George Parks Highway
Following the Rivers to Denali National Park
|Mileage||312 miles (502 km)|
|DurationThe duration is an estimate of a one-way drive and does not include any stops or side-trips.||5 hours, 35 minutes|
|SeasonsThe seasons listed are the best seasons for this scenic drive. If Winter is not mentioned, the road may be closed during the winter.||Summer|
|Roadways||Alaska Highway 3|
|Forest PassesSome of the adventures on this scenic drive require an admission fee that these passes cover. Please read the drive description for more information.||America the Beautiful Annual Pass|
|ServicesThe cities or towns listed have either Food or Services such as gas, hotels, pharmacies, etc.||Ester, AK▼, Fairbanks, AK▼, Nenana, AK▼, Healy, AK▼, Cantwell, AK▼, Trapper Creek, AK▼, Talkeetna, AK▼, Willow, AK▼, more...Wasilla, AK▼, Palmer, AK▼, and Eklutna, AK▼|
3.0 average from 3 votes
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Natural areas along this route require an entrance fee used to protect and maintain our most scenic treasures. Save time by purchasing your forest passes before you go.
Alyeska is the name given by the natives to the great land of ice and snow situated on the top of the world. Alaska is a superlative in every sense. It’s big. Everything in it is big — big bears, big moose, big glaciers, big mountains, big rivers, and big whales. And yet, it is deeply personal, tranquil and inspiring.
Alaska is a draw for adventure seekers. Some come to climb Denali, the highest mountain in North America, others to fish, see wildlife, or just to immerse themselves in the stunning beauty of roads less traveled.
Our adventure begins in Fairbanks, located just below the Arctic Circle, where summer daylight lasts into the wee hours and travels through the interior of the state past Denali State Park to Wasilla, about 40 minutes from Anchorage. (Flights from the lower 48 land at the Fairbanks International Airport.)
From its humble beginnings as a mining town, Fairbanks has much to offer. If you have time, consider some of the fascinating sites in Fairbanks.
In Fairbanks, visit the Alaska Bird Observatory (A1) and Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge (A2). The latter is a 2,000-acre refuge just north of the city center, host to a rich assortment of birds during spring and fall migrations. Pintails, Northern Shovelers, Teal, Canada geese, golden plovers, and huge concentrations of sandhill cranes spend time here. Take advantage of the many trails, viewing areas and guided walks, a few of which lead to the nearby Alaska Bird Observatory.
Explore the University of Alaska’s Georgeson Botanical Gardens (A3) at the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station. Growing in 24 hours of sunlight makes all the plants huge — cabbages over four feet wide and corn seven feet tall. There are free guided tours on Fridays at 2 p.m. and self-guided tours can be taken any time. The garden is located on West Tanana Drive, one mile west of the University’s lower campus.
The University is also home to an outstanding natural history museum, University of Alaska Museum of the North (M1). Greeting visitors is Otto, a mounted 8 foot 9 inch brown bear, standing upright on two legs. The museum covers all regions of the state and exhibits include the skull and tusks of a mastodon and a woolly mammoth, both of whom used to roam the frozen north. Don’t miss Blue Babe, a 36,000 year old mummified steppe bison that was discovered frozen in the permafrost in 1979. The animal is encased in glass which glows an eerie iridescent blue. Explore artifacts from early Native Alaskans, photographs, historical paintings, a modern sound and light environment recreating the aurora borealis and more.
Nearby is the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station (A5) where reindeer, caribou, and musk oxen are studied to better aid in resource management. Visitors can safely observe animals from the parking lot anytime of the year and there are guided tours June through August. Contact LARS for hours and days.
Be entertained and educated aboard the Discovery III sternwheeler along the Chena and Tenana Rivers. As you cruise along the river you will see a bush pilot take off from the river, a dog sledding exhibition at Trailbreaker Kennels by Dave Mason, widower of Susan Butcher of Iditarod fame, and a Native Alaskan, expertly filet a large salmon at the Athabascan Fish Camp. The highlight is a tour of the Chena Indian Village where Native Alaskan tribes explain how animals were used for food and protection and you can explore log cabins, a spruce bark hut, and more.
