Here it is. The epic tale of 92.5 miles, one dirt road, two bikes, two people who bike sometimes, and lots and lots of gear. As previously stated in the last blog, we were a strew that morning of Day 65. We barely made the bus to get us to Kantishna. We needed the help of half the campers. We got everything off the bus and right under that End of the Road sign. It was all fun and games while the bus was parked in front of us. I could tell not many people on the bus thought for sure we would make it to mile 0. We waved as the bus rode off with our friends.
The next hour was spent packing and consolidating all of our gear. In the mad rush everything was out of place. We used almost of all of our bungee cords at their various sizes. On a scale 1 to 10 on how professional we looked as bikers when we were about to take that first pedal, I would have put us around 3. Josh hand sewed a bag for the front of his bike. I had a basket like I was 5 years old. Our sleeping bags were bungee’d to panniers. Either way it seemed to work… for all of one second. As soon as Josh sat his rump on the seat, the bear barrel popped off the back of his bike. His bike had duel suspension or suspension on both his front and back tires. So he wasn’t going to feel a whole lot of the little bumps. This was a good and bad thing. We couldn’t attach his back rack onto his back tire like mine because of the suspension. He had to use one that attached from underneath his seat. When he would sit down the seat of the bike would lower (due to the suspension) and the back rack rubbed and hit the back tire. It was a mess from minute one. We ended up spending another half hour taking everything off and then switching everything around. I now had the tent, survival gear, camping pads, Josh’s clothes, tent, and everything that was supposed to be on Josh’s bike. Josh now had my little bag and panniers with some of my camera gear. Either way we made it work and we were officially off! So if anyone is keeping track, we just made the 8am bus and then were now officially taking off at almost 10am.
It was a good uphill start. We started from mile 92.5 and our goal was to ride about 16 miles on Day 1. As you can see in the chart below, the first almost 27 miles is pretty much uphill. After about 100 feet I could definitely feel how heavy the bike was and how difficult this trip was really going to be. We made it to Skyline Lodge and knew we got a little baby downhill for a few seconds. We quickly realized how fun downhill was! Unfortunately for us there wasn’t going to be a whole lot of downhill for us for quite a while. We blazed down the hill and made our way towards the North end of Wonder Lake. It was a gorgeous day in Denali. The mountain was out and every so often the lake would get calm enough where it would reflect the mountain.
We took a long break at the North end of the lake. We made breakfast, took photos, and I got attacked by an owl! I heard a noise and looked behind me at a Northern Hawk Owl. I watched it swoop up into a nearby tree. I picked up my camera and walked a few feet closer, still on the road. I stood there and watched it scan the ground around it. All of a sudden it takes off and straight at me. I dropped to the ground like I was doing a push-up and, luckily, it missed me. I went back to our breakfast and watched it fly tree to tree in search for a snack. Sitting at the end of the lake, watching buses stop and people get all excited about the lake and the mountain was a highlight. I love seeing people’s faces light up when they get to see something in the park. We had to eventually pack up and leave, knowing we have more and more and more uphill to go. Whose idea was this again?
We rounded a few bends and eventually got to the “Y” in the road. In all the commotion and quick packing that morning, I had forgotten that I had my good dry-fit hiking pants still down at the campsite. Poor Josh unloaded everything from his bike and biked on down to the Wonder Lake Campsite to get my pants. I was only allowed to bring so many items of clothing and my dry-fit pants were an essential item. It took him about 45 minutes to bike there and back. I spent the time lounging, laying on some gear. I could have taken a nap! I wouldn’t have been able to sleep long though, some very loud sandhill cranes decided to fly on by! I loved watching their flight patterns and designs.
Josh got back and we again packed everything up. I think we had spent more time packing up and unpacking the bags than actually biking. We traveled onward. The whole way we enjoyed Denali on our right. It was as if she was cheering us on, or encouraging us to keep going. We had to stop the bikes when a bus went by. Most of the drivers were super nice, almost making a complete stop themselves as to not dust us with the dry dirt of the park road. A few drivers I have met throughout my journey stopped and chatted with us for a minute or two. It was another sense of encouragement.
