Posts Tagged ‘kantishna’

Empty Denali

Saturday, September 10th, 2022
Walking around the closure

Last year when the Denali NP road closed at the “Pretty Rocks” slump, I was very tempted to just haul my bike around the closure and bike the road after the slump. I assumed it wasn’t legal in the park to push or ride one’s bike around the slump. Roughly a year later and after my friend Tom suggested it was possible, I did some research and noticed it was not only legal (that is “allowed”) and appeared to biked somewhat frequently. Strava segments on the Park road after the closed bit showed a fair bit of traffic. So, on a overcast Saturday morning Tom and I meet up at the Denali NP’s Backcountry information center, got some permits, hopped a bus to the end of pavement, and started biking. I was somewhat bemused by the Denali staff, as just about every interaction could be summarized as some variation on “your not going to make it”, and constant reminders of how long it was to our selected backcountry units just past Toklat.
The ride to the road closure was fast and fun, though Tom got two flats in the first 25 miles, and there was one bus jam for a bear that we couldn’t see.

Neat Clouds



Soon we were dropping down the stairs to the East Fork of the Toklat river, after one last “that is a really long way to push that gravel bike” from a NPS staffer, and we were down riding then pushing up the river bed to go around the Pretty Rocks slump. The last NPS staffer said there were currently no NPS staff on the other side of the road, and the road was in bad shape. Our plan was just to go up the East fork of the Toklat, then head west towards the creeks draining down from Polychrome Glacier, then take a wash back up to the park road.

Pushing

Pretty Rocks Slump

Pretty Rocks Slump


That worked well, though the route was mostly a bit too rocky for me to bike on my touring tires in a safe manner. After a few creek crossings, and a little more than two hours of walking with the bikes we were back on the road, biking towards Toklat.

Empty roads


It was easy to find the right route, and there were lots of tracks to follow. Biking the road was an interesting experience – we had it entirely to ourselves, with no traffic besides three bikers and two people on foot. The road was mostly intact, though I was surprised by one unexpected drop-off around a corner, it wasn’t very deep and I made it over without going over my handlebars.

We camped in our unit as it started to get dark, and I fell asleep to rain the tent fly. In the morning we rode to Kantishna and back near the Eielson Visitor Center.

Neat clouds

Empty roads past Toklat

Ellison was creepily empty. On the way in we saw several Camp Denali buses there, with folks going for hikes, but the place was otherwise completely abandoned. Oddly, mechanical noises were coming from the building, and it looked like the heat was still on.

Empty Ellison

Empty Ellison

Folks can't read apparently

Toklat was also a ghost town with the bus schedule from a year ago still up.

Schedule from last years closure

Loved the LOTRs reference

A funny note left in the bear lockers at Toklat with a Lord of the Rings reference.

Kantishna still had stuff going on though, the outhouses at the runway were still open, and the lodges seemed to be all still in operation in one form or another.

Almost to Kantishna

The road near Kantishna, which is new to me, yay!

Extreme Danger!

The Kantishna airstrip signage is a bit over the top..

Our second night’s campsite was the best I have ever had in Denali, with a wonderful view of the Muldrow glacier. The sunset was fantastic.

Best Campsite Ever!

The following day we biked back out, running into a few more hikers, but otherwise didn’t see anyone else until walking around the closure, where we ran into a few hikers, and could see a few more in the distance.

The ride was a complete blast – the road is mostly in better shape than it is with buses. Almost no washboard and just a few short sections washed out. It is a like a 20ft wide bike path, though really scenic country.. so hard to beat!

Denali, from Stony Overlook

Denali, from Stony Overlook

Denali!

Wildlife wise we had a pretty busy trip – there were sheep on several ridges, but they were far away and only little white dots. We saw several groups of caribou in the distance, one quite close up, and several moose in the distance, and a bear on the bus ride. Just about all the megafauna besides a wolf!
We did have to detour around a bear near Stoney Dome on the way out. After waiting 15 minutes or so for a bear happily eating berries 20ft or so from the road, we pushed our bikes off the road and around the bear, well outside the suggested 300-yard safe zone, the NPS requires.

Walking around the bears

Untitled

Pearson's Cabin

Road damage

Leaving the road for the detour around the slump

Slump

Heading up back to the road

The climb back up the “civilaized part of the road..”



A few hours later we were back in civilization, wandering around looking for the employees-only bar Tom was fascinated with. Biking around the employee’s only area reminded me of working in Skagway in my late teens and early twenties, not the happiest time of my life, and I was made a bit melancholy, and left Tom to his devices and drove home, making it in time to see the twins before they were asleep.

The closed part of the Denali road is a pretty interesting experience. However, seeing Denali’s response to the closure was a bit odd – they seem to be operating like the closed area is just gone. There was very little sign of any motorized traffic from Ellison to Toklat. All the outhouses were closed and locked up outside Kantishna. A bit odd, as while the road is closed, the area beyond it is still quite accessible, and is going to see a fair bit of bike and foot traffic. The NPS staff seem to be discouraging anyone from biking or otherwise traveling past the closure. Perhaps that is understandable, but given we saw several Camp Denali buses, it is still quite possible to drive the road after the closure, and I would have hoped Denali would have moved to have some sort of reduced presence, not a complete abandonment. As one NPS wildlife person told me “As far as we are concerned no one is driving the road.” when I asked about traffic from the lodges.

Some notes for others interested in biking the road past the closure:

  • The route around the slump is 5 miles. It is possible to ride a bike through most of it, though my little tires made that hard. Staying closer to the hill seems to have firmer and a bit smoother surface than the more actively flooded area. On an unloaded mountain bike, it should be almost entirely ridable. There are at least two water crossings, so expect wet feet.
  • Riding your bike off the road in Denali is apparently fine so long as you are not causing “resource damage”, whatever that means.
  • The walk around the closed part took Tom and I a little over two hours each way. YMMV.
  • The Denali staff say you can camp 125ft from the road centerline.
  • A backcountry permit is required to camp, and you need to get a backcountry unit to camp in, and camp in that unit. Be prepared for the backcountry permit process to take a while, and have all the stuff required (bear canister/ursack etc)
  • Expect the Denali staff to be skeptical and tell you it will be much harder than expected.
  • Expect no assistance from the NPS past the closure. I would have enough food to walk my bike to Kantishna or back out.
    • Which really, wouldn’t be that big of a deal – if you push your bike 12 hours at 2.5 miles an hour that is 30 miles, you could make it from near Ellison back to the area served by the busses or Kantishna in less than a day. It wouldn’t be fun, but totally doable – I would just keep in mind you mind have to do that if something goes wrong, and be prepared.
  • Be prepared to have some long bear delays.
  • Have fun – it is a blast back there, and enjoy it, in a year or so (or 10 if the NPS decides to re-route all the way around the Polychrome area. ) it will be back to “normal” with busses of people driving out and back and only getting out to go the bathroom.

So… Get Out and Bike It!

(Before some idiot does something stupid, wrecks it, and it is closed to bikes. 🙂 )

PS: Does anyone know what this sign means? I thought it meant to wait 10 minutes if you see sheep, others thought it means the road is closed 10 minutes after the hour, any idea what the official meaning is?

Odd Sign