Bikepacking the Denali Park Road

Words by Kona Supreme, Delia Massey. Photos by Delia and her riding partner, Kinsey.

Two days before I left for a week-long vacation to Anchorage, I decided I wanted to bikepack the entire Denali National Park Road. My last-minute trip planning escalated quickly, from realizing that Denali was a 4-hour drive from Anchorage, to discovering that the 90-mile road through the park was only open to bikes and park buses, to finding blog posts from people that had bikepacked the whole 180 miles out and back. I had never full-on bikepacked (just done an overnight with a stay at a hotel), but I figured why not go big for my first real trip?!

My partner in forest crime, Kinsey, reluctantly agreed to my crazy idea, and we quickly rounded up some lightweight gear, packed our bikes and lots of warm layers, and got on a plane to Alaska. The night before we left, I sent an email to Revelate Designs, an Anchorage-based bikepacking company, asking if we could stop by and get some bags the next day. They responded yes, so we got off the plane, picked up our bags, and after a trip to REI for food, a bear can, bear spray, bear bells, and some other emergency supplies, we were as ready as we would ever be!

Fast forward to Sunday, May 27th. Kinsey and I drove up to Denali National Park, checked in with the ranger, and picked out our planned backcountry camping locations (both were around mile 60 on the road, assuming we would cover 60 miles a day for 3 days). We watched a video on park etiquette and safety, which was very useful, but also heightened my fear of having a bear encounter. We had our final meal of burgers and beers at 49th State Brewing, and did a practice run with our borrowed Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 2 tent at a local campground. Aside from putting on the rain fly inside out, we were dialed.

Monday morning, we got up early and drove to the Denali Visitor’s Center, where a couple of moose wandered the parking lot while we attached our bags to our bikes. We set off around 8:30, starting with the climb up the first 15-mile paved section of road (and the only section open to cars). Spirits were high, our fully loaded mountain bikes were cruising on the pavement, the sun was shining, and excitement was in the air. We got our first views of Denali around mile 9.5, and I was awestruck with how large it was. Rainier seems big, looming over my home of Seattle, but Denali is simply massive. At the 15-mile mark, we came to the gate that only allows bikes and buses through, and we saw our first grizzly bear, near a river. Seeing the size and speed with which the bear moved did not make me feel any better about camping in bear country!

As our tires hit gravel, the adventure truly began. No more cars, just buses full of tourists rumbling by every so often (and that only lasted to mile 53, where the buses turned around due to snow). I felt like we were part of the park as the people on the buses took photos of us and waved. We steadily pedaled mile after mile, with plenty of breaks for food, water, and bathroom breaks. There were bus stops and designated campsites with bathrooms and trashcans along the way, which was a huge help. Water was plentiful, with clear streams from snow melt along the way, so we never carried more than 2 liters each (treated with a Steripen).

We climbed over Sable Pass and Polychrome Pass, both of which offered spectacular views, and made our way to our first campsite on a gravel bar right near mile 60. The park rules dictate that you must camp at least a half a mile off of the road, and must be out of site of the road, which is why I chose to pedal in flats to make the hiking easier. We cooked our freeze-dried dinner, had some M&M’s, and stored our bear can away from both the cooking area and our tent. We attempted to sleep, with sunset around 11:30pm. I woke up at 5:00am with the sun and was convinced there was a giant animal walking around outside our tent, sniffing at our things. Kinsey woke up and poked his head out of the tent, and we didn’t see any evidence of any big animals, so perhaps it was just the wind and my overactive imagination. We did find that his helmet straps had been chewed by a hungry ground squirrel!

Day 2 was bright and sunny, and as we came over the Stony Hill Overlook, we had a crystal-clear view of the south side of Denali. It was absolutely breathtaking. I stopped and took the greatest photo I have ever taken with my self-timer, and after soaking in the views, we pedaled on to the end of the road. We passed many kettle ponds, formed when large chunks of ice detached from a glacier and become buried in sediment and melted, and finally reached Wonder Lake at mile 85, and pushed on to our final stop on the road, a beautiful outhouse between mile 89 and 90, that offered us shelter from the wind to cook lunch, and a stream nearby for water.

After that, we began the slog back up the 30 miles we had just descended. We paused for a bit at the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66, made friends with a marmot, and kept moving back towards mile 60. We saw a momma bear and 2 cubs around mile 62, headed directly for our planned camping spot. We decided it was safest to continue on a few more miles, finding a bluff at mile 58 with a good view of the surrounding terrain.

We survived without any midnight bear attacks and pushed through a headwind on Day 3 to finish up back at the car around 3:30pm. Tired, delirious, with sore butts and sore legs, we were full of joy and adventure! Riding through the park was the ultimate experience, something you can’t get on a bus or in a car, and I highly recommend it. The wildlife was abundant, and in total we saw 18 grizzlies, as well as caribou, Dall sheep, marmots, countless ground squirrels, ptarmigan, hares, and magpies.

I learned that nothing compares to the simplicity and teamwork of bikepacking. Your only goal for the day is to pedal, and your only concerns are food, water, warmth, and wild animals. It was challenging and painful at times, but I loved it, and I’m already planning my next big trip!

Gear list:

  • Tent: Big Agnes Fly Creek HV UL 2 (Thanks Mal and Kelly!!)
  • Enlightened Equipment Revelation down quilts, 20 degree
  • Cocoon silk mummy liner
  • Thermarest Neo-Air
  • Sea to Summit pillow (for delicate Delia)

On bike (Delia had a Kona Honzo CR Trail DL, and Kinsey was on an Evil Following MB):

  • Revelate Egress handlebar pocket: (snacks, map, gloves, hat, buff, Steripen)
  • Revelate Handlebar Harness and Salty Roll: Sleep system, synthetic puffy jacket, rain jacket and pants
  • Tent (Delia) or bear can with food (Kinsey) attached to harness with pocket
  • Revelate Ranger frame bag (1-L water bottle, fuel, tubes, toilet paper, charger/cords)
  • Revelate Gas Tank (Tools: pump, tire levers, tire plugs, multitool, derailleur hanger, master links, knife, headlamp, ski straps)
  • Revelate Pika Seatbag: full change of base layers, extra fuel, emergency bivy, emergency ponchos, MSR reactor stove
  • Swift Industries Sidekick Pouch w/ Nuun water bottle
  • All food aside from clif bars/shotblocks was carried in the bear can at all times unless cooking!

On Delia:

  • From High Above Cascadia hip pack, with 2L bladder
  • Bear spray!!

Food:

  • 3 dehydrated dinners
  • 2 freeze dried breakfasts
  • 1 freeze dried lunch
  • 4 tuna packets
  • 1 bag of beef jerky
  • 1 bag of roasted dark chocolate almonds
  • M&M’s
  • 1 bag of instant mashed potatoes
  • Various clif bars and shot blocks
  • Nuun electrolyte tabs