Letting some of it trickle out while trying to soak it all in

Monday, July 15, 2013

Biking the Denali Park Road as a family

On the 5th and 6th of July, Rachel, Ingrid, Henry, our friend Will, and I biked the Denali Park Road from Wonder Lake to the park entrance. It was 86.1 miles and a fair bit of climbing.

With a little wheel removal we were able to get all the bikes on the back and the trailers in the trunk.

You can't drive into the park and the buses only take two bikes each so we reserved two spots on the 11 am camper bus for the Abbotts and one spot on the 2 pm for lonely Will. Luckily kids don't count as real people so park entrance and bus tickets are free! We left the house just after 6 so we would have time to make it through the fire at Skinny's, the construction at Healy, and the backcountry orientation course at Denali.

The buses stop every 45 minutes or so to look at animals or take a rest stop, which is perfect for kid (and dad) attention spans. Here we are at Polychrome Pass.

After we took the previous photo, Ingrid said, 
"OK, now everybody get out of the picture except for me."

Pretty soon we were at Eielson, almost to Wonder Lake. The kids were so good we bought them a puppet Raven and Otter at the gift shop. Ingrid chewed off the Raven's eye in about ten minutes but Folkmanis sent us a replacement and a bonus robin.

Car seats are officially required on the bus and we weren't sure how we were going to get them back to the park entrance. Once on the road we talked with our bus driver Chuck and he offered to take them back for us! He dropped them off right at our car so they were waiting for us when we pedaled up. Serious props for Chuck!

At Wonder Lake, waiting for Will and wondering how the kids were going to do.

The mosquitoes were pretty thick in the woods but there was a breeze by the lake. Rachel and I had a "you brought the bug spray right?" discussion while we were packing up but luckily we found a bottle of hippie eucalyptus stuff that got us through. Wonder Lake was the only place with thick bugs! 

Once Will arrived around 7 we loaded the gear into the cargo trailer, the kids into the Chariot, and got on the road. Denali came out and said hi. Here is the family and Will in front of The Great One.

Henry didn't like it when Ingrid would lean on him but Ingrid let him rest his weary head on her shoulder.

Some bikers at Wonder Lake warned us about a juvenile grizzly that had charged them about ten miles out. Will spotted him around mile 7 loping towards the road. After taking this picture Rachel wisely suggested, 
"Isn't it about time to put away the camera and get out the bear spray"? We didn't think he'd seen us and were downwind, so we slowly backed up 100 yards or so and lined up on a little ridge with better visibility. We lost sight of the bear for five tense minutes but knew he was to the north of the road (to our left). As we talked through our bear protocol Will asked,
"So if he does attack, at what point do we abandon the bikes,"? Looking behind me at our trailer full of children I responded with a grim smile,
"For me, I think that's going to be pretty far along." Just then we heard a deep rhythmic "hrumpff hrumpff hrumpff"! off in the bushes to our left. We could see brown fur through the green brush on the roadside but weren't sure how far away he was. A little breeze parted the willows and we saw that he was thirty yards back by a small pond. He'd circled around to get downwind of us and was now sniffing the air and barking in disapproval. He eventually turned away and galloped to  the northwest. We hopped on our bikes and calmly rolled to the east watching over our shoulders for the next few miles.

Most of the backcountry units were already reserved so we camped in unit 35, just 15 miles from Wonder Lake.

To preserve the wilderness experience for bus riders you can't camp within a half mile of the road. We felt like the Von Trapp family Hauling our children across the tundra in the shadow of the mountain, but fleeing bears instead of Nazis.

Like the Von Trapp singers, Ingrid and Henry performed an impressive duet when we woke them up Saturday morning. The Alaska Range was pretty spectacular though:

The hills are alive.

We were on the road by 10 am.

Angry because of the weather by 11.

At Eielson by 12.

And bored of the Denali views by 1.

We'd planned on rain and bugs, but instead got sunburns and breezes.

At Stony Pass Henry needed to fuel up. While he nursed, a bus pulled up and a bunch of Indian tourists and old Canadians took pictures of the hardcore biker-mamma in front of Denali.

From Toklat to Polychrome the wind was mighty. It blew the cover off the Chariot, but Ingrid and Henry just laughed as the dust whipped through their little compartment.

Rachel was out front most of the time, but this old bull startled her and she shouted, "Caribou! What do I do"? Ingrid thought that sounded like a song which she sang for the next forty miles.

It was nice to have Will to haul the gear up the big hills :).

Grinding up the last bump of Polychrome.

The buses started getting thick around 2 pm (all morning was bus free) but they were all respectful and passed slowly.

Will blew by this trucker despite the perilous flames.

Rachel and Will feeling satisfied at the top of Sable Pass. The 17 miles of downhill after Sable were a nice treat after the slow mountain passes we'd gone through.

The pitstops became more frequent after Sanctuary river. 

Henry was starting to look a little bedraggled and ready to head home.

Ingrid still looked fresh and fabulous though in her travel pearls.

They sang us up the surprisingly long pass between Sanctuary and Savage. Henry is singing his "Uh-Oh" song and Ingrid is freestyling on top of that.

Henry cried for the last couple of miles before Savage River.

But was happy after a quick nurse.
The last 13 miles from Savage to the park entrance ended up being the most difficult, despite their being paved. Rachel had bruised her knee on some of the washboard and there turned out to be a considerable amount of up on what I had described as being "totally downhill."

Even though it was only 50 F, between the not pedaling and the exhaustion, Rachel was hypothermic by the time we got to the car at 11 pm. We cranked the heater though and she recovered pretty quickly.

Will magically packed the car, we loaded the kids without waking them up, and we got back to town in time for a shower before his Sunday morning departure.

Thanks to Cody for the bike, Chuck, Martin, and Britta for help with logistics, Henry and Ingrid for being super children, and Rachel and Will for being awesome biker buddies.


  1. Amazing! Anyone need any financial services up there near the Great One so we could think about moving up there? Those Folkmanis puppets are beautiful, I always covet them at the museum bookstore.

  2. what a ride!
    you're a good storyteller, ben.

  3. What a great adventure. I too am impressed with the kids. Wow.

  4. Gorge (that's short for gorgeous)

  5. Wow! What amazing photos. Incredible you were able to accomplish this with the little ones, what troopers! You can read about my rainy experience biking here: http://ramblinmurph.com/2015/04/28/denali-joyride/

  6. I was looking for Denali elevation profiles but really enjoyed stumbling upon your family adventure!

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