We made a stop when I saw a loon. It was sleeping in the middle of one of the kettle ponds on the left of the road. I tried to sneak to the water’s edge but the loon heard me and swam away. We also stopped a lot for photos. You just can’t help yourself when Denali is out. Before we got to our first stopping point we also saw about 6-7 caribou. I believe they were mostly females or young bulls. None of them had the giant rack. I saw them on the right of the road at first, quite a ways off. I decided to continue biking and when the road curved to the right, I was hoping for a little caribou in front of Denali magic. This never happened. The caribou ran and ran super fast. They crossed the road and I got a photo when they were on the left of us.
We were both pretty darn excited and proud to make it to our first checkpoint and camp spot. We were in backcountry unit 35. When you are on your bike and backcountry camping, you are supposed to carry your bike 25 yards off the road. We were able to accomplish this and then get all the gear off the bikes to make dinner and set up our tent. Setting up a tent in the backcountry you need to be at least a half mile off the road AND you can’t be visible to the park road. This can be tricky depending on which unit you are in. We found a great spot and looked forward to a beautiful sunset.
It was another Mountain House for dinner. I say that like it is a bad thing. Those meals are way better than they used to be but after the full day of biking, I wanted a real steak not dehydrated pepper steak. We sat up on a hill near our tent and watched the sunset and the sky light up. I was hoping for some alpenglow and this time mother nature did not disappoint. The sky was on fire. The mountains and clouds were illuminated in dark pink. I took way too many photos. As quickly as the glow began on the mountains it disappeared and it was into the tent we went. We decided not to set our alarms. We needed some rest after the rush of that morning. We quickly went to bed but were waken up numerous times throughout the night due to wind. The tent seemed as though it was coming in on us! At one point the pole closest to me came very close to touching me. My response was just to roll over, if I can’t see it, it isn’t happening? Or maybe I was thinking it would hurt less on the back of my head if it were to hit me or snap? Either way we didn’t get the best sleep but we slept in until 9am!
We woke up to yet another gorgeous day. Denali was out, not as much as yesterday but you could still see part of her. We packed everything up and decided to just start biking and to have breakfast at Eielson Visitor Center. We had yet more uphill and were very much looking forward to getting to that first big milestone of Eielson. Another reason we decided to wait to have breakfast were that what we had was oatmeal or Mountain House, both of which take water to make. We unfortunately were pretty much out of water. We made it about 50 yards before stopping so Josh could hike down to one of the kettle ponds to filter water. It was here we learned that our water pump wasn’t really working. Josh was pumping really hard and little water was filtering through. Now we were really excited for Eielson!
Josh got what water he could and we made our way towards Eielson. We again stopped for the buses and got to talk to some of the drivers. We also had another few bikers on the road. They were just going for a day ride. It was a pretty exciting moment to leave the rolling tundra and then start getting views of the deep valley and Mt. Eielson itself. It was a little scary with the steep road droppoffs but the scenery was gorgeous. When you are riding the bus you don’t realized how long and how many winds the road has. I remember leaving the tundra and being at Eielson within a matter of a few minutes. It took us much, much longer. Every curve of the road where we would get a little glimpse of what was to come we were both secretly wishing to see Eielson Visitor Center.
It seemed almost like a mirage when we did finally see it. I would say to myself, “only one more curve” or “just around this bend.” It took awhile for these to actually be accurate but we did make it! When I went down the little hill into the Eielson Parking Lot I put my bike in the bike rack and laid on the ground. We had survived the 26.5 miles almost all the way uphill! We had officially survived the longest uphill stretch there was to bike in the park. We still had plenty of steep hills, but it was such an incredible relief to get to Eielson.
We grabbed some of our gear, including our breakfast, and ate it inside the visitor center. It was nice to fill up our water and use the flush toilets. We had stashed food in a locker at Eielson for Day 2 of our trip. Josh had made 5 bags of food and goodies and we stashed them in different food caches in the park. This was our first pickup! I immediately ate some of the old chocolate from the food bag. Before this trip started, when I first looked at what Josh had packed, I had said I was not going to eat the halloween chocolate from 2016. After biking all that way, I didn’t think twice before eating half the chocolate in the bag. I tried to charge a few things while we were at Eielson but that part of the stop didn’t go all that well. We then decided to repack our gear. We were just squeaking by on how our bags were packed. It took a little extra time but I think we finally got it down.
