The Alaska Range follows a broad arc for 650 miles, from Cook Inlet on Alaska’s west coast through the Denali massif and onward to the Canadian border. The Denali Highway passes through alpine tundra, paralleling this band of mountains to the south. Peaks like Mt. Hayes at 13,832′, Hess at 11,940′, and Mt. Deborah at 12,339′ dominate the skyline.
To the southeast, the Wrangell Mountains rise even higher. Although almost 80 miles away, Mt. Sanford at 16,237′ rises prominently, flanked by Mt Drum and Mt. Wrangell. As the northernmost active volcano on the Pacific Rim, Wrangell may at any time be venting steam into the Arctic air.
The land constantly reveals the work of glaciers that carved it over the millennia. The Gulkana and Gakona glaciers are visible just out of Paxson, remainders of ice floes that gouged the many U-shaped valleys appearing along the ride. Mid-way along, kettle lakes have formed. These small circular ponds developed when ice chunks broke from retreating glaciers and were buried in sediment. As the ice melted, the land sank into bowl-shaped depressions. Farther along, the road travels on outstanding examples of eskers, ridges of silt, sand and gravel that were deposited by streams flowing within a glacier.
At the height of the summer, wildflowers dot the open tundra. Evergreens cling low to the ground. Black spruce and dwarf willow are stunted from the extreme winter cold and short growing season.