The 2016 GMC Sierra Denali and Yukon Denali Are Alaska Tough

We took GM's off-roaders to their treacherous namesake mountain to test their capability.

GMC Denali
Jim Fets

Everything in Alaska wants to kill you.

That's what I learned after a week in our beautiful-yet-deadly 49th state. There are constant reminders that everything is out for blood. Signs cautioning about attacking moose hang at every trailhead. Gas station attendants casually try to sell you bear mace with every purchase. Adventure guides tell you to be wary of eagles, after watching packs of the majestic savages working in unison to exsanguinate a quarter-ton elk via strategic beak pecking. A survey of any local watering hole reveals every resident owns at least three guns, one of which they carry at all times. The Last Frontier, indeed.

Humans aren't the only subjects impacted by the dangerous hazards of Alaskan life. Machines, particularly of the transportation variety, have to be as rugged and tenacious as the elements they have to endure. Whether those vessels are airborne—a veteran Army chopper commander had to abort four landings during a freakishly powerful rainstorm while trying to set our helicopter down atop a mountain—or road-going, it's important to choose your steel chariots wisely...lest they become your coffin.

“We’ve got three seasons here,” a fly-fishing guide named Matt told us, as we bounced down a half-paved road near Talkeetna. “Summer, winter, and road construction.” He finished his joke while gesturing to the umpteenth road crew we’d passed on our way to a salmon-laden river. “Roads barely last 18 months before they need to be re-done. They can’t take the harsh winters, with all the freezing and thawing. They crack so quick, leaving you potholes that can snap an axle. You better have a sturdy truck or you’ll be stuck.”

Jim Fets

As it turned out, we had two variants of very capable GMC products: the 2016 GMC Sierra and the 2016 GMC Yukon, both kitted out in top-level Denali trim. And we'd put both through their paces on a 360-mile adventure-based road trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks.

The first leg was done in the Sierra 1500. After an hour and some 75 miles, it was easy to see why this is GMC’s best-selling truck. Behind a sharply redesigned front fascia sits GM’s prodigious 6.2-liter V-8, tuned to 420 horsepower and 460 lb-ft of twist—the most powerful powerplant of any light-duty pickup. Mated to a Hydra-Matic eight-speed automatic transmission, it can tow up to 12,000 pounds; if you’re sanstrailer, tow mode can double as sport mode, since it ups the low-end yank and holds gears longer. With limited main asphalt arteries coursing through Alaska, you appreciate that power when you finally get a little straight to pass after being stuck behind slow tractor trailers and lumbering RVs forever.

Jim Fets

That V-8 is mighty, but you barely hear it in the cabin, thanks to an Active Noise Cancellation option and a special set of hydraulic body mounts. Unless you’ve got the windows down, little noise permeates the cab, leaving you free to enjoy the rich output of the Bose sound system or perhaps the rear seat 9.2-inch LCD TV, if the Entertainment Package is included.

When the road crumbled and disappeared from under our 20-inch wheels, giving way to broken concrete, loose gravel, or even muddy parking lots, the ride remained comfortable. The full-feature leather bucket seats with 12-way power adjustments helped, but the real credit is owed to GM’s third-gen magnetic ride control. The same system employed in the likes of any Cadillac employs dampers that change in as little as five milliseconds after the truck’s sensors read the surface. Couple that with the fully boxed frame, and you’ve got a rigid chassis that feels smooth as silk over any terrain.

The Sierra Denali scrambled over anything I aimed at with aplomb, but beyond being capable, it was fun as hell. Pop off traction control, load it up a bit before dropping that 6.2-liter into gear and you’ll have one epic burnout that wasn’t getting old on the fourth try. (Apologies, GMC PR folks.) Scores of shoppers navigating a tricky and extremely muddy parking lot near Denali National Park advanced gingerly, crawling through the goop at a snail’s pace. Not the Sierra. I floored it, rocketing through the muck so well that a celebratory round of muddy donuts were in order when I found enough open space. With each revolution, my laugh grew louder.

And it turned out the Sierra Denali was the perfect moose-spotting vehicle. Ambling through the Denali National Park one cold, drizzly morning, we came across a few of the massive beasts just off to the side of the road. Four USB ports, two 12-volt power ports, and a 110-volt outlet meant the four adults in our truck could charge their phones and cameras quickly before climbing atop the sturdy bed cover for a better vantage point. After snapping an ungodly amount of pictures, sharing was a cinch, courtesy of the OnStar 4G LTE system. And when one bull with sizable antlers ventured too close for comfort, retreating inside the 2.75 tons of solid Detroit truck made us feel safe. Charge away, moose. You won’t kill us today, Alaska.

Jim Fets

I didn’t die the following day either, even after a three-hour zipline excursion bounced me from one questionable, rickety tree-top platform to the next. Alaska's next shot across our bow came during the heli-hike trip deep into the backcountry. After departing from a private heliport, we were flying high above the Denali National Park within minutes, thumping towards a spongy, fauna-laced tundra range to find a suitable infiltration zone.

