A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
People put up with the dust and potholes of the Denali Highway for the sake of solitude, beauty and adventure, but the dirt and gravel road is a thoroughfare to the past as well. The highway slices not only through a basin surrounded by mountains, tundra and waterways but also through archaeological remains that go back 10,000 years.
GO AS FAR AS YOU CAN: If you only have a day, then drive as far as you can and look for wildlife, mountains and birds. Don't bother driving the whole way.
LOOK AROUND: If you start at the Cantwell end of the highway, try sightseeing until you get to the Gracious House Lodge and Flying Service at Mile 82. Once there, try some pie or other baked goods with some coffee, and ask for Butch Gratias, who knows the area from almost 50 years of living in it and flying over it.
SOME HISTORY: Once you get closer to the Paxson end of the road, stop between Mile 17 and Mile 37 to explore the Tangle Lakes Archaeological District. Though unmarked for the most part, the area is one of the densest in North America in terms of archaeological sites.
The 135-mile drive begins at the Paxson Lodge on the Richardson Highway and crosses to the Parks Highway at Cantwell. Built in the late 1950s to provide access to Denali National Park, the mostly gravel road now gives visitors access to the Tangle Lakes Archaeological District, a vast and bountiful area of 226,000 acres.
Accessible between Mile 17 and Mile 37 outside of Paxson, the district is the second densest area in the North American subarctic for archaeological sites, said John Jangala, archaeologist for the Glennallen Field Office for the United States Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management.
"There's so many of them, that if you're walking on one of those ridges, you're on a site," he said.
Anyone can wander through the district by climbing a short hill from the Tangle Lakes Campground at Mile 21.5 or by starting at the Delta National Wild & Scenic River Wayside nearby. Both sites have boat launches for those who want to canoe along a series of long, narrow lakes, but even someone without a paddle can find ripples of history by looking down at the ground as they walk.
So far, archaeologists have found over 400 sites that contain stone tools and chips that give some of the earliest evidence of human occupation in North America. Their work has uncovered arrowheads, house pits, hearths, campfires and chipping debris, Jangala said.
"There's a good chance that any sharp rock on the surface, especially shaped like a potato chip, is a tool," he said.
People can look and pick up the chips, tools and other remains, but they should leave them behind when they head back to their cars, he said.
The Glennallen Field Office lists four cultural traditions recognized in the area: the Denali Complex (10,500 to 7,000 years ago), the Northern Archaic Tradition (7,000 to 1,000 years ago), the Late Prehistoric Period (1,000 years ago to A.D. 1770) and the Athabascan Tradition (1770 to the present).
Some of the sites once served as camps for hunters who peered down from the rocky ridges to look for migrating caribou below.
Hunters and fishermen still come to the area to shoot caribou and catch lake trout and grayling, but recreational travelers traverse the road for many reasons. Once the highway opens (May 16 to Oct. 15), cyclists, birders, hikers and boaters put up with mud and washboard roads to explore the wilderness without crowds. Fair-weather travelers stay clear of the highway, which has a maximum speed limit of 30 mph. In order to do anything at all, people need to spend a few days on the road.
Taking this languorous approach pays off. Travelers get outstanding views of the Alaska Range, Wrangell Mountains, boreal vegetation, glaciers and wildlife like caribou, moose, fox, trumpeter swans and other waterfowl.
Several BLM campgrounds provide comfortable places to park or pitch a tent on a first-come, first-serve basis, and formal hiking trails range from 2 to 20 miles, including a short one that begins at the Brushkana Creek Campground at Mile 104.
Whether cycling or driving an RV, visitors should check supplies and equipment before heading out. Once on the road, only limited services fill the gaps between big hunks of wilderness.
At the Paxson Inn & Lodge at the start of the highway, the Eldridge family sells gas, propane, meals, drinks and more. Room prices start at $60 for one person and $10 for each additional person, but plenty of people just stop in for a bite to eat, said Theresa Eldridge.
Theresa's parents, Chet and Karen Eldridge, own the lodge, and she works there a good part of the year. Though bumpy and sometimes muddy, crossing the Denali Highway gives people access to wilderness without a flood of other people and businesses in the way, she said. "We've got lots of animals, lots of trees, lots of mountains," Eldridge said.
Closer to Cantwell, Butch Gratias runs the Gracious House Lodge and Flying Service at Mile 82. He moved to the area in the mid-1950s to work at the Valdez Creek gold mine, opened at the turn of the century. The mine closed in 1995, but anyone who stops at the viewpoint at Milepost 85 will see the mine's reclamation in the foothills of the Clearwater Mountains.
By the late 1950s, Gratias opened the lodge, which now has 25 rooms along with a bar, restaurant, gas station and other services. He pilots a small plane for flightseeing tours.
Dawnell Smith is a Daily News arts writer and lives in Anchorage.