Cycling Denali Under the Midnight Sun

Alaska was a new world for me that summer. I spent months planning a three week trip to Anchorage at the end of June, laying the ground work for what would become three unbelievable bicycle tours across the state, each with its own challenges and rewards. Each tour was unique, and each was like nothing I expected.

I found a hotel near downtown Anchorage with a good weekly rate, booked three weeks from late June to early July 2012, boxed up my bike, and spent a long and shitty flight on a plane that got to the Anchorage Airport at 2 in the morning. It was days away from the summer solstice. A glow of twilight lay over the city, and the air was warm. Clouds hovered above the Chugach Mountains to the east. I went to sleep at the hotel with an odd case of jet lag, thanks to the 22 hours of daylight that Alaska gets in the summer. But I made it. And the next three weeks would entail some of the best tours I have ever done.

Denali was the first place I wanted to go. I have loved mountains ever since I was a kid, and this was my chance to see the tallest one in North America. At 20320 feet, Denali rises three times as high as most of the mountains around it, making it visible for hundreds of miles across the state. I wanted more than anything to see it in the clear. And not just to see it, but to earn the right to see it from a bicycle. I had to get my bike out there, get into the park, and be in good sight of it on a nice day. Everything else about my trip could be a complete failure, and I would still leave Alaska feeling satisfied if Denali decided to appear on my ride.

According to the locals, it shows itself one in every three days. The rest of the time it is covered in clouds. It’s so big that it generates its own weather system, meaning that it can be a great day everywhere else on the range and you’ll still find blizzards high up on its ridges, and shrouds of cloud cover concealing its beauty. My challenge was making sure that I got out to the park when it decided to show itself. For the first few days, this turned out to be a waiting game.

The weather forecast looked pretty hit or miss. So I got comfortable and waited. My whole trip hinged on this, and I could wait as long as I had to.

Later that week I got a message from a local OkCupid girl who I was flirting with, telling me that she was up there, and that the weather was supposed to be good for the weekend. I looked at the forecast again. She was right. Highs in the 70s and clear. I rented an SUV, packed my bike and gear in the back, and got moving around noon.

I got to the park at 4:30, sparing me about an hour to get food and a backcountry permit, and gear up for what I had spent months working up to: An overnight ride on the park road under the midnight sun.

The ranger at the backcountry office gave me a bear canister to bring along. It was huge, heavy, awkward, and almost didn’t fit into my cargo. But durable enough that not even a grizzly bear can bust it open and eat my food. I worked out a schedule with the ranger and was on my way. One day of riding overnight to Wonder Lake, 85 miles to the west, camp for the morning, camp again halfway back the next night, and then finish the day after that at the welcome center. If luck would have it, the mountain would show itself.

I got moving on the paved section of the park road between the headquarters and Savage River, which goes straight along the valley south of Mount Healy, a large 15 mile ridge system of rugged alpine ridges that tower above the taiga forests along the valley. At its summit of 5700 feet, it gives a good view of the Denali massif 60 miles southwest. I pushed onward through the valley under a light shower coming off of the mountains to the south. At this elevation, the forests started to thin out and I could see all of the mountains pretty clearly.

A short descent to the Savage River brought me to where the pavement ends and the fun begins. I stopped at the campground to refill my water and made small talk with a lady staying there with her family. She wanted to know where I was headed. They always do. People see me with the bike and all of my gear, covered in days worth of sweat and dirt, and always want to know where I’m headed. I don’t usually mind. Most of the time I’m ready to see people again after going alone for hours on end.

I crossed the river and started my climb around the side of Primrose Ridge, a small 1500 foot mountain mostly covered in tundra, and a popular spot in the park for day hikes. A short descent down the other side brought me to Sanctuary River and the mountains after it. I made it to the Teklanika River Campground thirty minutes later and took a break. I was making decent time. It was late evening, the elevation was well under the tree line, and the arctic mosquitoes were out in swarms.

From the below the bridge, the Tek River braided its way northward, narrowing through a large canyon and flowing out of the park. The midnight sun lit up the canyon and the mountains around, casting an alpenglow on the landscape. At that latitude it sets for a few hours into the night before coming up again around 3:45 a.m., but never far enough below the horizon that it doesn’t light up the northern sky in orange and gold. People say that the wilderness up there is pristine. When you see the midnight sun casting fire on hundreds of ridgelines, you know they aren’t kidding. I turned south and began my ascent up Igloo Canyon and Sable Pass.

