A Guide to the Denali Highway, an Epic Alaska Road Trip
Updated October 2021, A 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.
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 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Have Any Questions About Driving The Denali Highway?
Ask your Denali Highway questions in the comments section below.