Wowed by a bike trip on Denali Park Road


This winter and, seemingly, another lifetime ago, a couple gal friends and I made a plan.

We first came up with the idea of going for a ladies bike trip while we were ice-skating. We glided along at Westchester Lagoon and talked about how amazing it would be to bike from point to point. We figured we'd need some wine.

The rest of the plan was hatched later that week at a bar. We decided on Denali National Park as our destination and settled on a weekend in June that worked for the three of us. We talked about the glory, the sunshine, the radical self-reliance. We didn't talk about our plan again until the week before the trip.

[Negotiating the great work vs. play divide in Alaska]

Last week, we got together for lunch to figure some things out in the sobering light of day — very unlike the dark bar where we'd dreamed our biking dreams. We talked between bites about logistics like the poor weather forecast, tracking down gear and other big life things going on. Nobody said outright that we should cancel. But I realized we were not prepared. I still needed to find a bicycle to borrow. We didn't exactly know where we'd sleep.

We didn't cancel. There was probably some unspoken peer pressure. None of us wanted to be the wimp. So I told my husband yes, I was actually going, which set up some accountability. The night before we left, I figured I should assemble some camping things. Into a tub went a first-aid kit, some minute rice and sporks. The requisite Costco trip was made — yes, mostly for wine.

Was that sun?

I realized that when I camp it's usually with my husband. We've fallen into pretty classic roles together — he is the gear-head, auditing, assembling and packing together what we'll need. I'm the checklist person, and I always bring everything needed to make pancakes. So for this trip, without my normal camping partner, I stood in the basement for an hour auditing and assembling. I hoped we had everything we needed. I hoped for good conditions.

The morning we left, the forecast predicted rain. My iPhone showed the same icon day after day — diagonal blue rain from a cloud. It was funny. Almost. Still, we didn't cancel. We drove north, bikes in the back of the truck and windshield wipers going steadily.

The first sign that perhaps iPhone weather isn't gospel came as we arrived at the park.

Was that sun? We checked in and arrived at our campsite, getting our tents up in time for a brief bout of rain. We sat drinking rose out of big plastic cups. Water rolled off the hoods of our raincoats into our wine. Minutes later, the sky cleared again.

The second sign that perhaps this trip wouldn't go as planned concerned a bear. There had been a closure in the Savage River area due to a non-injurious encounter with humans

With the closure, it was unclear to us whether it was safe on the park road and whether we'd be allowed in. We had the option of riding a bus into the park, but the cost of the bus was too high to justify the 10-minute drive it would take us to get beyond the "problem" area.

By morning, we'd settled on finding another option. We took down our tents. The weather was not at all like my phone forecast, and I didn't want to leave the park.

We packed up the truck and got ready to leave. I was happy to be with my friends, and knew something would work out, but still I felt deflated.

Heading into the park

Then we asked the last-ditch question of one more staff person. Would it be OK to ride into the park on bicycles, with the closure and the bear roaming around? He looked surprised. He said he didn't see why not. We checked with one more staffer, who suggested that when we got to the Park Service hut at the beginning of the road, we'd either be turned back around or not.

Stunned and excited as the clouds parted, we parked the truck and got our bikes out. We stuffed leftover pancakes and a Costco package of salami into our backpacks. We asked someone to take our photo. We headed out of the parking lot. We rode past the closure sign. We were in the park.

We were waved past the hut by friendly staff, who just requested that we check back in when we come through. "I'm a mom! I'll worry," one woman said.

The world felt bigger. The first leg into the park is a hill climb. Each of us settled into our own pace and we met up at the top, where there was a view of Denali.

Here's where I come clean: I've never taken the park road farther into Denali than Mile 13, where the buses start. I always had this idea that the Denali buses were kind of like the trolleys at a zoo. I had a vision of traveling through enclosed woods on a bus packed with me and other tourists, sometimes seeing a bear or something scurrying through the trees and stopping to wait in mosquito-thick air to catch a glimpse through binoculars.

Everyone always says the bus is worthwhile. I've never quite believed that, although I've repeated it to visitors.

Here's another thing I assumed: I thought the buses would be frequent and maybe scary while riding a bike. Or they would kick dust up from the road and into my face every time they passed.

Vista after vista

The actual experience of riding a bike in the park was nothing like what I'd expected or imagined.

I made a joke at some point along the ride that we were seeing just another sweeping vista. The scale of the park is bigger than I imagined, and we were able to see wide-open landscape after wide-open landscape. The views didn't fit in the photo-sized window of my camera, although I tried over and over to capture how vast it felt.

I loved seeing my friends riding a road that stretched so far in front of us, winding around rivers and under the shadows cast by clouds. That's my favorite kind of light in Alaska — the big, open landscape and mountain range with streaks of light and darkness. Denali was full of it. We kept riding; the scene kept changing.

Buses and other vehicles passed occasionally, but they slowed. It was actually comforting to know that if something happened, other people were out there. Often a bus driver would slow down enough to allow us to indicate we were OK. For the most part, dust was not an issue. On average, a vehicle passed every half hour.

Unlike what my phone promised, it didn't rain. Not once.

A free ride back

After several hours and stops for water and leftover pancakes, we stopped at one of the few rest areas along the road and easily found a bus driver willing to let us put our bikes on.

The ride out on the bus was free and much quicker than the ride in. We paused for Dall sheep. Eventually we got off the bus right near the car.

While I consider myself an outdoor addict, I'm still a creature of habit. I love adventures, but often they're actually poorly conceived ideas or undue risks. In this case, the stakes weren't high — we may have had a steady downpour and been wet and uncomfortable for a day or two or maybe it wouldn't have been safe for us to ride into the park so we would have gone with a Plan B. But each hurdle felt like a deterrent

But this trip ended up being a game changer. Not only was it one of the best times I've ever had on a bike, but it was also with two of my lady friends — not the normal camping dynamic with my husband.

We three got through the first part of the trip, even when it seemed like it was turning into a bust, between the rain and the road closure with good spirits (well, and wine). Frankly it feels like we were rewarded by having our plan pan out, even if not as we expected.

It was also a reminder that even as an Alaskan, with world-class outdoor opportunities that people wait a lifetime to experience all around me, I am still subject to habit. The idea of something new can feel daunting and if I don't push myself, my Alaska experience can resemble any other American's experience. Maybe I have mountains I see through my car window, and that's nice, but there is so much more out there to explore.

I got home on Sunday night and immediately booked my next trip.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.