story and photography by Ed McClure
[Alaska Motorcycle Rides: Denali National Park & Preserve was originally published in the June 2010 issue of Rider magazine]
It was already noon, yet I still had 10 hours of daylight left to ride 180 miles on one of the most famous roads in the world. An earlier start would have been better, but my wife and I were swamped with morning customers at our Denali Village Gift Shop.
Denali National Park and Preserve, featuring Mount McKinley, draws more than half a million visitors from around the world each summer. Towering at 20,320 feet, Denali, “The High One,” is a spectacular sight to see. Most of these visitors see the mountain and experience the park from the seat of the concessionaire’s tour bus. Yes, I’ve been there, done that, several times in years past, but this day was special as I would be riding my BMW R 1150 GSA.
Each year the Park Service opens the road to private vehicle owners who participated in a mail-in lottery. The lottery allows 400 vehicles per day for four days. Very few motorcyclists participate in this event, so it was quite possible that I was the only bike on the road that day.
This day, September 15, was the last opening for the year, so I taped my lottery ticket on my BMW’s windscreen and rolled into the wilderness. The first three miles of the road wind through the most crowded areas, including the Wilderness Access Center, a mercantile, the post office, Riley Creek Campground and the Park Headquarters.
Another must-see in this area for all first-timers to the park is the new Visitor Center and Murie Learning Center. Modern displays of wildlife, geology and geography found here are enhanced with the latest technology for interesting viewing and experiences for all ages.
At MP 13 there’s the Savage River Picnic Area and Ranger Station. This is where the pavement ends, along with access for the general public traffic. Then I was riding on a wide, excellently maintained gravel surface which ascends out of the forest into the wide-open tundra. The mountainous scenery extends to infinity in all directions. Just when you think it couldn’t get any better, it does, with another series of jagged peaks or a sweeping river valley. Thankfully, today was a clear day for “The Mountain” to reveal its full glory. This only happens about 10 percent of the time every year.
It was actually an effort to soak in all the scenery, autumn colors and look for wildlife. On the road I encountered a red fox, a hoary marmot, numerous ground squirrels and two flocks of Willow Ptarmigan. The ptarmigan actually blocked traffic for several minutes, strutting their autumn colors in the afternoon sun. After all, they ARE the Alaska State Bird, and park officials vigorously enforce the wildlife right-of-way rules. Larger wildlife were scarce today. I only saw a flock of Dall Sheep and a few scattered caribou. Moose, bears and wolves are out there; if only I had time to sit and watch.
Teklanika River, Igloo Creek, Sable Mountain, Polychrome Pass, Toklat River, Thorofare Pass, Eielson Visitor Center, Wonder Lake and Kantishna are all separate, distinct areas of the park which offer literally days of exploration and discovery. Denali National Park could be called the world’s largest classroom for all the natural sciences. Polychrome Pass is an exciting stretch of sharp blind corners with a 1,000-foot cliff on the south side. No room for sight-seeing or animal scouting here. I saved that for the open tundra areas.
This year, the Eielson Visitor Center celebrated the grand opening of its eco-friendly, state-of-the-art building. One could easily ride past it, not knowing that the patch of tundra on the south side of the road is actually the roof of an ultra-modern building. Tons of rock, glass and stainless steel are fabulously choreographed into elegant receiving areas, stunning viewing rooms and the all-important rest rooms. The designers of the glass wall, which visitors look through to see Denali, were gracious enough to paint silhouette lines on the glass to show where the mountain would be seen if the weather were clear.
Beyond Eielson, the road offers even more sharp, narrow corners and vertical dropoffs before easing into the rolling hills of the glacier moraine. The tundra receded back into forest as I approached Wonder Lake Ranger Station. The hard-packed gravel/dirt surface offered great traction for the GS with very little dust. I was constantly tempted to crank the throttle and have some real fun. But even though I was 85 miles into the wilderness on a one-way road, there are real Federal Rangers out here with real radar guns and ticket books. The 35-mph speed limit is most painful. I enjoyed a nice visit with Ranger Jeff Caldwell and other staff members who were preparing to end their ’08 season and return to civilization in a few days.
The Kantishna Road House was already closed and boarded up for the season. This area was known for its gold-mining activities long before the park opened in 1917. I took a few minutes to stroll over a small hill overlooking Wonder Lake and took in the spectacular view of Denali. The sun was beginning to set into evening and cover the land with its brilliant alpenglow. Natives and early explorers have enjoyed this same unspoiled view for hundreds of years. Less than 100 years ago it would have taken weeks to travel to where I am now standing. On this day I and many others did it in a few hours. I thoroughly enjoy modern technology and advancement, but I also agree that there are special places like this which must be preserved for future generations. Once altered or destroyed, they can never be replaced.
Handgrip warmers are technology that I especially enjoyed as I headed the opposite direction in the cool night air. There were very few vehicles on the road now as most of them started a few hours earlier than I did. I had a quick snack and pit stop at Eielson VC just before theyclosed the doors on the 2008 season at 7 p.m. As I cruised through Polychrome Pass just before dark, the alpenglow was replaced by a cool moonlight as a full moon slid into the clear night sky. The surrounding mountain peaks and upper plateaus resembled a lunar landscape in the eerie twilight. Ground squirrels sought the sanctuary of their dens as the nocturnal birds of prey began their circling and the predators their stalking. It is rare to ride at night here in Interior Alaska without being frozen, and I actually needed my headlight. I was completely enjoying the moment. Brakelights came on simultaneously on the few cars ahead of me. Two moose were completely blocking the road and in no apparent hurry to move. About 10 minutes and a thousand camera flashes later, they finally moseyed off into the trees and we could move on. As I exited the park back into the world of traffic, noise and business, I couldn’t help but be just a little envious of those two moose—peaceful, unhurried and content.
Ed McClure is a 30-year resident of Fairbanks, Alaska, and an avid adventure rider in Alaska. He is also a business owner and invites riders to visit his Northern Originals Gift Shop on the Boardwalk when in the Denali area.