Road trip across 135-mile Denali Highway doesn’t disappoint

The Susitna River, seen from the Denali Highway, flows through the Alaska Range in this photo taken Saturday during a car camping trip across the 135-mile road from Cantwell to Paxson. Below, many pull-offs along the road provide places to camp. / Molly Rettig/News-Miner

The Denali Highway offers one of the most scenic drives in Alaska, with frequent reminders of the region’s glacial past.

It runs between Cantwell on the Parks Highway and Paxson on the Richardson Highway. Cantwell is 27 miles south of the entrance to Denali National Park.

The road cuts through the Alaska Range, and majestic mountains and vast tundra line both sides of the highway.

Constructed in 1950, for many years, the Denali Highway provided the only access to Denali National Park before construction of the Parks Highway. Now a variety of lodges help tourists enjoy the natural beauty of this remote wilderness.

Most of the highway passes through alpine terrain. You have a good chance of spotting caribou, moose and bear. Parts of the road sit atop eskers, ancient streams that wound through the glaciers. Kettle ponds, formed by melting ice chunks, offer nesting areas for swans and other waterfowl.

Maclaren Pass is the highest point on the drive, at 4,086 feet. On a clear day, you can see the Maclaren Glacier.

Tangle Lakes is close to Paxson and offers canoeing, hiking and extraordinary bird watching. It is also an archeological site.

Alaska Native people have lived in this area for more than 10,000 years. Archaeologists continually find traces of their prehistoric life.

Just driving the road can be an adventure, depending on the condition of the road and its potholes. Be sure to bring along a spare tire. Maybe two.

The BLM maintains campgrounds at Brushkana Creek and at Tangle Lakes, but you can pull over anywhere along the road and camp.

A few small roadhouses offer lodging, including the Tangle River Inn, Maclaren River Lodge and Alpine Creek Lodge. See www.tangleriverinn.com, www.maclarenlodge.com and www.alpinecreeklodge.com.

On the west end, near Cantwell, is where the 2007 film “Into The Wild” was filmed.