Denali Highway, Alaska

A Guide to the Denali Highway, an Epic Alaska Road Trip

Updated March 2024A Guide To The Denali Highway was originally written in June 2019

This 134 mile road trip will take you across a little-traveled road that traverses interior Alaska between Paxson and Cantwell.

Almost entirely dirt road the Denali Highway will take you across varying vistas, constantly changing sceneries, and epic views of the Alaska and Wrangell-St. Elias Ranges.

Most of the route sits above the tree line, so the rolling views seem to go on forever, especially if you have a clear and sunny day out here.

The Denali Highway is only maintained and open from mid-May to October. It’s also worth noting that most rental car companies do not allow people to take their vehicles on the Denali Highway, so I’d recommend booking with Alaska 4×4 Rentals.

The Denali Highway is also labeled Highway 8 on some maps, but know that Alaskans use the names of highways and we’ll all look at you like you’re growing a second head if you call them by numbers.

The Denali Highway and Denali National Park Road are NOT the same. I’m with you all on the fact that the naming is confusing. This post will cover the Denali Highway between Paxson and Cantwell. Please head over to my Denali National Park Guide if you’re looking for info on the Denali National Park Road.

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What You Need To Know Before Taking On The Denali Highway

  • The first 21 miles in from Paxson and the first 3 miles in from Cantwell are paved, otherwise, it’s a gravel road.
  • The best time of year to travel the Denali Highway is from June until mid-September. Outside this time of year (meaning May and late September) it’s worth calling DOT (in Alaska: dial 511, or outside Alaska: dial 866-282-7577) to verify it is passible by car. You can also get road updates in Alaska on this site.
  • You can essentially camp anywhere along the Denali Highway, there are countless pull-offs where you can park an RV or camper, or pitch tents.
  • There are 5 lodges along the Denali Highway, they are Denali Highway Cabins (Milepost 0.25), Tangle River Inn (Milepost 20), Maclaren River Lodge (Milepost 42), Alpine Creek Lodge (Milepost 68), and Clearwater Mountain Lodge (Milepost 82.2).
  • There are 2 maintained BLM campgrounds along the Denali Highway, they are Tangle Lakes (Milepost 21.5) and Bruskana Creek (Milepost 104).
  • Road conditions can vary widely depending on the year if it has been recently worked on, and weather. I drove the Denali Highway in June 2019 and again in May 2020 and found the road to be in great condition, as in pretty smooth for a gravel road.
  • Do bring at least a spare tire, with the nature of the Denali Highway flats can happen.
  • I’d recommend filling your gas tank in Glennallen before turning up the Richardson Highway towards Paxson to start the Denali Highway, or in Cantwell if coming from the other direction.
  • You can drive the entire Denali Highway in one day if you’re determined, but at least one overnight camping or at least in a lodge is recommended by most, though you could spend days on the road if you want to explore more of the area and do some of the hikes along the way.
  • Outside of May-October, you can access the Denali Highway by snowmachine (Alaskan for snowmobile) and by dogsled.
  • Most will drive the highway west from Paxson to Cantwell, but either direction is going to give amazing views.

Start planning: The Alaska travel guide

Denali Highway Points Of Interest

Milepost 0: Paxson Junction

Welcome to Paxson, a tiny Alaska town of roughly 40, and kick off (or end) for your Denali Highway road trip. The two main things here include Paxson Lake and the abandoned Paxson Roadhouse.

Milepost 0.25 Denali Highway Cabins & Paxson Alpine Tours

The Denali Highway Cabins are situated technically in Paxson still. A good place to get a night’s sleep before taking on the highway. You can also arrange tours with Paxson Alpine Tours here as well.

Denali Highway, Alaska, Tangle Lakes, Alaska Range
The Alaska Range Lookout

Milepost 6.5: Alaska Range Viewpoint

This first viewpoint pull-off gives awesome views of the Alaska Range along with the Gulkana and Gakona Glaciers. Me and my friend I did the Denali Highway with both thought the views of the water from here reminded us of an Alaskan version of Band e Amir in Afghanistan. There are informational glacier geology signs along the parking lot.