Pioneer Park (A6), formerly Alaskaland, has a terrific salmon bake and historic collections and arts and crafts in Gold Rush Town. The railcar used by President Warren Harding on his visit to the state in the 1920s is here as well as the riverboat S.S. Nenana, a National Historic Landmark. Shows are put on in the theater and there are shops to explore.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline runs right through Fairbanks, stretching from Prudhoe Bay in the north to Valdez in the south. You can view it close-up at Mile 8 on the Steese Expressway between Fairbanks and Fox.
The scenic drive begins as you head south from Fairbanks on the George Parks Highway, AK-3. This highway connects the two largest cities in Alaska, Fairbanks and Anchorage, passing through some of the grandest and most rugged terrain.
Next is the small town of Nenana, known for the famous Nenana Ice Classic (A7). In late February, a 26-foot tall, five-legged tripod is imbedded in the ice on the Tenana River. People wager the exact minute when the ice will break up causing the tripod to fall. Measured by a cable attached from the tripod to a clock on shore, this annual event offers cash prizes to lucky winners that now reach upwards of $300,000. The small Visitor Center in town features a history of the Nenana Ice Classic and you can place your bet there.
In summer, the Nenana River is popular for rafting and a great way to experience Alaska’s natural beauty from a different vantage point — and observe puffins or sea otters. Whether you’re interested in the exhilarating thrill of whitewater, a gentle float through still waters, or sea kayaking, there are a variety of tour operators who can help.
Denali, the “High One” is the name the Athabascan natives gave to the mountain that dominates the area. It is also the name of an immense wilderness that was established as a game reserve in 1917 and known then as Mount McKinley National Park. In 1980, it was re-designated Denali National Park (H1) and at six million acres, is larger than the state of Massachusetts. It is perhaps this country’s last great wilderness frontier as it remains virtually undeveloped and wild.
A stop at the Visitor Center at Park Headquarters is a must. Watch a film about the origins of the park, explore exhibits about the wildlife that call this area home such grizzly bear and moose and get more information on hikes and bus schedules.
The park does not allow independent vehicle traffic and uses shuttle and tour buses to minimize the impact on the environment. You can drive the 15 miles of paved road from the Visitor Center 91 miles to Savage River which features many pullouts and breathtaking vistas. After that, there are options. Shuttle Buses have a fee, are not narrated, and are flexible, allowing you to disembark and re-board anywhere along the road. Tour buses offer three excursions of varying duration and cost, such as the Denali Natural History Tour which travels to Primrose Ridge, 17 miles into the Park and lasts four and a half hours, or the Tundra Wilderness Tour which travels from forest to tundra to the Toklat River for 53 miles and takes seven to eight hours. Courtesy Buses are free and travel three routes through the park. Buses will stop for photos.
Near the Visitor Center are what appear to be stunted evergreen trees. The trees are approximately 100 years of age, but do not grow larger due to the fact that their roots can’t penetrate the permafrost or Taiga. Taiga (pronounced ti-ga), is a Russian word for northern evergreen forest. White and black spruce are the most common trees along with quaking aspen, paper birch, larch and balsam poplar.
The tree line stops at about 2700 feet and above that the taiga gives way to tundra. This is a fascinating world of dwarfed shrubs and miniaturized plants and flowers that have adapted to a short growing season. To further complicate things, there is moist tundra and dry tundra. The former contains sedges and cottongrass and other stunted shrubs whereas dry tundra occurs above the shrub line and is mostly meadowland and barren rock.
Ribbons of rivers cut through this wild land and from your bus you might view grizzly, wolves, moose, caribou, Dall sheep, and other small mammals and birds. Alaska’s moose are the largest in North America with bulls reaching seven and a half feet tall at the shoulder and weighing 1800 pounds. The antlers span over six feet. In spite of their size, they are usually not aggressive but will defend themselves and their offspring. Wolves are their greatest natural enemy.
