At 135 miles, the Denali Highway cuts across the terrain like a hot knife through butter. With views of the Alaskan Range to the north and the Talkeetna Range to the south, your jaw drops at each passing moment while driving the Denali Highway.
The road first opened in 1957 and was the only accessible route by car to Denali National Park. While the mountain ranges take the cake, it’s also a historically significant area. “In the 225,000 acres of the Tangles Lakes Archaeological District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, over 400 archaeological sites have been documented.”
We had no idea we’d be passing through an archaeological goldmine. I can only imagine how desolate the area was thousands and thousands of years ago.
A Guide to Driving the Denali Highway
What you need to know about Driving the Denali Highway from Cantwell to Paxson
Let’s talk about driving the Denali Highway
Related: Flightseeing around Denali
Where is this road located?
The Denali Highway cuts across Alaska from Cantwell to Paxson. This is south of the Alaskan Range, southwest of Denali National Park, and north of the Talkeetna Range and the town of Talkeetna.
So you’re telling me it’s not in Denali National Park?
Correct. The Denali Park Road is the one inside the National Park. Personal vehicles can drive up to mile 15 during the summer (Savage River Trailhead). Some cars can go further (in normal times to the end), but a rockslide has closed the road at mile 43 until at least 2024.
Check out the current conditions of the Denali National Park road.
Can you drive the Denali Highway in a car?
You can drive it in a car, but I might be more comfortable in an SUV. Considering there aren’t any huge rocks or potholes to worry about, a car should be able to do just fine. When thinking about driving the Denali Highway, clarify with your rental car agency. Not every rental office allows you to drive it. (Same goes for the road to McCarthy and Wrangell St. Elias National Park.)
We rented from Turo and had no prohibition on driving on gravel roads.
Is the Denali Highway still open?
I believe the Denali Highway is always open, but they plow and grate it each year in May. Once it’s been grated, it’s much easier to drive on and will be in the best condition the road is in all season. This is why when we went in mid-May, we found it to be in great shape right after it was cleared.
Should I drive the Denali Highway?
If you have the time, I strongly recommend it. Driving the Denali Highway is one of the most extraordinary experiences one can have in Alaska, in my opinion. You’ll likely see less than ten cars the entire time and will be blown away by the scenery.
Please do it. Please do it. Please do it.
How long does it take to drive the Denali Highway?
I see most estimates at around five hours, but it took us closer to eight as we stopped a ton to shoot photos and enjoy the views. So if you’re not in a hurry, soak up your time here. Plus, driving the Denali Highway in the summer means daylight until 11 pm.
Length of the Road and Conditions of the Denali Highway
The Denali Highway is 135 miles long and is paved for three miles on the west end leading into Cantwell and 21 miles on the east side near Paxson. We drove it in mid-May 2021 and found it to be in pretty decent condition. The east side is far more developed in terms of lodging and activity than the west side.
Once we left Cantwell, we had no more cell service until we were well on our way to Glenallen. (I can’t remember exactly where we picked it up again, but it was nonexistent for a while!) That area is underdeveloped, so I wouldn’t expect much to have changed since doing it two years ago.
I don’t have specific locations, but there were a few signs on the road for car repair help. I know this doesn’t help precisely, but it does show you’re not alone while driving the Denali Highway. This helped calm my nerves as I thought we might not see anyone the entire time.
Things to do driving the Denali Highway
A handful of established campsites are available, as well as plenty of turnoffs where you can park your van or trailer. Below are the two established campsites. The mileage starts from the east and goes west.
- Tangle Lakes Campground (mile 21.5)
- Brushkana Creek Campground (mile 104)
If camping isn’t your jam, there are at least four places to stay that have cabins/rooms available. They’re not inexpensive, but that’s to be expected in such a remote area! I wish I had planned better and spent a night out here! I’ve tried to organize these, starting in Paxson and moving further west.
- Denali Highway Cabins: These are beautiful cabins at the beginning of the Denali Highway. As they’re on the main road, this would also be great for those going to or from Fairbanks.
- Tangle River Inn: 33 miles into driving the Denali Highway, this would be a great option if you want a taste of the area but don’t want to commit to the entire drive. You have to call or email to reserve.
- Maclaren River Lodge: Located at Mile 42 of the Denali Highway, they have tire repair, lodging, and food. Their cabins range from $150 – $200 per night. You can check availability here.
- Susitna Adventure Lodge: If you have a big group, this would be a wonderful place to stay, just off the Susitna River in the heart of the Denali Highway. But, it’s also $1,500 per night and sleeps 8. So, hopefully, you can find friends to book it! Check availability here.
- Clearwater Mountain Lodge: Clearwater Mountain Lodge is on the opposite side of the bridge from the above. However, they are not open in 2023 for an unknown reason.
- Alpine Creek Lodge: Almost squarely in the middle of the Denali Highway, you’re about 20 minutes east of the Susitna Bridge and 68 miles from Paxson. Stays come with a free breakfast. Check availability here.
- Backwoods Lodge: At the intersection of the Denali Highway and the Parks Highway 3 in Cantwell, this would be a great place to stay if you’re going to drive the next day or just wrapped up a long day of driving.
For those looking to be closer to Denali National Park, check the availability here.
I saw a couple of hunting cabins/lodges, but most were on the Paxson side of the highway. I’m sure this would be a fantastic experience for those into hunting.
The photography opportunities are endless while driving the Denali Highway. I couldn’t go more than a mile without stopping for the most part. We didn’t see a ton of wildlife – a moose and calf far off and a bald eagle right off the road – but it was still amazing.
There are not many established trails there are off the Denali Highway. Using AllTrails as our guide, the ones that pop up are:
- Maclaren Summit Trail: 8 miles round trip
- Glacier Gap Lake and Seven Mile Lake: 14 miles round trip
- Tangle Lake Ridge Trail: 2 miles round trip
With lots of water near the road, this would be an excellent place for canoeing or kayaking.
Out Driving the Denali Highway
While I’d love to walk you through a mile-by-mile of this remarkable road, I think showing you the photos and letting them tell the story will be much more impactful. Although, I will say it took us nearly seven hours to drive this as we kept stopping to soak up how magnificent it was.
In all, it was probably the second-best thing we did on the entire trip and the greatest road I’ve ever driven.
I would highly, highly recommend taking the drive as you travel Alaska.
Old brochures will say most of it isn’t paved, but we found over half of it seemed to be paved to some extent. It’s also hard to tell what’s “paved” and what’s paved – if that makes sense.
Anyways, enjoy some natural beauty.
Related: Things to do in Kenai Fjords NP
Photos from the Denali Highway
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Driving the Denali Highway – Wrapping Up
As you can see, driving the Denali Highway means you’re surrounded by some of America’s most beautiful lands. And while it’s a long day on a rugged road, I highly recommend it as there are few other places like it left in this country.
So, if you can afford to spend a day of your trip driving the Denali Highway, you won’t regret it!
Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.
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