And with that, we were on our way! We actually had a little further to climb before our first real taste of downhill biking. We were pretty fresh from the long stop we had at Eielson. I was excited and proud to have made it up to the Thorofare Pass sign which sits at 3950 ft. We were officially at mile 64.45 and ready to fly down! It was one of the best parts of the trip until we quickly got a glimpse of the next hill we would be facing… Stoney!
Stoney Hill’s elevation was 3890 ft. We slowly made our way up. While I stopped to photograph Denali, whose peak just had become visible, a personal vehicle stopped to chat with us. The man owns some of the land in Kantishna. He was headed there to start packing up for the season. He had passed the lodge over to one of his children, but still had a cabin on the property. That would be my dream… Having a little property in the back of the park… so incredible!
He left us to finish the hill. It took us awhile and for me some walking, but we made it! The photo at the top of Sable looks like I was a little more exhausted than on the top of Thorofare. We looked back at the mountain and had to say goodbye for now. We were heading further away and Denali would be blocked by the next turn in the road. I gave the mountain one more look as we continued on.
It was now officially time to find a spot to camp! This was going to be harder than I thought. We had backcountry unit 33, North of the Denali Road. Josh checked out a spot that didn’t work and then I hiked all around looking for a spot. I finally found one around part of a mountain. We were behind some foliage so we were not visible from the road.
I set up camp while Josh finished stashing the bikes and bringing the second load to our perfect campsite. Once everything was set up in the tent, we walked about 100 yards away to eat our dinners. It was another Mountain House. I got some Chili Mac this time. We sat, drank some wine, and watched the sunset on the mountains around us. The last few buses came through and we could see them all stop across a bridge down in the valley. Although we couldn’t see what they were looking at, we both thought it could be a bear. Although we always were in bear country, it was this night where it was more prevalent that they were around. We sat there until the darkness set in. We followed the backcountry video on how to spit out our toothpaste! It was super fun! When we were ready for bed Josh took the cookware and bear barrel 100 yards away from our dinner spot and tent site. I waited for him and we walked back to our tent. The ground was a little uneven but I fell asleep quickly. Poor Josh’s camping pad (which actually was mine…) still didn’t work. He probably felt every tuft of tundra and stick.
We again slept in to start our day 3 of biking. We woke up a little after 9 and laid in bed. It was so warm. Eventually we decided to get up and face the day. Due to the steeper uphill, we had only scheduled 14 miles. So after two days we had traveled a little over 30 miles. We still have 3 days and 62.5 more to go. We again decided to wait until we got to Toklat rest stop to eat our breakfast. We packed up all of our gear and started heading to our bear barrel and cook ware. This is where our morning got interesting. We turned the corner where you could see the road and we saw a green bus stopped at the top of the hill. It’s door was open to the right so we knew there was wildlife somewhere around us. We didn’t know what it was or where. We didn’t want to back up at first because it could be behind us. I looked with my camera, and found a sow bear and two cubs in between us and the bus. We immediately backs up towards the riverbed.
Since we are biking, we didn’t have nice big packs that all our gear could fit into. We looked like pack mules with panniers, sleeping bags, all all little bags. We continued backing away in the brush and started heading East. We just wanted back on the road. We stopped to look for the bears. They had moved further up the trench in the mountain and seemed to be headed up. We decided to continue going South East, attempting to make it up the road. We stopped going as far East when we saw buses stopped on the bridge not super far from us. Now we thought we could be surrounded. We didn’t know what else was out there and where whatever it was actually was located. We decided we had to get to the road.
It was very difficult to travel with all the bags. Josh ended up having to leave one pannier in the tundra. Right when we were about to make it to the road we heard a noise. It was a ranger. She was yelling but we couldn’t hear what she was saying. She had parked about 200 yards away from us East. We stopped to try and determine what she was saying. Finally I heard a “GO” and a gesture down. We quickly made our way down the hill. When we got closer we could hear her yell to come to her. We slowly made our way through the thick, tall brush and to her. I was exhausted. She asked us if we saw the bears above us when we were about to make it to the road. We had not. I guess, supposedly, the bears had changed direction and headed towards us, versus up the hill like where we had last seen them. We put our gear in the back of her ranger truck and we headed up to the corner, where we first saw the bus.
