It takes a little more than two hours to drive to Denali National Park and Preserve from Fairbanks. Take your time and you might discover some treasures along the way.
Right outside Fairbanks is the little town of Ester. You know you are there when you see the big fire station at the intersection.
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 Ester Community Market takes place at the Ester Community Park every week. Here, artisans, farmers, musicians and other vendors sell their wares. The community is home to many talented artists who create everything from paintings and jewelry to wrought iron utensils and books.
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 Denali in the distance, towering over all the other mountains.
The entrance to the town of Nenana is grand. A towering silver bridge ushers drivers over the confluence of the Tanana and Nenana Rivers.
This is a little town with a lot going on.
It’s the 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 River and the Yukon River. 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.
At the town’s entrance, stop at the Alaskan Gallery and Nenana Visitor Center for information about highway communities. The gallery features the work of more than 50 Alaska artists, including owners/photographers Evelyn and Samuel Verhagen. Their four young sons operate the Lemony Snackets refreshment stand, all by donation only.
There are at three restaurants in town - Roughwoods Cafe, Rivertime Cafe and Riverside Pizzeria. Bitchin’ Kitchen offers counter service in the Nenana A-Frame Service Station and convenience store on the Parks Highway and north of Nenana, the Monderosa provides memorable hamburgers - “Still The Best Burgers In Alaska,” since 1982, according to the sign.
Coghill’s General Store carries groceries, hardware, craft supplies and Alaska-made wares from artisans.
If you want to stretch your legs, check out the walking tour along the shore of the Tanana River and read the historical interpretive signs.
Continue driving south and you’ll eventually have the opportunity to turn right and enter the small community of Anderson. It is six miles off the highway, so it doesn’t get a lot of visitors.
You might want to pull in and check out the large and lovely riverfront park that offers great camping.
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.
An elementary school was built and the city was incorporated in 1962.
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.
You might be hungry by now, so when you get back on the Parks Highway be sure and stop at the Clear Sky Lodge Bar & Grill, for the best prime rib sandwich in the area, and some conversation with longtime local residents.
Then, continue driving. Soon, you’ll be in Healy, the gateway community to Denali National Park. The mountains loom closer and Denali National Park is just a short distance away.