TRAPPER CREEK, Alaska (KTUU) - It's often called "the other road to Denali," but it's a path many Alaskans and visitors have never heard about.
Image courtesy of Steve Broyles
Petersville Road begins in Trapper Creek and winds its way for 34 miles into the Alaska wildness. Driving it takes some courage because of the early-season mud holes and creek crossings, but it's a trip well worth all the bumps and jostling.
At several spots along the road, there are breathtaking views of Denali. "Because we grew up here, we kinda forget about how beautiful it really is, and we look at a photograph and we go 'wow that mountain was really pretty that day,'" said Ben Porterfield, who's family homesteaded the area in the 1950s.
The gorgeous view of North America's highest peak caught the attention of famed Alaskan artist Sydney Laurence, who painted some of his iconic portraits of Denali from sections of Petersville Road.
Gold is the reason the Petersville Road exists. It was discovered in the Cache Creek area in 1905 and touched off a gold rush, but miners faced a huge obstacle: how to get their gear and supplies to the gold fields.
Miners blazed a wagon trail, but it was a difficult and sometimes deadly journey. The Alaska Road Commission took over control of the trail after demands from miners for improvements, and in the 1920s and 30s, built much of the road route that exists today.
"It shortened everything that had kept this whole interior from being developed" said Ken Marsh, long-time resident of the Petersville Road area.
Gold still draws in fortune seekers. Near mile 32 is the Petersville Recreational Mining Area. "The state has set aside these areas for people who don’t have or don’t want a claim, who just want to go out and find some gold" said Dennis Garrett, owner of the Blue Ribbon Mine.
Another bit of Alaska history that greets travelers on the Petersville Road is the Forks Roadhouse. Built in the 1930s, the original roadhouse was a focal point for miners and homesteaders in the region. It burned to the ground in 2012. "It was heartbreaking because with it, went 40 years of memories" said Jane Smith, a longtime Petersville resident.
Four longtime property owners in the area decided three years ago to rebuild the roadhouse. In addition to being a social hub for the area, it also serves as the local search-and-rescue headquarters, and a source of help when travelers get into trouble. "They go off the road, or when somebody got lost in January, this was the center when they were trying to find him" said Tracy Hulse, one of the partners in the roadhouse reconstruction.
Along with the allure of gold and the majestic views of Denali, there is a mystery in these mountains along Petersville Road.
One day in 1939, a miner, his wife, a neighboring miner, and his employee were all murdered. "The Cache Creek Murders" as they became known, remain unsolved to this day, and legend holds that one of the murdered miners left behind a hidden stash of gold that is still undiscovered.
Dennis Garrett, who now owns the property that belonged to one of the murdered miners, said the lurid legend is still a source of curiosity.
"Sometimes people come up and they ask me about it, and I say ‘Well, if I knew where the cache of gold was, first I wouldn’t tell ya…ha, ya know?!?'" Garrett said, adding that he hasn't found the supposed hidden gold despite extensive searching of the region.
Along with gold mining, the area is a favorite spot for snow-machiners and four-wheelers. The area is dotted by secluded cabins, many of which are owned by people who live in Anchorage and escape the big city for a taste of Alaska wilderness life.
"It's just a slow down" said Gordon Bartel, who has owned a cabin in the area since 1987. "It's a way to get out of town and the pressures. You take the time to drive out here and get a different mindset, and when you're here you can just be yourself."
Here are some travel tips for the Petersville Road from mine owner Dennis Garrett.
- 4-wheel drive sport utility vehicle recommended
- Road conditions usually favorable between July 1 and August 31 (June and September are "iffy")
- First 9 miles are paved, after that the degree of "adventure" in terms of road condition and difficulty will increase by the mile.
For more information about the Petersville Recreational Mining Area, click here.
For a guide to driving the Petersville Road, click here.