In the Valley of Giants: Cycling the Denali Park Road

Gone is the pavement, the RVs, the PJs, the rush of hurried traffic. All around is a stillness;. A quiet only broken by the sound of tires over gravel, labored breathing, and the occasional exclamation of "Wow". I am cycling the Denali Park Road, the only intrusion that man has made in this 6 million acre wildlife refuge. It is a land where nature still reigns supreme, where wolves roam, bears do bear things, and humans are very much traveling over their land. It is a choose your own adventure style park, one without trails or designated campsites. Get a back country permit for a particular area, and go and do as you please. It is a refreshing change of pace, and one I would love to come back and explore on foot, but for now, I am on bike and sticking to the road.

Two days worth of boring, RV filled riding on a busy highway got me and my traveling partner, Mike, to the entrance of the park. Once there, we procured our permit, I got my requisite bear canister, and we were set.

Just because the road to Denali sucked doesn't mean I'm going to stop being so cool.
cycling denali park
One of the first views in the park.
Photo of Mike taking a photo of me taking a photo. Skilled.

The scenery along the park road is stunning. I worked my Big Ron magic and got us 3 days of perfect weather. This hair does NOT get rained on. According to legend, Denali is covered in clouds nearly 70% of the time, but it was clear for our entire time in the park. Honestly, I got tired of seeing the damn thing. It's like, cool, you're a big mountain, I get it. Now quit rubbing it in our freakin' noses. Yeesh.

Cool, we get it Denali, you're big. Now cover yourself up.
Cool, we get it Denali, you're big. Now cover yourself up.
Old guys gotta nap, what are you gonna do.

We had a permit to wild camp the first night. The only rules are that you must be a half mile from the road and completely out of sight. This could potentially be very challenging based on the landscape, but we chose a zone with a river we could follow to get out of view. Everything went according to plan, until the river completely cut us off, forcing us to ford it in two spots. The water is glacial run off, so it is extremely cold and moving quite rapidly, so it was a tad dicey. And we got to repeat the fun the next morning at 5 am, even better!

Riding the river bed.
The fording. Dicey stuff.

After mile 15 or so, personal vehicles are not allowed on the park road. If you would like to see the park, you must take a bus, that is run by the park. They stop at various locations for folks to get out and take photos, as well as stop in the road when they spot wildlife. This is the way in which most people experience the park, which is great. However, it makes it feel like, as someone outside of the bus system, you are a part of the wilderness experience. Just another animal in the zoo, so to speak. Buses roll by, cameras stuck out windows, people lazily looking out windows, sleeping, looking bored, seeing nature from a climate controlled environment.

The park bus. These come by quite regularly.
A typical stop by the buses.
Solid technique on that shot!
A hard to pull off tourist shot: the photo of a double photo shoot.
The typical bus at a wildlife shoot. Long lens stuck out the window.

That's not to say that any of this is "wrong" or "bad". In fact, it's the opposite. I think it's great. It reduces the impact on the park, keeping the vast majority of the park untouched and open for those that seek a more intense wilderness experience while allowing the masses to also experience the beauty of the park. For most people, seeing a grizzly bear 200 yards away from the safety of a bus is absolutely thrilling and the experience of a lifetime. My point is that it made me feel like part of the exhibit.

As such, I decided to play that up, and give these folks a show. The normal behavior of the touring cyclist in the wild is dominated by meekness. They are unassuming animals, normally demure, avoid eye contact and conversation, and generally do everything in their power to avoid drawing attention to themselves. They camouflage themselves in body odor and grime to make themselves even less approachable. Every once in a while, a young male cyclist will buck these norms and act in outlandish behavior. A particularly brash specimen will even work to draw attention to himself while on the road, either out of boredom, insanity, or a little of both.

cycling denali park
My typical cycling outfit while in Denali. Bee above my head, ready to pounce.

I began flexing at each passing tour bus, preening and showing my dominance. When arriving at rest areas, I loudly proclaimed, "Take a photo of this!" while ripping massive 15' skids. Nonplussed, people would routinely ignore me, shaking their heads and walking away.