In no time, I left the river, the mosquitoes and the tree line for what turned out to be the hardest uphill climb on the whole road. Ten miles of steep grades and thinning air, along with the fact that it was a dirt road, and that I had heavy cargo, thanks to that fucking bear canister, wiped me out not even halfway up. I was not expecting it to be that rough. But it was outright brutal.

The road went up Igloo Canyon for five miles, the tundra gave way to dirt, and soon I was spitting distance from the tops of ridges on both sides. It turned west for another 5 miles of hard uphill grades along Sable Pass. Ridges passed behind and below, more of them appeared a few miles south, and still, the road turned uphill again and again along the side of Sable Mountain. I stopped to take breaks I don’t know how many times. It made no difference. My training did nothing to prepare me for this. I guess I just had to take my time, something I couldn’t stand to do. I wanted to see the Mount McKinley from a bicycle, and I didn’t care what kind of beating I would end up taking to make it happen.

I pushed on and on between the rocky ridge tops and finally crested the pass just shy of 4000 feet before making an 850 foot descent to the East Toklat River, and then another climb back to the nearly the same elevation along the side of Polychrome Mountain. I was wearing out, standing on my pedals, pushing uphill with a shit load of cargo and thighs burning my legs alive. THIS HAS GOT TO FUCKING STOP. I came around a turn and a big grizzly bear stood right in the middle of the road twenty yards ahead.

SHIT!!!! I slammed on my brakes, sliding on the dirt and gravel. The bear jumped and took off down the hill, disappearing into a thicket of willow bushes. I stood there quietly for a few minutes, listening for it to come back, my heart rate completely off the charts. I was finally sure it was gone, and slowly rode by saying “Hey big guy! I’m not gonna bother ya.. Just passing on by, big fella!” After a hundred feet, I picked up the pace and got the hell out of there.

I reached the top of Polychrome Pass a few miles later. I had been climbing for two hours. Maybe more. I don’t know. But I had to stop and recover my strength. I didn’t have a choice anymore. With no one else out, I had the road to myself, and sat on the edge of a 1000 foot drop off, looking out at the valley ahead. The valley along Polychrome Mountain spans for five miles before sloping upward towards Mount Pendleton and the backbone of the Alaska Range. From there, five glaciers feed its streams, eventually joining the East Toklat further back. It is a diverse and colorful valley, and a popular overlook in the park. I rested for 45 minutes, taking in the solitude and trying to get my head together for the rest of the ride. On the bright side, I was high above the tree line with no worry of the mosquitoes, who I still hate to this day.

I coasted to the rest stop at Toklat River. It was 3 in the morning and I was finished. The rest up on the mountain didn’t do much for me. I undershot the difficulty on this trip, and just wanted to get back to the welcome center. I felt like a failure, but I had had enough. The next mountain pass had a climb of 950 feet, more of the same shit. And from where I was, I was just over half way to my goal. Whatever, I’ll see Denali some other time, maybe come out on a shuttle later the next day after getting some food and sleep. I decided to cut my losses, wait a few hours for a shuttle bus, and go back.

I didn’t even feel like finding a place to set up camp. My morale was altogether gone at this point. So I went into one of the outhouses, locked the door, got my pillow out, and went to sleep.

“Good Morning!” It was 6:00 a.m. A park ranger caught me sleeping in the outhouse. He was laughing.
“Hey uh, sorry, I’ll get out of here in a minute..” I sat up, half awake.
“No, don’t worry about it, get your rest! It’s a good shelter, isn’t it? I’ll go ahead and work on these other ones. Take your time and come out when you’re ready!”

Well that’s cool of him, I thought. I still felt a bit too weird staying there any longer, so I got up and came out.

We made small talk for a bit. He was an older fellow in his sixties, a bit eccentric, and happy to meet visitors. I told him about my trip, how I climbed all of those mountain passes, and was ready to just screw it and go back. He laughed.

“You sure you don’t want to go for it? The mountain is in the clear this morning!”
“No, I think I’ve had as much as I can take of this..”
He laughed again. “Well, you got all the way up Sable Pass, that’s pretty good!” I guess so. But I still felt like I had lost the battle.

I told him about the 500 pound beast that I scared off with my bike last night. “That’s a good bear,” the ranger reflected. “Well, I have to get some work done. The bus is coming in two hours. Just relax and walk around, go up on the ridge over there if you want. The sun should be coming up any minute.”