Milepost 10: 10 Mile Lake Trail

This short walk will take you to 10 Mile Lake. 10 Mile Lake offers good Burbot fishing.

Milepost 13: Wrangell Viewpoint

Turn around because here is your chance to look back at the Wrangells with views of Mt Drum, Mt Wrangell and Mt Sanford about 78 miles to your southeast.

Milepost 17: Swede Lake Trail, Middle Fork Gulkana Branch Trail, Dickey Lake Trail & Alphabet Hills

This trail will take you down 2 miles to arrive at Little Swede Lake, tack on one more mile and you’ll arrive at Big Swede Lake. The trail does continue beyond with the Middle Fork Gulkana Branch Trail. A short distance further beyond Big Swede Lake a trail will veer off to the west and bring you to Dickey Lake.

If you continue south on the Middle Fork Gulkana Trail it will take you across the Gulkana River and to the Alphabet Hills. Mud boots are recommended because this trail is usually sloppy and wet.

Milepost 17: Tangle Lakes Archeological District Eastern Boundary

This area between mile 17 and mile 38 along the Denali Highway is home to one of the densest collections of North American subarctic archeological artifacts.

This stretch of land near Tangle Lakes has been inhabited by Athabaskan groups for at least 10,000 years. North Landmark Gap Trail, Glacier Lake Trail, and Maclaren Summit Trail all sit within the archeological district.

Milepost 20: Tangle River Inn

A 1953 homestead turned into rooms and cabins for rent. Beds in a shared cabin at Tangle River Inn start at $48/night and cabins go for $105-180/night. Grab a pizza, or rent a canoe here.

Milepost 21: Pavement Ends

Say goodbye to the smooth asphalt for the next 110 miles! In summer 2019 the gravel road was in great condition.

Milepost 21.3: Tangle Lakes Campground

One of two BLM maintained campgrounds along the Denali Highway. There are 45 sites in total, the campground does have outhouses, potable water, and a boat launch. This is a common put-in point for those taking on the 30-mile Delta National Wild & Scenic River float trip. Normal campsites are $12/night, walk-in sites $6/night. Click here for more information, sites are on a first-come, first-served basis.

Milepost 21.5: Delta National Wild Scenic Wayside & Delta River

A BLM maintained wayside with picnic tables, outhouses, and boat launch. This is a common drop-in point for canoers headed to Upper Tangle Lakes, as well as experienced kayakers and rafters taking on the float trip along the Delta River. For more information on the Delta River float trip click here, and for more info on the Delta National Wild area, click here. Note that there is no camping allowed at the wayside.

Plan your Alaska itinerary: 1-4 week Alaska road trip itinerary

Tangle Lakes Archeological District, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tangle Lakes Archeological District

Milepost 22.5: Landmark Gap View

Get a good view of this cut sliced into the mountains by glaciers of the past. This is also a common migration route for the Nelchina caribou herd.

Milepost 24.6: North Landmark Gap Trail

This trail will take you 3 miles from the Denali Highway north to Landmark Gap Lake. It’s a wide trail that is used by 4-wheelers, bicycles, and hikers. There are signs along the way that mark sites of significance in the Tangle Lakes Archeological District.

Milepost 24.7: South Landmark Gap Trail & Rock Creek Bridge

Dipping south of the Denali Highway the South Landmark Gap trail will first head south before branching into two. The southeastern trail will take you 5 miles to arrive at a gorgeous viewpoint of North Tangle Lakes. The trail to the southwest will continue 8 miles to Osar Lake. This trail is often wet, so mud boots will prove helpful. Just beyond the trailhead along the Highway is the one lane bridge across Rock Creek.

Milepost 30: Glacier Lake Trail

This 3.2 mile hike will take you across the tundra to Glacier Gap Lake.

Denali Highway, Alaska, Maclaren Summit

Milepost 37: Alaska Range & Maclaren River Viewpoint, Osar Lake Trail, Maclaren Trail & Maclaren Summit

As you make your way up toward Maclaren Summit this you’ll first have a scenic stop off for sweeping views of the Alaska Range with the Maclaren River in the foreground. A couple of hundred yards beyond will bring you to Osar Lake Trail and then beyond that to Maclaren Summit & Trail.