The bikes we are on also work to draw quite a bit of attention. Mike is on a fat bike, while I'm riding a 29+, neither with the usual assortment of panniers. Curious onlookers approach, gawking at the bikes and asking the same questions. Some ask to take photos, to which I usually try to finagle money as a tactic to get them to leave me alone. Or to just make some cash, either works. Again, people ignore me on that front.

I am learned in the practice of the "Artful Dodge", having spent a few days at the Stafford Inn in Stafford, ME observing the master himself, the Artful Dodger, and his sidekick, backwards R Mark. They deftly closed computer tabs in the common room of the hiker hostel the moment anyone would appear. I took the lessons I learned there and applied them to a more wholesome pursuit: getting out of having the same damn conversation a gazillion times. Mike has still not learned this art, despite my attempts to teach. In many respects, he is a poor student. He will gladly wax poetic about our trip thus far, his lofty goals, and the pros and cons of a fatbike and a bikepacking setup. Unwitting tourists soon regret their decision to engage with this species of touring cyclist, the super rare loquacious one. They nod their heads, eyes soon glazed over in boredom, full of regret. I for one am happy for the diversion, as it lets me get back to spreading my shit all over the place like I own the woods (I do).

A relatively tame Big Ron Pit Stop (BRPS). The debris can and does spread much further.

My usual tactic is to deflect any question or comment they have about the bike by pointing out that I have very large kavs, which help me ride. I then implore them to take a photo of my kavs, as it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. They decline (one day, someone will take a photo of my kavs!), laugh, slap me on the shoulder playfully, and walk away. Mission accomplished. That was the case in every encounter, until the other day. It was a fateful day. A day that will go down in history. A day when everything changed.

Pretty effective deflection tactic. Puny, non existent kav on the right, real behemoth on the left.
Pretty effective deflection tactic. Puny, non existent kav on the right, real behemoth on the left.

A man challenged me.

This foolhardy man guffawed at my comment.

He didn't believe that I have huge, powerful legs, particularly in KAV region.

"My forearms are bigger than your calves!", he proclaimed. (I'm assuming he doesn't know the proper spelling of "k-a-v".) I was blindsided. Was this guy a dolt, hard of eyesight, slow? Could he not see the 4 watermelons stacked end on end under my taught, sun bronzed skin that are my absurdly huge, perfectly sculpted kavs? Did he not realize that on the 8th day, God created Big Ron's KAVs and said, "My work here is done"?

If this "Lincoln Hawk" wanted a fight, well then, buddy, he had one. I snapped into a Slim Jim, channeled my inner Macho Man, and it was on.

Slim Jim (courtesy Aunt Peg, winner of the Aubuchon Best Aunt Contest (ABAC) 5 years running).
Slim Jim (courtesy Aunt Peg, winner of the Aubuchon Best Aunt Contest (ABAC) 5 years running).

The match didn't last long. I hit him with a Steiner Screwdriver, followed it up with a moonsault powerslam, and while he was reeling from those, I hit him a Shining Wizard. 1-2-3, match over.

Championship retained.

My kavs are bigger than that guy's forearms, no doubt about it. Anyone else that has anything to say about it, let me know and we can tango in the Marsh Ring. Anytime, anywhere.

Anyway....Denali. Yea, it was big, we saw it a lot!

The road slowly, slowly approaches the Big D.

We spent the next night at Wonder Lake Campground, at the site of some folks we met cycling, Brian and Tilly. It is an amazing spot, right at the base of Denali, with the entire skyline dominated by the peak. Wonder Lake, is....wondrous?

The Wondrous Wonder Lake.

It also happened to be 90 degrees, without a lick of shade! The tents were in the blazing sun, and the sun doesn't set. This made for a sweaty, sweaty night. We bathed in our own sweat (aka a dirtbag shower), with the plan being to get up to watch the sun "rise" on the face of Denali. Sunrise was at 3:15 am in the morning, so it was an early morning.

