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My wife, Cat and I spent three days biking the Park Road in Denali National Park & Preserve last May. Spending time in the Park before the buses start running is a unique experience. In three days, we only saw a handful of road workers and three other bicyclists. Wildlife was abundant, although we didn’t see any canines or felines that I had hoped for.
Our first day started with the two-and-half-hour drive from Fairbanks to the Murie Visitor Center in the Park. Off-season this is the only open visitor center and it’s where any backcountry campers need to pick up zone permits. Denali National Park only allows a certain number of campers in any particular zone each night, so you need to have a vague idea of where you want to camp each night ahead of time. We were the only two picking up permits when we arrived and the park staff was very friendly and jovial with us (they always are here).
The first time camping in the park for the year it’s required that you sit through a safety presentation consisting of three movies and talk with one of the Rangers. After being properly instructed on the policy of where you can and can’t camp and proper distances between cooking sites and tents we easily obtained permits for two nights in the Polychrome (Unit 31: Polychrome Mountain). I’ve camped here before and it’s a wonderfully scenic area to be. It’s also at mile 46 on the 92-mile road, so it’s a good spot to make trips deeper into the park, but not so far that you can’t get out fairly quickly if the weather turns on you.
Drive to Teklanika Rest Stop
Another nice feature about visiting this time of the year is that you can drive to the Teklanika River (mile 30), in the summer season mile 15 is the limit unless you have a Tek Pass or other permit. We had a late start, so a 15ish mile ride to Polychrome was very preferable to a 30-mile ride.
We saw a few small herds of caribou on the drive to the Teklanika River. The weather was iffy with spotty rain showers along the 30-mile drive. Approaching the parking area there are a few ponds along the road that had quite a few waterfowl including some pintails and a goldeneye that I didn’t get a shot of.
Biking Teklanika River to Polychrome Pass
The ride out was beautiful and uneventful. Climbing up to Sable Pass about 10 miles and about 1,500 ft. in elevation gain is definitely a struggle with a loaded bike, but it was over before too long. The views were incredible, and with the exception of a bit of wind and drizzle, the weather was perfect.
Once at Sable Pass we coasted downhill for about 5 miles to the East Fork River. Every once in awhile we’d have to dodge ptarmigan that don’t seem to know what to do around cyclists. Most of the time they would just run in front of us straight down the road. A few were smart enough to run off the road. Not many seemed to realize they had the ability to fly.
After the river, we had our last hill up to Polychrome Pass which was much more gradual than the climb to Sable. The mountains to the south start getting bigger and the view over the Plains of Murie to the south is stunning. Coming around a corner we spotted some white dots on a hillside.
It was really cool getting to see the Dall sheep so close. Usually, they’re so far away they can be difficult to make out. Less than ten minutes after passing this little group we had a much closer encounter right on the side of the road.
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Winding our way up the Polychrome Pass hillside, the drop-off on the south side of the road becomes harrowing. This is an area where people that have fear of heights may want to sit on the other side of the bus in the summer months. I can remember bus drivers always telling us that in all the years of the park, they’ve never lost a vehicle on this side of the road. Well, as Cat was leading our way up the hill she called out, “Hey, is that supposed to be down there?!”
Since we hadn’t seen anyone else out here for hours not even Park personnel or road workers, I decided to try to get as close to the truck as possible to make sure no one was in it or injured. It took a few minutes to find my way down a slightly less steep slope to a place where I could see into the cab of the truck. Luckily, no one was inside. I was astonished that the vehicle managed to stop.
We set up camp past the Pretty Rocks Landslide. Park regulations say that you need to camp at least 1/2-mile from the road and out of view of the road and that your bike needs to be left at least 25 yards from the road. We found a campsite near a small pond. It was difficult finding a dry spot free from tussocks, but we did manage to get the tent set up on a less than ideal spot. Our thicker sleeping pads managed to negate the effects of the terrain and brush beneath the tent floor. Or maybe the long day and tired legs helped. I slept well.
Willow ptarmigan are funny little, not so intelligent birds. We must have slept in a breeding ground for these little things because they were everywhere! And they talk. All night. Little guttural barks followed by proclaiming, “a bagel, a bagel, a bagel.” It’s weird and a little bit hilarious.