The ranger also explained the reason she was there. An earlier bus had reported that there was a cub with a backpack. We had all our backpacks accounted for, but we did have our cookware stashed in a drawstring bag. The ranger said they were worried that if the bear had a backpack it could have injured a person. Another ranger then showed up. We got to the edge and saw our cookware… all spread out in the tundra. When we verified the sow and cubs were far enough away, the two rangers and Josh went down there and checked out the situation.
Josh had stashed the bear barrel and cookware in the middle of a soapberry bush. What are the bears eating this time of year? That is right… Soapberries. All of the items were removed from the drawstring bag but nothing was tampered with or broken. All of the food was safely stored in the bear barrel. There were only two items they told us should have been in the bear barrel that were in the cookware bag, some unscented wipes and Josh’s toothbrush. I filled out a bear encounter report and one of the rangers helped Josh go back and get that pannier he had to leave behind. Josh then collected our bikes, the rangers left, and we were ready to start biking our day 3. This bear encounter ended up being a 2 hour ordeal. Luckily, right at the end, one of our very favorite drivers, Dale showed up. He had head about the bear with a backpack and had supposedly thought about us! He seemed very glad we were okay and gave us a giant dark chocolate bar. We were very appreciative. He wished us luck, we packed up, and started on our way. The sow and cubs had crossed the road near the bridge in front of us. We were still packing up when it happened but we made sure it was far enough away before we started pedaling. The rangers were trying to set up a similar scenario to see if the cubs now wanted to seek out bags. They put a backpack on the tundra before they crossed the road. The bears didn’t seem to even notice the bag.
We left the whole area behind and made our way up Highway Pass. This was the highest point on the park road. I think it was smart of Josh to play our day 3 going up it while our legs are fresh. Today’s weather was not as great as the other two days. While slowly making our way up Highway Pass we didn’t have any rain, but you could sense it was coming. When we made it to the top I was super excited. I don’t know if it was because we officially rode to the top of the park or that we had one of the longest downhills we would get! It was a blast riding downhill. We had to stop a few times to allow buses to pass, but it was great to not have to pedal.
We turned the corner and saw Toklat Rest Stop. We officially made it to mile 53! Our goal for the day was to get to the bottom of Polychrome, right before you would head up Sable Pass. We stopped for awhile at Toklat to eat breakfast. I was still a little shaken up about how the whole morning went. I think this was the first time I realized I was just very tired. Our next stretch of biking would be traveling up to the top of Polychrome, another nice climb. The Toklat river sits about at 3035 ft and the top of Polychrome is 3695 ft. It was another 13 miles up to the top of Polychrome. We finished our breakfast, coffee, and hot chocolate. We packed everything up again, which we were getting super great at, and we got on our way.
When we crossed the bridge I looked back for Denali. It was the next stop in the road we could have seen it. She was gone. We kept slowly biking along. The wind was picking up quickly. We stopped at one of the bends in the road. It was time to get everything in dry sacs or trash bags. A little further up the road we were very glad we did. We were heading up polychrome with headwind gusts and rain. I needed windshield wipers for my glasses. When we would get biking faster on flat or little downhill dips, the rain hit hard. We didn’t stop much on the way up to Polychrome. It was too windy and rainy. We just wanted to make it to camp. After making it to the top we decided to not bike down polychrome that night. The rain and wind were hitting harder and I didn’t want to do downhill if we didn’t have to. I wanted to enjoy downhill, not get pelted.
We got to the very top of polychrome and decided camp. We were still within our backcountry unit 31. We got the bikes 25 yards off the road and then found a place to camp about a half mile or a little further off the road. It took us awhile to pick a spot. There were not that many great flat spots. If we didn’t have the bikes and the little bags of gear versus a backpack we could have hiked further for a better spot. We set up camp and quickly decided we were okay skipping a full dinner. We ate the chocolate Dale gave us. We ate it quickly in the rain and then Josh stashed the bear barrel and cookware 100 yards or more from the tent. While Josh was performing that duty, I cut some paracord and looped it through the top of the tent to make a hanging rack for all of our wet clothes. We were in our small tent and there was only so much room. We took off everything wet and then snuggled in our sleeping bags. We fell asleep to the wind ripping through the canyon. It was going to be another long night…
We woke up multiple times with the rain and windy gusts. When we decided to get up and pack everything up, most of our clothes were still wet. The rain and subsided for the time being so we quickly packed everything up and hiked over to the bikes. packed up the packs and carried/walked them back up to the road. They were super heavy. When we got back to the road we looked around. The sky was mixed, some rain, some clouds, and some sun. We could see the cloud of rain coming in. We decided to wait for breakfast until we got to Igloo Canyon, hoping to filter or collect water at Tattler creek. Biking at the top of Polychrome was challenging with the gusts of wind. While biking downhill we would be pushed to one side of the road. We made it down to the bottom and had to regroup. Josh’s hand sewn bag he made for the front of his bike was ripping and rubbing on his tire. We re-bungeed and we were on our way up Sable Pass.