Osar Lake Trail will take you across glacial Eskers* to the north end of Osar Lake.

Maclaren Summit is Alaska’s second-highest highway pass at 4,086 feet, only second to Atigan Pass. Stop for wild views of the Alaska Range Maclaren River & Glacier. You can opt to take the 3 mile out and back Maclaren Trail for a short walk with stunning views.

*An Esker is a long ridge of gravel and stratified sand left behind in glaciated and previously glaciated areas.

Milepost 41: Palsa, Thermokarsts & Kettle Lakes

On the south side of the Denali Highway lookout for this partially collapsed Palsa where you can see different layers of peat and ice. A Palsa is a frost-heave found in polar and subpolar climate zones that contain permanently frozen ice lenses.

This Palsa is neighbored by themokarsts which are sinkholes that occur as a result of melting ice lenses within permafrost systems. Thermokarsts can even become lakes in some instances, such as the Kettle Lakes that can be seen around here.

Milepost 42: Maclaren River, Maclaren Bridge, MacClaren Lodge

Cross the Maclaren Bridge over the Maclaren River that connects to the lodge on the opposite banks of the river. Maclaren River Lodge has a full-service restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and rents out cabins ranging from $100 to $150/night. You can also set up day trips from the lodge to adventure by canoe, jet boat, glacier boat, and fishing.

The lodge also offers tire repair service and firewood. Across the highway from the lodge is a scenic pull off that gives views to Maclaren Glacier in the distance.

Heading to Denali before or after? Check out my Denali National Park guide

Denali Highway, Alaska, Maclaren Glacier, Maclaren River
Maclaren River & Glacier

Milepost 43: Maclaren River Trail

Follow this trail alongside Maclaren River for about 10 miles to reach Hidden Lake and potentially travel beyond to Maclaren Glacier about 16 miles off the highway.

Milepost 46: Crazy Notch

En route to Clearwater River, the Denali Highway passes through a narrow slot that’s been named Crazy Notch. Crazy Notch is actually a geological feature carved into the Earth long ago by the Maclaren Glacier that left large glacial moraines on either side.

As the glacier receded a creek cut the notch even deeper. This area of the Denali Highway is susceptible to snowdrifts which can shut the route down in the wintertime. A little further up the Denali Highway at mile 47 you’ll find Mile Lake, just off the road.

Milepost 49.5: Waterfowl Lakes

Like the name implies the lakes right off the Denali Highway here are home to numerous waterfowl, including ducks, geese, shorebirds, and trumpeter swans. Also keep your eyes peeled for moose, caribou, bald eagles, and beavers.

Setting up camp along the Denali Highway

Milepost 55.5: Clearwater Creek Wayside

A great place to pull off and camp for the night, especially if you’re in a RV. There are plenty of opportunities to hike and fish. Outhouses are available.

Milepost 59: Eskers

Look around you at mile 59, you’re on an Esker. As mentioned earlier, an Esker is a ridge of sand and gravel left behind in area where massive glaciers once occupied.

Milepost 68: Alpine Creek Lodge

With rooms going for about $170/night Alpine Creek Lodge is a perfect stop for a night about halfway through your journey down the Denali Highway.

Additionally, there is a bar and restaurant here and the lodge offers several tours including, gold panning, dog mushing, ATV, jeep, wildlife viewing, and more. You can also set up multi-day camping trips including gear through the lodge.

From August to April on clear nights this is a great place to view the aurora if a solar flare is headed toward Earth.

Learn more about aurora in my post 5 Tips For Viewing The Aurora.

Milepost 68: Hatchet Lake Road

Just past Alpine Creek Lodge follow the turn off onto Hatchet Lake Road (4×4 only). This path will take you roughly 4 miles to Hatchet Lake.

Spending time in Anchorage? Check out my Anchorage travel guide

Denali Highway, Alaska, Susitna River
Views from the Susitna River Bridge

Milepost 79: Valdez Creek Road & Susitna River Bridge

Here at mile 79 you’ll cross Susitna River on a one lane bridge. You will also find the turn off for Valdez Creek Road which leads up to the Valdez Creek Mine.