He went to work on the outhouses and I walked 100 feet up the facing ridge of the river and sat down. The sun had already lit up the Divide Mountain to the south. I relaxed and listened to the Toklat River rushing along, thought about everything I went through to get out there, and then I got my head out of the fog.

What the hell was I doing? I didn’t come all the way out here just to give up and turn around like a pussy. I spent months of planning, buildup, expensive decisions, just to get out to the park with my bike. And then the ride itself was even more trouble. And for what? To turn around and go back, one mountain pass away from my goal. And on a clear day, no less? I would never forgive myself for that. That’s not going to fucking happen. Not now. Not ever.

Fuck it, I’m going.

I came back down the ridge and got my gear together. The ranger saw me and came back over. “Change your mind?”
“Yeah, I’m going for it. I won’t forgive myself if I don’t. How far is it to Eielson?”
“About 13 miles. But you’ll see a better view before that at Stony Hill.”
“That’s doable. I think I can manage it if it’s just one more climb.”
“Yeah, you got a few hours rest, so that should help. Good luck!”

I said thanks, and got started on my climb towards Highway Pass, the highest point on the park road.

The road quickly ascended away from the tree line and into a narrow valley of tundra, and there was nothing easy about it. But I got my morale back, and with some rest, the last bit of strength I needed to climb through the barren, alpine country returned. Trees gave way to grass, grass gave way to dirt, and dirt gave way to rock. I pushed upward for 45 minutes, shedding layers and stopping at different times for water and energy bars. Up ahead, the snow capped ridge of Denali’s north summit appeared slowly at the top of the pass. THERE IT IS!!!! BY THE GODS!!!

More excited and delirious than ever, I crested Highway Pass, crossed a small stream and climbed a few hundred feet to Stony Hill Overlook, the first spot on the road where you can see the whole mountain. There it was, the face of Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America, standing higher than anything I have ever seen. I had no idea that anything could be that huge and that magnificent.

WHAT!!! THE!!! FUCK!!!!!!!! I was out of my mind with exhaustion, hunger, caffeine deprivation, maybe some mild altitude illness. None of that mattered. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was worth every second of pain and suffering I had endured to get out there, at the end of the hardest and most backbreaking bike ride of my life. Whatever. I was there. The rest of the park was still waking up, but I was there, high up on Stony Hill, looking at a vista that would stay with me for the rest of my life, certain that nowhere else in our continent can any range of mountains rival that of Denali and her sisters in sheer size and majesty.

I finally calmed down and kept going. I had four miles left. I descended Stony Hill and went over Thorofare Pass, the last climb of the trip, and easily a short one. Down the gorge to my left, a family of caribou ran along the glacial headwaters of the Thorofare River, a tributary of the larger and more powerful McKinley, which flows westward across the valley ahead for 15 miles before turning northwest into the forested plains and beyond.

At mile 66, the Eielson Visitor Center sits on the side of one of Denali’s facing mountains, offering a great view of the range and a rest stop for tourists, water, restrooms, and a few exhibits. When I got there, arctic squirrels were frolicking around the picnic tables. The first eastbound shuttle wasn’t due for 45 minutes. So I sat down and waited.

Meanwhile, the first westbound bus showed up. Tourists got out and started taking pictures. Then another one stopped with even more people. Before long, the whole place was buzzing with tourists. An older couple saw me with my bike and gear, covered in dirt and a night’s worth of sweat and wanted to know where I was headed. I told them that I spent the night riding out there on the park road, was about to take a shuttle bus back to the park headquarters, get some food, and then drive back to Anchorage. They thought I was crazy, and they were right.

The shuttle bus showed up, I secured my bike in the back, sat down, and fell asleep before my head hit the seat.

The bus reached the welcome center a few hours later, I locked my bike in the rental SUV, got an unbelievably great tasting burger from the park restaurant, got rid of that fucking bear canister, and drove out of the park.

Even when the weather is outright awful, you can still find beauty and magic in Alaska. It’s everywhere. But when the sun comes out and lights up the land, there is really nothing like it. On that day, the mountains glowed an emerald green color in the midday sunlight. White clouds passed above the ranges, casting shadows on the ridges and valleys. I stopped everywhere on my drive back to take pictures.

When I stopped at the South Viewpoint to see Denali, it was already shrouded in clouds again, reminding me that like the rest of Alaska, it’s a beautiful place on its own terms.

I got back to my hotel a few hours later, took a long nap, and walked into downtown Anchorage for some well-earned seafood and craft beer.

Part 2: Last Minute Century on the Glenn Highway