I raced to get to a good spot to watch it, and boy was it incredible. The moon was just visible on the horizon and Denali was still clear of clouds. The scene was perfect. It started with a little bit of pink on the very peak and before long, the entire mountain was bathed in color. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience, and well worth the early wake up call. These are the moments that make everything worth it. When people ask, "What about that sounds fun?" this is what I will tell them. Getting to be in remote places, seeing and experiencing things that so few in the world have the opportunity to see, and then rub it in by bragging about it on the internet is all I need. So. Damn. Sweet. Take that, suckers.

The moon.
The peak, in full "alpenglow"
The whole shebang. Wowza!
The whole shebang. Wowza!
Obligatory. Can't believe Lincoln Hawk had the temerity to talk shit.
Obligatory. Can't believe Lincoln Hawk had the temerity to talk shit.

We started riding by 5 am in the morning, Alaskan American Time. Since we got such an early start, we decided to just head all the way back to the park entrance, about 85 miles and 11,000' of elevation away. It was another amazingly beautiful day, full of more wildlife, views you can only dream about, and lots of pedaling.

The gruesome twosome.

On the way, a bus was stopped in the road, watching some grizzly bears down the hill. They were acting strangely, walking away from something. One stood up on his hind legs and looked back, when all of a sudden, they started sprinting up the mountain, towards the bus (and myself, on a bike). I decided it was time to get out of there and rode off. Those things are scary fast. They continued uphill and I rode on, tinkling myself a little, checking over my shoulder to make sure they weren't following. It was awesome, and now I'm going to brag into the ether about it!

Standing up to check things out.
Full tilt boogie.

We stopped for lunch after about 6 hours of hard riding, and I was bonking. I didn't have a whole lot for lunch, but had been thinking of my plan for the last two hours. This is a recipe I don't recommend unless you are riding your bike at least 8 hours a day. Here it is:

1). Take one tortilla, slather in PB, banana chips and raisins.
2). Take a second tortilla, slather in PB. Cover in one (1) complete Snickers and a handful or two of Peanut M&Ms.

3). Roll them into an "epic" burrito.

4). Eat.

5). Sugar rush!

6). Sleep

 

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So. Good. It's a diabetics wet dream, and not for the faint of heart. There is nothing "light" about that meal, but it is one that I'll be adding to my repertoire. I'm calling it the "Big Ron Diabetes in a Wrapper (BRDiaW). Anyway, we made it to the entrance and ran into Brian and Tilly, who drove us to dinner. We annihilated the place. Ate them out of house and home, they didn't know what to do. Pretty happy about that.

Thanks for reading, hope you're jealous.

-BR

Family photo. Plus a flex off.
Family photo. Plus a flex off.
Every time you share, an angel gets his wings:

7 Comment

  1. Chris Becker says: Reply

    Scott:
    Really joyed your comments and pics! Do you have any bear spray. Quite fortunate to see a griz running. You can’t out run them, they can go about 25 mph for short bursts. If you try on the bike, make sure you are going downhill. Ha! Stay safe, keep writing when you can.

    Uncle Chris

  2. Stellina Chapman says: Reply

    We love reading about your adventures! Keep up the good work! All the photos are absolutely stunning!
    Love,
    Stellina, Aaron, & Giuliana Chapman

  3. Dan Wodiska says: Reply

    Scott,
    I am reading all of your blogs while at the lakehouse. Well written for sure.
    Lorraine and I stayed at the Denali Lodge for 3 nights and we really enjoyed that whole area of the world. Great Pictures of “Big D”. We did not want to take the “bus” back out of the park so we flew on a single engine plane right over Denali. What a beautiful mountain.
    Keep on trucking!!
    Dan

  4. Denise Selz says: Reply

    Scott,
    I’m really enjoying all of the beautiful pictures your sharing of this trip. Sounds like quite the adventure! Looking forward your next post. Stay safe

    Denise Selz (friend of your parents)

  5. Debbie says: Reply

    Funny you never mentioned the bear chase when we talked on the phone! Love the pictures and your commentary. Great way to share the adventure with you! Be safe and love you lots!

  6. April says: Reply

    It’s gorgeous! Thanks for taking us with you!

  7. May we include some of your photos from the Denali Trail in a book about gravel cycling? If so, would it be possible to send hi-res images this week or early next? Please contact me if you’re interested.

    Look forward to hearing from you. Thanks! Vicki

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