Milepost 81: Snodgrass Lake Trail

You’ll find the trailhead to Snodgrass Lake along the Denali Highway here. The trail is about 2 miles in to the lake.

Milepost 82: Clearwater Mountain Lodge

Cabin-style rooms on offer at Clearwater Mountain Lodge from $90 to $185/night. For $10 per camper/night, you can gain access to their campground facilities. There is also limited RV space where you can pay $10/person/night for usage. Showers and laundry are available for $10/$5. Tire repair is also available.

Milepost 85: Old Valdez Creek Mine

Take a look to the east over the Susitna River into the foothills of the Clearwater Mountains to see the remains of the Valdez Creek Mine that was active from 1903-1995.

Milepost 95: Alaska Range Viewpoint & Canyon Creek Parking

For those headed out to explore the area around Canyon Creek, there’s a lot here to park your car or RV. There are interpretive signs here with information about the Alaska Range with sweeping views out over the peaks.

Brushkana Creek, Bruskana Creek, Denali Highway, Alaska
Brushkana Creek

Milepost 104: Brushkana Creek Campground

The second of the two BLM maintained campgrounds along the Denali Highway. There are 22 sites in total here along the banks of the Brushkana Creek. Outhouses, potable water, picnic area and interpretive signs are on offer here.

Regular campsites are $12/night and walk in sites are $6/night. Sites are on a first-come, first-served basis.

Milepost 107: Canyon Creek

Canyon Creek is a perfect spot to pull off the Denali Highway for grayling fishing.

Milepost 111: Seattle Creek

A one-lane bridge on the Denali Highway crosses Seattle Creek here. Good for dolly varden and grayling fishing.

Denali Highway, Alaska, Alaska Range, Taiga Forest, Boreal Forest, Alaska Range
Taiga Forest & the Alaska Range

Milepost 111.5: Taiga Forest

Dominated by spruce trees, Boreal Taiga forests survive under the harsh conditions of their environments with short and cold growing seasons.

Milepost 116: Nenana River

A pull-off along the Denali Highway here offers views and access to the Nenana River which originates from the Nenana Glacier.

Going to Fairbanks? Check out the Fairbanks travel guide

Denali Highway, Alaska
Near the Nenana River along the Denali Highway

Milepost 124: Denali View

If you’re having a clear weather day you should have amazing views of Denali, North America’s highest peak. Ahead on the Denali Highway at mile 128 you should have great views of the behemoth mountain here too.

Want to self-drive through Denali National Park? Learn how to put in for the annual Denali National Park Road Lottery

Milepost 127.5: Fish Creek

Just after a bridge over the creek, there’s a small parking lot for Fish Creek. Fish Creek offers good grayling fishing in the earlier part of the summer.

Milepost 132: The Pavement Is Back!

You’re nearing civilization once again, the gravel gives way again to smooth pavement for the next 3 miles to the Cantwell Junction with the Parks Highway.

Denali Highway, Alaska, Alaska road trip
Or in our case, we just left Cantwell and the pavement just ended!

Milepost 134.5 Cantwell Junction

That’s it, you’ve completed the Denali Highway! Unless of course, you do it in reverse like I did and this is actually your starting point on your Denali Highway adventure.

From Cantwell, it’s a short drive north up the Parks Highway to reach Denali National Park. Beyond Denali, you’ll pass through Healy, Nenana, and Esther to Fairbanks. South on the Parks will take you back toward Talkeetna and eventually to Wasilla.

Mount Hayes, Alaska Range, Eastern Alaska Range, Denali Highway, Alaska

Have Any Questions About Driving The Denali Highway?

Ask your Denali Highway questions in the comments section below.

27 thoughts on “A Guide To The Denali Highway”

  1. Drove over the Top of The World highway in 2018 with my 35 foot fifthwheel….no problems; how does this highway compare????

  2. Very informative blog and nice photos! We are going there at the end of August. Can you tell me where was the last photo (in which you were in yellow jacket and facing the snow-capped mountain) taken? What is the name of that mountain? Thanks!

