Words and photos by Brian Ohlen @spoke_n_fly
National Parks are not known for their hospitality towards cyclists. Many of the roads are narrow and crazy busy with rental RVs, buses and gaping tourists. Furthermore, very few trails are open to mountain bikes. I’ve been lucky enough to live in and around a number of prodigious parks, and have been keen to take advantage of the few bike opportunities whenever possible. Look carefully and you'll usually find that parks usually have a few trails/paths open to bikes. Come early enough and you may even find roads closed to car traffic, but open to bikes.
In what is called “spring” in other places, we ventured north from Anchorage to Denali National Park. In Alaska, spring is the short timeframe between winter break-up, and the four to six weeks of mosquitos referred to as summer. Denali National Park has one road. It’s nearly 90 miles long, perfectly maintained, and closed to personal cars. The only vehicles allowed on it are Denali National Park’s tour buses, which are infrequent enough to make you think you have the road to yourself. The buses have two bike racks that accommodate standard sized tires (sorry no fat or plus widths accepted). Once you’ve purchased a ticket, you can hop on and off any of the buses as often as you would like. There are campgrounds scattered along the entire road. All these amenities make Denali a gravel grinder’s or bike tourer’s perfect weekend.
We opted to camp near the start of the road and booked a morning bus departure with reserved bike capacity. The green school bus shuttled us 55 miles into the park, stopping for ridiculously good wildlife viewing along the way. We witnessed ptarmigan and snowshoe hare trading winter colors for summer ones, caribou fording the Savage River, brown bears chasing dall sheep and moose grazing on green shoots. The type of stuff you see on Planet Earth...
After lunch, we hopped off the bus and threw legs over the bikes. The gravel riding was as good as it gets with no washboards or deep gravel. Elevation gain was considerable with plenty of up and down. Best of all, the bus system creates hardly any traffic to worry about with the added bonus of being able to hitch a ride if things don’t go as planned. In the 43 miles back to camp we experienced sun, rain and snow, grizzly bears digging for squirrels, lounging caribou and fleeting views of THE mountain. Denali is as impressive of a mountain as I’ve ever seen. She hides behind a fortress of shorter, jagged peaks and veils herself in clouds and broken sun. Even when hidden from view, Denali emanates a presence you can feel. Sounds corny, but it’s real.
The logistics of Alaska can be a bit daunting, but once you put in the effort, you’ll be rewarded with experiences that would be hard to reproduce anywhere else in America. A bike trip to Denali could be done from the Anchorage airport completely by cycling and train, and would make for an excellent bike-centric trip to the 49th State.