Alaska Range and Denali Highway Alaska USA
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The Beauty of Alaska's Denali Highway During Off-Season

For this Alaskan, the start of summer means one thing—time to plan a winter visit.

By far the most visited (and accessible) part of the scenic Alaska Range is Denali National Park, home of 20,310-foot Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. But to the east of the park, on the other side of the tracks (literally; the Alaska Railroad divides them), is the Hayes Range—noteworthy in its own right with huge, glaciated mountains that rival many of the world’s most famous with their sheer vertical rise. The 135-mile Denali Highway snakes beside it, and for many locals, this area is the Denali that matters. 

Built as one of the original roadways into Alaska, most would barely recognize the Denali Highway as a headlining thoroughfare—it’s just a 135-mile two-lane gravel path, completely closed to car traffic in winter when it is only accessible to snow vehicles. Lodging along it is sparse, and there are few services. For Alaskans, though, that's the appeal. Locals here have always known about the magic of low season, yet a recent upswing in off-season tourism has made it possible for local businesses new and old to cater to a quietly growing number of travelers.

Rainbow over the Denali Highway

Melissa Osborn/Alaska Department of Transportation

Leaving Cantwell, a village on the west end of the Denali Highway, the small black spruce trees quickly give way to expansive views of wide-open tundra. In this part of the far north, the treeline sits low, and most of the Denali Highway is above it—meaning uninterrupted views are available from nearly everywhere on the route. The Talkeetna Mountains sit to the south; the incredible peaks of the Hayes Range, including nearly 14,000-foot-tall Mt. Hayes, lie to the north. Without the rules (and the crowds) brought by a national park, the Denali Highway gives visitors more leeway to decide how they experience the land. 

This is especially true when temperatures drop and conditions become uncertain. There has been a recent surge of interest in winter tourism to Alaska, which began before COVID-19, and this year it was back in full swing. It makes sense: Alaska is famous for its winters, and it’s particularly beautiful during the months when snow blankets the land and craggy mountains. During cold weather the moisture precipitates out of the air onto every branch and willow bush, coating them in a layer of hoar frost. Since cold weather is usually accompanied by clear skies, the bright sun lights the land like a chandelier. 

But there is more to the surge in interest in winter tourism: whether it’s driven by Instagrammed pictures of the aurora borealis, the veritable mushroom cloud of Alaska reality shows, or simply a pursuit of a different kind of adventure, visitors are coming to Alaska outside of the summer high season in larger numbers than ever before. 

Paige Drobny and her husband Cody Strathe, who own the Susitna Adventure Lodge, are two such examples. [Editor's note: Drobny and Strathe are friends of the author.] Between the two of them, they’ve completed Alaska’s iconic 1,000-mile dog sled races 23 times, with Drobny having done the Yukon Quest five times and the Iditarod eight. Susitna, which is almost precisely in the middle of the highway, caters to adventurous travelers who crave a high-end experience—and a slice of the Alaskan lifestyle Drobny and Strathe live and breathe. Cross-country and backcountry skiing (on trails they groom themselves, or off-trail for an added adrenaline dose), snowmobile tours, ice fishing, and, of course, dog mushing are all on offer here.

Susitna Adventure Lodge

Claude Bondy/Susitna Adventure Lodge

“If [guests] want to mush their own teams and do multi-day trips, we can put that together for them," says Strathe, who provides hands-on instruction to guests. "But if they just want to go for a ride in the sled with Paige or I in order to feel the magic of silent travel across the countryside with 12 of man’s best friend in charge, we do that too.” 

While the Susitna Adventure Lodge offers a fully-guided experience to guests who can afford it (rates at the Susitna Adventure Lodge start at $2,000 per person, per night). Self-sufficient travelers on a tighter budget can head to Alpine Creek Lodge, or—in spring, summer, and fall—Maclaren River Lodge. At both, visitors will find themselves surrounded by locals enjoying one of the most beautiful parts of the state.  

Alpine Creek Lodge and Susitna Adventure Lodge offer transportation services to bring guests in—crucial when winter road closures mean access is most commonly via snowmobile—but to get to Maclaren, you’re on your own. This is fine with most guests, who are often nearby residents seeking a home base from which to ride their snow machines (the local term for snowmobile) and enjoy the beautiful scenery, like that on the ride up to Maclaren Glacier. 

“In the winter and spring we rely mainly on repeat customers,” says Susie Echols, who owns the  Maclaren River Lodge with her husband Alan. “We are usually booked out a year in advance with these groups, most of which are Alaskan.” Private cabins at the Maclaren River Lodge for four people start at $150 per night. Food is not included with the stay, though there is a full-service restaurant serving the hearty fare you’d expect after a day in the cold. 

“Most of our visitors also arrive by snow machine,” Jennifer Bondy at Alpine Creek Lodge says. But it’s also a popular spot with recreational and professional dog mushers, many of whom come to take advantage of the great conditions for long distance training. She says they "get a lot of big-name distance mushers” coming through. 

And that’s really what the Denali Highway offers that can feel hard to come by in Alaska these days: an accessible but off-the-main-tourist-track experience where you can hang beside residents, who are also on vacation, in a rugged piece of Alaska. If you're willing to make the trip outside of summer, that only becomes truer.