    1. Enjoy! We took that photo at 63°11’21.19′”147°35’50.17″. It’s between the bridge over the Susitna River and Brushkana Creek, a little off the Denali Highway on the northside, found a set of tracks meandering toward this spot, great campsite.

      1. Thank you Nicole. but I tried input the gps coordinates in google map, it says cannot find it. Maybe the format is wrong? Here are what I have tried, none of them works.

        63°11’121.19″, 147°35’50.17″
        63°11’121.19″N, 147°35’50.17″W
        63°11’121.19″, -147°35’50.17″

        1. Oops, my bad, I found I copy and pasted 121 instead of 21. The following now works and I found it: 63°11’21.19″N, 147°35’50.17″W

  3. We plan to drive this road in mid-June. I am having a hard time finding a topographic map of Route 8, aka Old Denali Highway. I have National Geo. maps of other areas we are visiting but they don’t seem to have one of this area.
    Any suggestions?

  4. Hi Nicole, you take very nice pics and have great, helpful info. My wife and I are going to travel the Denali Highway next August, you have said there are pulloffs from the highway. Are there roads that take off from the highway so we don’t have to see or hear vehicles, people, etc? CO has forest access roads that take off from highways so you very rarely saw anybody. Does this highway have such roads to get away from it all? thanks much!

    1. Hi Jim,
      The Denali Highway isn’t a high trafficked road and it’s not much more than a (mostly) dirt road cutting through what feels like the middle of nowhere. there is the occasional 4×4 track the leads away from it but they typically dead end somewhere not super far off, so there’s no way to really parallel it by another means.

  5. This Alaska Road Trip Guide is incredibly helpful. You’ve really thought through everything you need to know before planning a trip. Thank you for this helpful resource. Saving this guide for later!

  6. Hi Nicole! Thanks for the informative blog! You mentioned that “there are countless pulloffs along the Denali Hwy where you can camp or park an RV”. I saw on a National park web site where they explicitly say “camping is ONLY allowed in designated campgrounds” which are few and far between. Am i missing something here? Is this not a rule? Or is it not an enforced rule? I’m planning on driving an RV and love your idea of pulling off and parking somewhere along the way but not if it’s going to get me a knock on the door by a parkie at 1am. Thanks- Anthony

    1. Hi Anthony,
      This post is actually about the Denali Highway, which is a different road than the Denali National Park Road. Most of the land along the Denali Highway is either public lands or maintained/managed by BLM and entirely outside the national park.

      For Denali National Park you are correct- camping is only allowed in designated camp sites and in backcountry areas (though permits apply for backcountry trekking/camping). Hope this helps clear this up for you!

      1. Ok great, thank you Nicole! We are excited to bring your blog with us as we explore the Highway later this month! 🙂

  7. Hey!
    I enjoyed reading your post.
    I will most likely do the Denali HWY the same direction you did. How much time would you say it takes? (from Cantwell to Paxson). Would that take the whole day since I will probably stop on the way…

    1. Hi Eran,
      I’ve done the trip in both directions now, both are excellent. With stops it’s possible to make the drive between Cantwell and Paxson in one long day. I’d budget about 5-6 hours of driving time alone for the entirety of the highway, not including the stops along the way.

  8. This is a great blog. Thank you.
    Can I drive a normal rental car on this route or I am not allowed to take a rental car? If not then would you know my options, please?

        1. No problem! It should be fine to get out and take photos, though there are animals around so just make lots of noise when outside to try and avoid any bear encounters. You may want to pick up a can of bear spray from an outdoor/camping store (REI, Fred Meyer, Walmart, and locally owned stores will have some for purchase).

  9. Hi Nicole,
    Found your blog, it’s super cool! I have a question, hope you can help. I’m renting an RV from anchorage (in August) and driving to Paxson->Denali Hwy->Denali NP. How long should I budget for this drive assuming reasonable number of stops? Is 2 days enough? Thanks!

    1. Hi Ganesh,
      Thanks! Two days should be plenty of time for Paxson to Denali NP with a little time for sightseeing along the way without it feeling too rushed. I have done it as a two day trip in the past with friends visiting from out of state and I’d say it’s the perfect amount of time as long as you don’t plan to do any serious hiking along the way. Hope you enjoy Alaska!

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