The higher our chopper climbed, the worse the wind and rain grew. The climax came when a confluence of prevailing storm winds formed via the various nearby mountain peaks resulted in our being jostled around like a sock in a washing machine. Certain our fiery death was imminent, I was pleased when the pilot backed off and found a calmer place to drop us.

Jim Fets

The serenity lasted mere moments. We were steps into the four-hour hike when our bubbly guide, Chris, gleefully began regaling us with all the times he’d witnessed wildlife murdering other wildlife. “Once, I heard some bleeting and couldn’t figure out the source,” Chris chirped. “Then I looked up and saw this bleeding baby sheep flying overhead. An eagle had snatched it and was flying it back to a nest to kill it. It was incredible!” He eventually led us to the remains of several other large mammals he’d seen die in the past few years, encouraging us to pick up and interact with the skulls, bones, and antlers of the deceased. Morose undertone of the hike aside, I have never been in a more remote, more beautiful place. Here’s the middle of the valley from which we were exfiltrated.

Ushered into the Yukon Denali upon landing back at the heliport, I had never been happier to crank a seat heater to the maximum. The Yukon Denali interior is identical to its pickup truck brethren, so there’s no shortage of creature comforts at your fingertips. Combined with the cushioned magnetic ride control, sinking into those adjustable leather seats will quickly lull a tired hiker into blissful slumber.

The Yukon shares much of its DNA with the Sierra. Both boast the same 6.2-liter V-8. Both feature the EcoTec3 setting on those engines, which means cylinder deactivation to aid decent fuel economy. My Yukon did indeed hit 21 mpg on the highways—close to the EPA-estimated 23 mpg—but romping on it was far more enjoyable than trying to achieve optimal fuel efficiency.

Jim Fets

The Yukon is also body-on-frame, that body composed of more than 75 percent high-strength steel. The Yukon’s wider rear track helps give it a more planted stance, but we should talk about driving feel. The Yukon doesn’t drive like an SUV, but it doesn’t feel quite like a truck either. It’s got a bright, nimble chassis that feels connected while still floating over any rough terrain. I used to daily a 2012 Ford Explorer and hated how detached that was from the road and how lumbering it felt, but I enjoyed how capable the Explorer was when it came to snow, off-road driving, and the rest of my Northeastern commuting needs. The Yukon offered the same solid capabilities while adding a smoother ride, a far nicer interior, and a more imposing exterior.

On the last leg of the trip, nosing north to Fairbanks, I tinkered with the safety technology in the Yukon (all of which is also offered in the Sierra). Available to the driver are lane keep assist, side blind zone alerts, rear cross traffic alerts, forward collision alerts, adaptive cruise control with front automatic braking, and a moose avoidance system. (Kidding about that last one.) These driver aids are nice additions, though some could use further refinement; the lane keep assist had a lot of trouble using the cameras and radar systems to detect where the lane lines were, and didn’t work most of the time. In fairness, some of the lines had washed out and were hard to pick up, but that’s an universal infrastructure problem that plagues most of our aging roadways—one a manufacturer should be cognizant of when developing such a system.

You get a lot of truck in either the Denali Sierra or Yukon. You get bold styling, you get capable performance and you get a honking V-8. But is it all worth the price? Let’s start with the Yukon. The folks at GM have wisely offered entrants at each price point in the battle for full-size SUV dominance. There’s the $48,000 entry-level Chevy Tahoe or the Cadillac Escalade Platinum for $98,000. In between, at around $70,000, is the Yukon Denali. The one we tested cost $68,014, and that’s not exactly chump change.

The interior on a base Yukon ($51,000 for the SLE) is the same as the Tahoe, but that $10,000 the Denali package tacks on to the sticker does afford some exterior and interior tweaks over the base model, and pulls in some Caddy technology (namely those magnetorheological dampers) without dinging your wallet terribly hard. I’d buy this Yukon over a Tahoe, over an Escalade, and over just about any non-GM competitor any day of the week. It’s not too much or too little; it’s just right. The Yukon Denali is the Goldilocks of full-size SUVs.

Jim Fets

For the Sierra 1500, you’re looking at a sticker between $51,000 and $62,000, depending on how long you want your bed. That’s cheaper than the Ford F-150 SuperCrew Platinum, but just a hair pricier than the Toyota Tundra, both of which are chief competitors. I think the Sierra is the best-looking of those options; it’s got a better interior and infotainment system than the F-150, and the eight-speed transmission could be a factor since the F-150 and Tundra only have six gears, especially for those looking to haul and tow. Given my druthers, I’d opt for the Sierra.

I arrived in Fairbanks, most definitely still alive. We'd bested the worst Alaska had thrown our way and done so in leather-drenched, magnetic-riding, chrome-accented, bold style. And we didn't even have to shout down a charging bear or unleash a cloud of Mace. While I’m not a truck guy, I gained plenty of respect for the Sierra and found myself harboring full-blown lust for the Yukon. When a fleet manager asked for the Yukon's key fob near the airport, I was sad to relinquish the trusty steed.

Here’s to the next time, Alaska. You’re a big, beautiful, extremely dangerous wonder of a state and I wouldn’t want you any other way.

Jim Fets