Test Drive: 2016 GMC Yukon Denali

Jim Fets Photography / GMC

Wheeling through Alaska, headed for the highest mountain in North America, behind the wheel of this new SUV is as adventurous as it is comfortable.

I’m driving from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Alaska, a distance of about 360 miles, via Denali State Park, home to North America’s highest peak at 20,310 feet. In a strange way, it feels like I’m bringing the vehicle I’m driving, a 2016 GMC Yukon Denali, home—even though it was actually built in Arlington, Texas. There is a frontier spirit here in Alaska and with its very long summer days, the emphasis is on the outdoors. I haven’t seen a blazer or a suit since my arrival and I’m feeling naked without a beard, but The Yukon Denali blends right in.

Anchorage isn’t as big as I thought it would be and I’m out of town before I know it, heading north on Route 3. Before long, I’m starting to feel a little lonely as traffic is sparse—mostly RVs, double-load fuel trucks, and the odd tour bus snaking through an ocean of black spruce, the green interrupted by strips of aptly named fireweed. Alaska is four-wheel-drive territory and the Yukon boasts a muscular 420 horsepower, V-8 engine that seems ready to spin the tires out of any difficulties. The Yukon has a host of safety features that alert me to hazards, like cars in my blind spot approaching from behind, but I find myself wishing for the company. It will also apply the brakes in the event of an imminent collision, which in this part of Alaska is more likely to involve a moose than a car. The magnetic ride control suspension makes for a smooth ride even through a section of road rutted into long parallel depressions due to melting permafrost.

With adaptive cruise control beckoning, entertainment options get my attention. Fortunately, the Yukon Denali is a rolling 4G Wi-Fi hotspot. The 8-inch display on the dash—there’s a hidden storage compartment behind it—and a Bose sound system make bringing Apple’s CarPlay into service easy. There also are multiple USB ports, an SD slot, and even a three-prong outlet on board, which I find handy for recharging my old camera. Denali is a stunningly beautiful mountain that is shrouded in mist most of the time so when I finally catch a glimpse of the peak from the road, I shoot long range photos until my battery runs dry.

I resist the temptation to use the OnStar help service to find out where the politician Sarah Palin lives, but I stop in Willow for a little fly-fishing—and to make sure I can’t see Russia from here. There’s plenty of cargo room for gear, with loading made simple thanks to a powered rear liftgate that can be programmed to different heights and fold-flat second and third row seats. A detour through Denali National Park didn’t bring me much closer to the actual mountain but there are plenty of magnificent high peaks in this part of the Alaskan Range worth eyeballing from locally available helicopter rides and ATV vehicles, as well as guided hikes. Most of the area caters to a broad scope of tourists, but the cozy 229 Parks restaurant (229 George Parks Hwy.; 907-683-2567; 229parks.com), at mile post 229, ranks high on a very short list of good places to eat. From Denali, Route 3 is a straight run through the trees to Fairbanks. The famous Iditarod endurance sled race ends here but I’m far from dog-tired. With its roomy interior, the Yukon Denali makes trekking through the wilderness a comfortable experience. Starting at $65,325; gmc.com.

For more luxurious rough-and-tumble vehicles, read our reviews of the Ford F 150 King Ranch pickup truck, the Land Rover Discovery Sport HSE, and Infiniti QX30 compact crossover.