It takes a little more than two hours to drive the 123 miles to Denali National Park and Preserve from Fairbanks.
If you take your time, you might discover some treasures along the way.
Right outside Fairbanks is the little town of Ester. This former mining community, sometimes referred to as “The Republic of Ester,” is a reminder of days gone by. Now it is home to artists, teachers and lots of folks who don’t want to be lumped in with Fairbanks.
The center of town? The Golden Eagle Saloon, popular with both visitors and locals.
The Ester Community Association now sponsors the Ester Community Market every Thursday. Here, artists, farmers, musicians and other vendors sell their wares. The market opens in June and runs through September from 4:30-7:30 p.m. in Ester Community Park.
Continuing south, the Tanana Hills can be treacherous driving during winter months. But in the summer, the road winds through scenic views on both sides of the road.
Vast views of the Tanana Valley and Alaska Range are visible at every turn. On a clear day, you can see Mount Denali in the distance, towering over all the other mountains.
The next “big” community you’ll run into is Nenana.
The entrance to the community is grand: A towering silver bridge ushers drivers over the confluence of the Tanana and Nenana Rivers.
Nenana is home of the Nenana Ice Classic, a lottery that lets people guess the exact moment a black-and-white tripod will fall when the ice goes out on the Tanana River at the end of winter. It began in 1917 when bored railroad workers tried to guess when the ice would break free and float downstream.
Many an Alaska resident has spent hours poring over statistics of ice thickness, hoping to get lucky with every ticket.
This also is an important staging area for barges that supply communities along the Tanana and Yukon rivers. The barges deliver fuel and other important supplies to these remote villages.
It was in Nenana that President Warren Harding drove the golden spike on the Alaska Railroad in 1923. A monument depicting that spike is on display at the depot museum. That presidential rail car is now at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks.
The Alfred Starr Nenana Cultural Center includes a small museum and Native crafts shop. Some local artists sell their wares here.
The oldest building in town is a charming 1905 log cabin church on Front Street.
Continue driving south and you’ll have the opportunity to turn right, into the small community of Anderson. It is 6 miles off the highway, so it doesn’t get a lot of visitors.
Three homesteaders settled here in the late 1950s. In 1959, the town’s namesake, Art Anderson, divided his 80-acre homestead into quarter-acre lots and sold most of them to civilian workers at the adjacent Clear Air Force Station, a radar site for detecting incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles.
You’ll see Clear Air Force Station while on your way to Anderson, but it’s not a site for casual or spur-of-the-moment visitors. This is a military installation that houses both Alaska Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force personnel.
An elementary school was built, and the city was incorporated in 1962.
When you get back on the Parks Highway, be sure and stop at the Clear Sky Lodge for the best prime rib sandwich in the area and some conversation with longtime local residents.
Then, drive on. Soon, you’ll be in Healy, the gateway community to Denali National Park.