11. Wonder Lake
At the visitor center sightseers board a bus to Wonder Lake. Although the road never rises above 4,000 feet, it offers a wealth of scenic high points. Sable Pass, at mile 39, is the surest place to spot grizzly bears, which are so fond of the wildflowers and berries here that a mile-wide zone on either side of the road has been closed to hikers since 1952.
Continuing west, the route clambers up Polychrome Pass, named for its rainbow of mineral-rich rocks. Tinged pink, red, orange, yellow, rust, and purple by exposure to the air, these stony outcroppings frame a southerly view of glacial handiwork: kettle lakes, erratics (isolated boulders), and the braided East Toklat River.
You can get off the bus and start hiking almost anywhere, but the best place is the Eielson visitor center (mile 66). In the summer a naturalist leads a “tundra trek” — a chance to identify some of the park’s 430-plus kinds of flowering plants. The visitor center also affords prime views of Mt. McKinley and Muldrow glacier, extending 32 miles and almost three miles of elevation. Save film for Wonder Lake — sunrise and sunset bathe Mt. McKinley in hues of pink and purple.
After returning from the Eielson visitor center (an eight-hour round-trip bus ride) or Wonder Lake (11 hours round-trip), resume the drive behind the next 65-mile stretch, which meets the scenic gorge of the Nenana River, is riddled with sharp turns, windy passes, canyon crossings, and frost heaves (dips and blips in the pavement caused by moisture freezing in the soil beneath the road surface).
Nenana means “a good place to camp between two rivers,” and the name is certainly apt. The town’s setting is the confluence of the Tanana and Nenana rivers. About 20 miles north, the route reaches Skyline Drive, running along the ridgetops with spectacular views.
As the drive crosses the Chena River, the land levels out and Fairbanks spreads out along eight miles of the river’s banks. A boisterous bit of civilization amidst Alaska’s wilderness, birch-blanketed hills surround the town; climb those to the north and west for good views of the Tanana River valley.
One such vantage point is the 2,250-acre campus of the University of Alaska, which perches on a grassy ridge four miles west of Fairbanks. In addition to its cultural museum, botanical garden, and musk-ox farm, the university affords one last look at Mt. McKinley, now a distant vision on the far horizon, if your luck is good and its ever-present clouds part, giving you a clear view.