This was the part of the road I was most dreading. The ride from the bottom of the East Fork of the Toklat River at 3055 ft. to the top of Sable Pass at 3900 ft. To make matters a little even less exciting about this stretch was the weather. The weather took another turn for the worse. The winds gusted up to 40mph. When we would have little downhill dips we would have to pedal to move. The gusts would blow us all over the road. It was hard to even keep our bikes straight. I found myself walking quite a bit to get through it. Not only was the wind more intense, but the rain turned to sleet and hail. It seemed like it took forever for us to get there, but it was one of the best feelings getting to that sign, the Sable Pass Sign!
We knew the day was mostly downhill from there! We quickly made our way to Tattler creek. The rain and the wind seemed to be following us. He got some water but I didn’t really want to eat in the rain when we would be at the Teklanika Rest stop soon. He packed away the water and we biked on downhill through Igloo Canyon. About a mile before we would get to Sanctuary Campground there was a closure. We had to stop. A bear family was playing with some tents, so all foot and bike traffic was closed for a mile up and a mile down from Sanctuary Campground. We didn’t have to wait long for a bus to come. We had to unload some of the gear off the bikes to fit them on the rack. We were wet, smelly, and cold entering the warm bus. Everyone looked and seemed to be glad not to be us. When I would walk by everyone would lean as far as they could into their seat so that I wouldn’t get them wet. There was a seat for us towards the back of the bus. Did I mention how warm it was on the bus? The driver was super friendly and before we knew it we were already on the other side of the closure. Part of me wanted to tell him, why not just drop us off at Teklanika, or even Sanctuary (where we were staying that night), but I held strong and we unloaded from the bus. We had to put everything back on the bikes. I think most of this trip was loading and unloading versus actual biking.
Everything was good and we continued on our way. We continued downhill and got to the Teklanika Bridge. We paused on the bridge for a few photos and then made our way up yet another hill. This one was short but steep. I had never been able to get up without walking a part of it. This time I had a little tailwind (for the first time this entire trip!) and I was able to make it up!!! I was pretty proud of myself. We pulled into the rest area and set up our Jetboil to make some breakfast. I love my Mountain House Biscuits and Gravy but after so many continuous mornings of eating it, I needed a change. I went with oatmeal! We only had so much water so Josh got his Mountain House and coffee and I was happy with my oatmeal.
We filled up our water at the Teklanika Campground. They have running water at that campground which was super hand for us. After fueling up at Teklanika Rest Stop and rehyrdrating at the Teklanika Campground, we continued on our way. It was a little more downhill before we had to head up a hill before Sanctuary. I saw some incredible wolf tracks on the side of the road while we were still on our downhill. As we crept eastward, the weather seemed to improve. We still had wind, but it was actually helpful wind or tailwind.
The hill you climb before Sanctuary was the one that broke me! It didn’t break me physically, but it is where my exhaustion set in. I was sore, hurting, and tired. I think I was more tired of biking uphill than anything else! Josh was trying to be supportive, saying, “the top is just around the corner” and “we are almost there.” Neither of these statements were accurate, which led to my frustration. I stopped, set my bike down, and took a few minutes just to chill. It had been four long days already and we still have one more to go. After a few minutes I was reset. I was ready to get to Sanctuary Campground. I did make it up the hill and enjoyed heading on downhill. We rolled into Sanctuary and picked out a campsite.
