. The Arctic Man competition takes place near Gulkana Glacier every spring.

Gulkana River

The Gulkana River is a 60-mile (97 km) tributary of the Copper River in the U.S. state of Alaska. Beginning near the southeastern end of Summit Lake in the Alaska Range, the river flows generally south to meet the larger river 9 miles (14 km) northeast of Glennallen. The Richardson Highway and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline run north–south, nearby and roughly parallel to the Gulkana River. Slightly south of Summit Lake the river passes under the east–west Denali Highway near its junction with the Richardson Highway at Paxson.

Hayes Range

The Hayes Range is a part of the Alaska Range in Denali and Southeast Fairbanks, Alaska in the United States. The mountains are located to the east of Denali National Park and are located west of the Delta Mountains, from which they are separated by the Delta River. As the crow flies, the Hayes Range is located about 150 miles (240 km) south of Fairbanks, and 200 miles (320 km) northeast of Anchorage. The mountains extend about 147 miles (237 km) from east to west.The highest point of the range is Mount Hayes, 13,832 feet (4,216 m).

Interior Alaska

Interior Alaska is the central region of Alaska's territory, roughly bounded by the Alaska Range to the south and the Brooks Range to the north. It is largely wilderness. Mountains include Denali in the Alaska Range, the Wrangell Mountains, and the Ray Mountains. The native people of the interior are Alaskan Athabaskans. The largest city in the interior is Fairbanks, Alaska's second-largest city, in the Tanana Valley. Other towns include North Pole, just southeast of Fairbanks, Eagle, Tok, Glennallen, Delta Junction, Nenana, Anderson, Healy and Cantwell. The interior region has an estimated population of 113,154.

Kettle (landform)

A kettle (kettle hole, pothole) is a depression/hole in an outwash plain formed by retreating glaciers or draining floodwaters. The kettles are formed as a result of blocks of dead ice left behind by retreating glaciers, which become surrounded by sediment deposited by meltwater streams as there is increased friction. The ice becomes buried in the sediment and when the ice melts, a depression is left called a kettle hole, creating a dimpled appearance on the outwash plain. Lakes often fill these kettles, these are called kettle hole lakes. Another source is the sudden drainage of an ice-dammed lake. When the block melts, the hole it leaves behind is a kettle. As the ice melts, ramparts can form around the edge of the kettle hole. The lakes that fill these holes are seldom more than 10 m (33 ft) deep and eventually become filled with sediment. In acid conditions, a kettle bog may form but in alkaline conditions, it will be kettle peatland.

List of Alaska Routes

Alaska Routes are both numbered and named. There have been only twelve numbers issued (1 through 11 and 98), and the numbering often has no obvious pattern. For example, Alaska Route 4 runs north and south, whereas Alaska Route 2 runs largely east and west, but runs north and south passing through and to the north of Fairbanks. The Klondike Highway, built in 1978, was unnumbered until 1998, when it was given its designation during the centennial of the Klondike Gold Rush. However, many Alaskan highways of greater length than the Klondike Highway remain unnumbered.

Mount Hayes

Mount Hayes is the highest mountain in the eastern Alaska Range. Despite not being a fourteener, it is one of the largest peaks in the United States in terms of rise above local terrain. For example, the Northeast Face rises 8,000 feet (2,440 m) in approximately 2 miles (3.2 km). In terms of topographic prominence, Mount Hayes is number 51 in the world.Mount Hayes was first climbed in 1941 by Bradford Washburn, Barbara Washburn, Benjamin Ferris, Sterling Hendricks, Henry Hall, and William Shand.

Today's standard route is the East Ridge (Alaska Grade 2+). Mount Hayes is not frequently climbed due to its remoteness and the resulting access difficulties.

Nenana River

The Nenana River (Lower Tanana: Nina No’) is a tributary of the Tanana River, approximately 140 miles (230 km) long, in central Alaska in the United States. It drains an area on the north slope of the Alaska Range on the south edge of the Tanana Valley southwest of Fairbanks.It issues from the Nenana Glacier in the northern Alaska Range, southwest of Mount Deborah, approximately 100 mi (160 km) south of Fairbanks. It flows briefly southwest, then west, then north, forming the eastern boundary of Denali National Park and Preserve. It emerges from the mountains onto the broad marshy Tanana Valley, joining the Tanana River from the south at Nenana, Alaska, approximately 35 miles (56 km) southwest of Fairbanks. The Tanana River continues to its confluence with the Yukon River.

The upper valley of the river furnishes approximately 100 mi (160 km) of the northern route of both the Alaska Railroad and the Parks Highway (Alaska State Highway 3) connecting Fairbanks and Anchorage.

The Nenana supports populations of Alaska blackfish, Arctic grayling, Arctic lamprey, broad whitefish, burbot, chum salmon, humpback whitefish, king salmon, lake chubs, least cisco, longnose suckers, northern pike, round whitefish, sheefish, silver salmon, and slimy sculpins. Major archaeological sites located in the valley include Broken Mammoth and Swan Point, of late Pleistocene age.

Paxson, Alaska

Paxson is a census-designated place (CDP) in Valdez-Cordova Census Area, Alaska, United States. As of the 2010 census, its population was 40, down from 43 in 2000. It is located on the Richardson Highway at the junction with the Denali Highway.

Richardson Highway

The Richardson Highway is a highway in the U.S. state of Alaska, running 368 miles (562 km) and connecting Valdez to Fairbanks. It is marked as Alaska Route 4 from Valdez to Delta Junction and as Alaska Route 2 from there to Fairbanks. It also connects segments of Alaska Route 1 between the Glenn Highway and the Tok Cut-Off. The Richardson Highway was the first major road built in Alaska.

Road Commission Airport

Road Commission Airport (FAA LID: 0Z2), also known as Road Commission Nr 1 Airport, is a public-use airport located three nautical miles (4 mi, 6 km) south of the central business district of Denali, in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough of the U.S. state of Alaska.

The airport is located near the Denali Highway bridge crossing the Susitna River.

Tangle Lakes

The Tangle Lakes (Long Tangle Lake, Lower Tangle Lake, Round Tangle Lake, and Upper Tangle Lake) are a 16-mile (26 km) long chain of lakes connected by streams in interior Alaska. They form the headwaters for the Delta River.

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