We spent the morning exploring the Polychrome area near the road. There are numerous trails where the shuttle and tour buses make a short stop in the summer season. It’s cool to see the area completely empty of people and traffic in spring. There was still quite a bit of snow in the area and we would frequently see grizzly tracks and even some wolf tracks.
Ride to the Toklat River
The weather was the same as the day before. We couldn’t tell if it was going to rain or not but still wanted to ride further into the park. Grabbing some rain gear and a bit of food, we hopped back on the bikes and rode west through some more Polychrome scenery.
There are a large rest stop and visitor center at the Toklat River at mile 52. We stopped there to eat and rest for a bit and it started to rain. Since we were a bit tired and sore already we decided this would make a good turn-around spot. Besides, we were hoping to do some hiking too and there was a ridge near our campsite that looked appealing.
We were rewarded for turning back. We stopped to watch some Dall Sheep on the west side of Polychrome Pass when we also spotted some Gyr Falcons. There is a wilderness closure here because it’s nesting ground, but the Dall sheep didn’t get the memo. A couple of the falcons landed near one of the younger sheep and it was clearly startled by their boldness.
He squared off with the falcons, slowly approaching them from his grazing spot. They didn’t budge and the sheep slowly backed away. It went back to grazing and the falcons flew away.
After dropping the bikes off we walked past the pond and our campsite before heading up to a ridge on the west.
Hiking in Denali is usually challenging. It is for the most-part trailless. The terrain is either steep or full of ankle-twisting tussocks and swampy ground. Typically ridges seem to be the most friendly to walk on, but getting there can be rough. We definitely had to do some bushwacking through swampy ground followed by a little tussock-hopping across a waterway beyond the pond before getting to a short climb. The views were worth the struggle.
Making a loop back to the road was the easiest way to return to our campsite. The evening light on the mountains was gorgeous. Polychrome Pass looks over the Plains of Murie into the Polychrome Mountains and Glaciers of the Alaska Range. Wide braided rivers scour the valley dotted by kettle ponds and glacial erratics. Our sheep friends from earlier were still wandering the cliffsides. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect end to the day.
The air was a bit chillier on this cloud-free morning. After making breakfast at our cook site we broke camp. My gear didn’t seem to fit as easily in my panniers as it did on the way out. The bike felt heavier pushing uphill through the brush to the road. We get a bit of a slow start down to East Fork after airing a few tires that deflated in the cold night.
We were cruising pretty fast as we were approaching the East Fork bridge. Cat was close behind me when I saw movement on the left side of the road ahead of us. Big movement. I called, “whoah” and hit the brakes. Cat stopped behind me just as my brain confirmed that it was a grizzly sow with a single (large) cub.
They spotted us as we began slowly backed up yelling out, “Hey Bear!” It was more difficult to back up with a weighted bike uphill than I thought it would be. The cub began walking toward us on the road while mom stayed cautiously behind. She began to walk off the road toward the river and the cub hesitantly followed. Our relief was short-lived as we saw the cub’s head pop up looking at us again and it returned to the road slowly walking toward us with curiosity. The sow again urged the cub off of the road and this time they kept on toward the river.
Once the bears had descended into the river drainage and we regained our nerves we coasted the rest of the way down to the river with our heads cocked to the right. There was no sight of them when we crossed the river and made our way up to Sable Pass.
Getting back to the Teklanika River and the truck was a breeze from Sable Pass. Four miles of road without ever needing to pedal. We saw one other Grizzly off in the willows as we flew down the hill, but by the time we saw it, we were already past. The three days etched some incredible images and memories in my mind, and like always has driven me to find more time to explore this park.
It looks like next year the road will only be open to the East Fork at mile 43 because the Pretty Rocks landslide at Polychrome is accelerating and road maintenance isn’t able to keep up with it anymore. There’s no easy re-route, so East Fork may literally be the end of the road for a few years. This will also make biking the Park Road difficult as there is no easy way around the slump. This news already has me planning some future trips since the park will be much less crowded between Toklat and Wonder Lake. Stay tuned!