By Zachary Sheldon | Published Jan 7, 2021
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If you're considering skipping Fairbanks and staying south of the Alaska Range you might be considering driving the Denali Highway. A 135 mile long dirt road with a gas station near each end and only one along it.

What's the appeal of driving the Denali Highway? It's hours of driving through absolute wilderness.

Should you drive the Denali Highway ultimately depends on three things; Do you want to visit Fairbanks? Will you have a private vehicle, or will your rental vehicle allow you to drive the Denali Highway? Are you prepared to handle a flat tire?

Visit Fairbanks or Not

How much time to do you have in Alaska? If you only have a week, you might want to skip it. Fairbanks is many hours to a from your next destination. Your roundtrip travel just for Fairbanks will take up a day, and you'll probably find Fairbanks is not the Alaska you pictured, unless you go in winter and expect cold temperatures. But if that's the case the Denali Highway is closed anyways. If you have two weeks or longer then sure, why not.

Private or Rental Vehicle

Most rental companies in Alaska have verbiage explicitly saying you are not allowed to take their vehicles down dirt roads and will list the Denali Highway and McCarthy roads specifically.

Changing a flat tire

It's not uncommon to get a flat tire driving the Denali Highway. One thing that will help avoid this is driving under 35mph, however that makes for a very long drive. But should you get a flat tire, you better have previous experience, and you better hope you have a full size spare tire. It can be several hours or longer between vehicles passing by. Are you ready to spend the night in your car if you're not prepared to complete the drive without assistance?

Fuel / Petrol

There are a few gas stations in Cantwell. If they're open, Maclaren River Lodge is the only business establishment along the Denali Highway, if you time it right you can also pick up a hot meal. On the Paxson side of the highway, the nearest gas station is sever miles south on the Richardson Highway at Meier’s Lake Roadhouse.

On a Positive Note

Now that we've spelled out the possible hazards we want to emphasize driving the Denali Highway can be an amazing experience. If the weather and animal sightings are in your favor it could turn out to be a highlight of your trip. Provided the weather is good there are many good views of the Alaska Range. Arguably the best roadside view of Denali is along the first 20 miles of the Denali Highway on the Cantwell side. Obviously better roadside views exist deep inside Denali National Park, but you'll be on a bus with dozens of other tourist and subject to the bus schedules. There are also good chances of spotting wildlife along the drive. The Denali Highway provides many opportunities to see moose, bears, and caribou.