I really loved Sanctuary Campground. There are only 7 sites for backpack camping. We got a spot all the way at the back of the campground. We set up our tent for the last time on this journey. We had it down to a science now, just like the unloading and loading of our gear on our bikes. We got to the campground with plenty of time for a hike.
We hiked all around sanctuary River. It was no longer raining and the trees helped with the wind. We saw lots of prints and even remnants of a caribou. The scenery wasn’t too bad either. I also got to see a vole but it was camera shy.
We headed back to the campsite for dinner. Most of the other campers were also eating or setting up to eat. We enjoyed talking to them. We had only really had each other to talk to this whole time, so a little diversity was nice. One of the other campers was a legit biker, I could tell he knew we were complete biking newbies. We ate, chatted, and finished off some of our whiskey and wine. A few snowshoe hare came by, along with some spruce grouse.
We were excited to get to bed, hopefully wake up early, and get to the end of the road. We snuggled into our sleeping bags and got to bed quickly. The trees around us helped protect us from the wind. It was great to not be waken up by the wind and rain. We woke up early, not as early as we originally wanted, but earlier than we had been. We packed everything up for the LAST time. I didn’t even want breakfast. I wanted to survive this and call my mom for her Birthday! We got everything loaded on the bikes for the LAST time. We stopped at the campground sign for a photo before heading on down the road.
We didn’t go far before we were stopped due to construction! We waited our turn to travel on through and made our way up one of the last two hills left. When you are biking you really don’t realize each of these hills. We got to a spot where we call kitty cat corner (where we say our first lynx ever in May 2013). Instead of seeing a lynx, we saw a Northern Hawk Owl. We hung with the owl until it flew off. We made our way to a stream and Josh filled up more water.
We then continued on up the hill. While climbing the hill we came to another road block of ptarmigan! There were ptarmigan EVERYWHERE! They were making all sorts of noise. It was fun to watch them peck at the trees they were in, fly, and run around. We watched them for about a half an hour.
The downhill finally came and we ripped around the last bit of the dirt road. It was a really amazing moment when we got to that pavement! 15 miles left!!!!
We crossed passed the ranger check point and immediately had more hurdles to go through with all the personal vehicles. Now we weren’t only stopping and yielding to buses but w had to watch out for the cars. The hill right after the rest area and ranger checkpoint is steep. We got up it and then got a little downhill before the start of our last uphill. We had ONE MORE uphill. I didn’t think those words would ever come out.
We slowly biked up it. With every pedal I knew we were getting closer to the end of the road and the end of this adventure. We climbed and climbed and climbed. I definitely never realized this was such a long uphill. I drove the first 15 miles ALL the time and never really realized the topography of the road. I am always watching the scenery off the roads, not the actual roads. When we got to the top, we stopped! We took a photo at the top. We had made it to top of the LAST uphill. It was such an incredible feeling. We had able 9 miles of pretty much all downhill left to go. This I could do.
We flew on down the hill. It was so much fun! It did start to rain on us, but that was okay. The end of the road was coming! We passed the spot where people stop to photograph the old train tressle, even though cars aren’t supposed to stop on that hill. We passed the dog kennels and park headquarters at mile 3, and we then passed the visitor center. We biked and biked and BOOM! We made it! We biked all the way to the new Denali National Park and Preserve sign. We put all our gear and bikes next to the sign and got our survival photo. We did it! We survived the 92.5 mile road of Denali National Park! There were a lot of ups, literally, and a few downs. There were no tears but some frustration, smiles and laughs.
There were a few realizations I made on this trip. The number one was that I am a fair-weather biker. I now hope to only bike for shorter periods in nice weather. I love biking, but I found my limit! I was a little worried Josh was going to fall in love with this adventurous biking. Luckily he agreed it was not something he really wanted to do again. My second realization was that I loved backcountry camping. I wish I had had more time to explore where we were camping. One of my favorite days was exploring around the Sanctuary river. I want more time to explore, hike, and climb these hills. I want to find perfect camping spots, not just spots that will get us through a night without being seen and at the minimum distance off the road.
Josh and I survived. We were still married at the end and we can now saw we biked the road! There were those two miles we couldn’t bike, which still bothers me, but there wasn’t anything we could have done about it! It was a trip of 2 people, 2 bikes, 92.5 miles, 3 bears, 2 rangers, 5 days, 4 nights, and 1 road.