Posted by: kerryl29 | March 14, 2022

Alaska Revisited, Day 9: The Denali Highway, Part I

The single most important shortcoming that I think Ellen and I both wanted to rectify based on our 2018 experience in Alaska was a lack of time on the Denali Highway. Contrary to popular belief, the Denali Highway is not located in Denali National Park. The highway–it’s a bit of misnomer since the vast majority of it is unpaved–is located south and east of Denali National Park. It’s approximately 135 miles in length (110 miles are unpaved) between Paxson, on the eastern end, and Cantwell on the west. Cantwell lies at the junction of the Denali Highway and the George Parks Highway (I-A4, AK-3), approximately 30 miles south of the entrance to Denali National Park.

In 2018, for a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, rainy weather, we ended up with a grand total of one-half day on the Denali Highway. It was more than enough to know that we needed more time and when we planned the itinerary for the trip that took place last year, we very deliberately built more days into the schedule. The plan was to spend two full days on the Denali Highway, plus the residue of another day. If you’ve been reading along, you’re already privy to the residue, which netted a nice sunset shoot and a glorious aurora borealis viewing and photo session. In the end, we ended up spending three full days on the Denali Highway…but I’m getting ahead of myself…

Day 9 started late, due to bleariness resulting from the aurora experience, which didn’t end until approximately 3 AM…so it was after 8 when we finally got going the following morning, which meant we missed sunrise…and conditions when we got up suggested there might, in fact, have been a nice sunrise, but the aurora made the tradeoff well worthwhile. In any event, the plan was to spend the day covering the part of the Denali Highway that we hadn’t seen the previous evening, given that it was pitch dark on much of the drive in, so we headed east and, before we’d gone very far, we came upon the Kettle Lakes area. The most accessible of the lakes was down an embankment to the left, well below road level, but we pulled off to the side and found a well-worn social path down to the water. It became marshy near water’s edge and we got as close to the lake as we could without soaking ourselves. There was some wind, but if we waited, the lake surface would settle and the Alaska Range was reflected back at us.

Kettle Lakes Reflections, Denali Highway, Alaska

We continued our drive to the east, and stopped when we neared the end of the long climb up to Maclaren Ridge, which provided interesting views of the valley to the west, with its series of small lakes and ponds, surrounded by colorful tundra and dotted with pockets of spruce.

Maclaren Ridge View, Denali Highway, Alaska
Maclaren Ridge View, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Tundra, Maclaren Ridge, Denali Highway, Alaska
Maclaren Ridge View, Denali Highway, Alaska

At the very top of the ridge we reached a large parking lot of sorts, which provides access to numerous area trails. The light was becoming quite harsh and the wind had picked up significantly, which made photography…challenging. We decided to hike the Maclaren Ridge Trail for a bit, without our gear, and had a very pleasant stroll on the path, through rocky tundra, above the tree line. We wandered for a few miles on the trail, which we discovered was filled with photographic potential, and planned to come back with our gear the following morning. (Spoiler alert: unfortunately, that didn’t happen, as I will detail in the next installment.)

When we returned to our vehicle after 90 minutes or so on the trail, we continued east. A thin layer of clouds had blown into the southern sky, diffusing the sunlight; it remained, for the time being, delightfully partly cloudy to the north. The wind continued to be an issue, but we persevered, ultimately driving all the way to Tangle Lakes–an area we had actually driven past before sunset the previous evening–while stopping occasionally along the way, if something caught our attention.

Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

When we got to Tangle Lakes, we spotted a trio of tundra swans in one of the lakes and stopped to see if we could capture them with our long lenses.

Tundra Swan Trio, Tangle Lakes, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swan Trio, Tangle Lakes, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swan Trio, Tangle Lakes, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swan Trio, Tangle Lakes, Denali Highway, Alaska
Tundra Swan Trio, Tangle Lakes, Denali Highway, Alaska

It was, by now, mid-afternoon and we began the journey west, back toward our Maclaren River starting point. Again, we stopped whenever we felt the impulse, which was not infrequently.

Alaska Range Panorama, Denali Highway, Alaska
Alaska Range Autumn, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
Alaska Range Panorama, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska
Clouds Black & White, Denali Highway, Alaska
Fall Color, Denali Highway, Alaska

It was early evening when we reached the Maclaren River and, after making a pit stop back at the lodge, we continued to the west, to see what we could find. What we discovered was a string of lakes–the Waterfowl Lakes–over a span of about 10 miles. Most of the lakes were located to the north of the highway, and all of them were significantly below road level. What we were scouting, in effect, was a series of overlooks.

On the way out, we stopped regularly, scouting various locations and, after we reached the last of the lakes, we turned around and headed back to the east, stopping at each of the spots we’d marked. While a strong sunset never materialized, due to the increasing cloudiness, the wind diminished, which made for some pleasant photography to conclude the day.

Waterfowl Lakes Evening, Denali Highway, Alaska
Waterfowl Lakes Evening, Denali Highway, Alaska
Waterfowl Lakes Evening, Denali Highway, Alaska
Waterfowl Lakes Evening, Denali Highway, Alaska
Waterfowl Lakes Evening, Denali Highway, Alaska

While the weather conditions had been hit or miss this day, the fall color was another matter; we had discovered that our timing for color along the Denali Highway was spot on and we were excited to get an early start the following day, a day we would spend working our way across the remainder of the highway to the west, to our new lodgings on Carlo Creek, about 15 miles north of Cantwell. We’d have the entire day to photograph along the highway, starting, we hoped, with a return to the Maclaren Ridge Trail first thing in the morning. As I foreshadowed, those plans would be foiled…but we’d still have the opportunity to photograph along the highway, with its exquisite fall color…


Responses

  1. Never been… bur I can see it is a great location for skyscape. Enjoy the trip, I’ll tag along if you don’t mind 😉

    • Thanks, and I certainly don’t mind; please do tag along!

  2. Interesting pictures of Alaska!!

  3. Kerry,
    Grand vistas of color, with some beautiful skies! What great good fortune to hit right at peak. Looks like an area with some drone potential as a way to get some comps not available from land. Looking forward to the next installment.
    Steve

    • Thanks, Steve. This was, IMO, easily the LEAST interesting day we spent on the Denali Highway. Hopefully the next couple of installments will support that opinion…

  4. You didn’t mention the fact that this was September 1…the first day of hunting season in Alaska. While hunters on ATVs and in campers outnumbered photographers by about a thousand to two, I don’t think we ever got in each other’s way.

    • That’s true, I didn’t. When I complete the Denali Highway chronology (at least two more entries), I’m planning to do a kind of overview of the DH experience…and it was going to (and will) definitely include discussion of the hunting season issue and the implications thereof…but you’re right, in hindsight, I probably should have at least mentioned it in this installment.

  5. Absolutely amazing

    • Thanks very much!

  6. […] mentioned in my last post that we had hoped to return to the Maclaren Ridge Trail at sunrise, before beginning our trip west […]


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