On the way you may see Denali (formerly Mount McKinley), but during summer it is only visible about 20% of the time due to cloud cover. This is the highest mountain on the North American Continent at 20,320 feet and when measured from the 2,000 foot lowlands near Wonder Lake it is considered to be the highest in the world. The vertical relief of 18,000 feet is greater than that of Mount Everest. Permanent snowfields cover the mountain at all times and feed many glaciers that seep down to its base. The north peak of the mountain is the second highest at 19,470 feet with nearby Mount Thoraker at 17,400 feet. These mountains make up the Alaska Range that was created by activity on the Denali Fault Line, North America’s largest crustal break.
Experience the landscape close up with a hike on or off-trail. Denali National Park is one of the rare places where you can create your own route. This can be very rewarding — and challenging. Be sure you have water and food, dress appropriately and be ready for weather changes. Something for everyone, the Park also offers fishing, cycling, ranger programs, and incredible photography opportunities and has a Sled Dog Kennel where you can meet the dogs.
Back on AK-3, stop at Denali State Park (H2). Featuring similar beauty as Denali National Park, this park enjoys much smaller crowds. Over 325,000 acres of wilderness await, as do spectacular views of the snow covered Alaska Range and ice-carved gorges in a thousand shades of white. The park features camping and log cabin rentals on Byers Lake, hiking, and non-motorized boating. There is an entrance fee to the park.
Interested in climbing Denali? After leaving Denali National Park drive south and take the turnoff to Talkeetna, the town where climbers come to stage their expeditions. From there, climbers board a plane to the base of the Kahiltna Glacier at 7,200 feet and then climb 13,120 feet to the summit. Don’t want to climb, but want to see the mountain up close? There are scenic flights from Talkeetna, some of which land on a glacier.
Enjoy Talkeetna, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with a walking tour exploring art galleries and gift shops with items crafted by local artisans. Or learn about Alaska’s history in the Museum of Northern Adventure (M3) and the Talkeetna Historical Society Museum (M4) located downtown in the Little Red Schoolhouse.
Continuing south on AK-3, you will soon reach the Willow Creek State Recreation Area (H3), renowned for its wildflower displays. Once covered with glacial deposits, the area is now dotted with hundreds of lakes and ponds creating the perfect habitat for mammals and birds — and wildlife observing. Camping is available here and there is a small parking fee. Moments afterwards is the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area (H4), home to several lakes, wetlands, and rivers, which during the spring and fall, you can see the salmon migrating. Flat terrain make the Nancy Lake Recreation a popular destination for recreation year-round and in winter for cross-country-skiing, dog mushing and snowmobiling.
For a beautiful picnic spot, head west on Big Lake Road to enjoy Big Lake North, Big Lake South, and Rocky Lake. Here again recreations abounds, from kayaks to jet skis, fishing, hiking and camping. There are many restaurants and lodging along the lake as well.
Our scenic drive comes to an end in Wasilla. Stop at the Wasilla Historic Town Site (A4) which showcases the homes of the area’s pioneers who mastered the art of self-sufficiency and isolation. The Dorothy G. Page Museum is one such home that now preserves artifacts and historic items of Wasilla’s past. Or stop at Iditarod Museum (M2), which features a museum, video presentations and sled dog rides. Learn about the world-famous 1,150-mile race Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome.
From here, consider a side trip on Palmer-Fishhook Road (T1). The gravel road brings you through a forest and by one of the key streams of the goldrush era. Explore trails at the Independence Mine State Historical Park. Winding up the road, you eventually reach the 3,886-foot Hatcher Pass, where the US Ski Team practices and stunning mountain vistas dazzle, or visit Anchorage via the AK-1, just 40 minutes away, and explore the Seward Highway.