Richardson Highway Drive: Tour Alaska’s Pristine Wilderness

Route Details Length: About 370 miles, with mile markers (roadside signs) beginning 4 miles outside Valdez and ending with 364

Route Details

Length: About 370 miles, with mile markers (roadside signs) beginning 4 miles outside Valdez and ending with 364 in Fairbanks.

When to go: Summer; July is the warmest month, with daytime highs about 60° to 70°F. Road is usually open in winter.

Words to the wise: Roads can be damaged by frost heaves.

Nearby attractions: Fielding Lake State Recreation Site, Rte. 8, west of Paxson. Chitina, southeast of Copper Center.

Further information:
Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 1603-MP, Valdez, AK 99686; tel. 800-770-5954, www.valdezalaska.org.

Linking Fairbanks and Valdez, Rtes. 2 and 4—the Richardson Highway —have played a vital role in local history. Originally a footpath, then a wagon trail, the route was a vital corridor for early prospectors. Even though today’s travelers aren’t seeking gold, they are nonetheless rewarded with treasures, from glacier-clad peaks to alpine wildflowers and peaceful little towns.

1. Tanana River
A few miles out of Fairbanks, the hub of Alaska’s interior, Rte. 2 meets with and then, for the most part, parallels the Tanana River. The waterway springs high in the Wrangell Mountains, where the summer meltwater trickles from beneath glaciers. Here the Tanana flows for long stretches in a braided channel, with interweaving streamlets of silver-gray, till-laden water coursing down the gravel bed.

One of the state’s few agricultural regions, this broad and level land is bordered by mountain ranges. The snowy peaks—white summits pointing skyward along the southern horizon—may appear small but in fact are among the highest in North America.

Sharing the sweeping farmland are military bases, recreation areas, campsites, and small towns, one of which calls itself North Pole. Managing to outlast the six-month long winters, many wild animals—moose, bears, and caribou, to name just a few—can be spotted throughout the area.

2. Big Delta
As it spans the Tanana River at the farming community of Big Delta, Rte. 2 parallels the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, a companion since the outskirts of Fairbanks. Carrying about one-fourth of America’s domestically produced supply of crude oil, the steel tube runs from the petroleum-rich fields above the Arctic Circle to the port of Valdez —an 800-mile trip. The pipeline, four feet in diameter, was completed in 1977 and is in many places visible from the highway. Visit the viewing area at the south end of the bridge, where interpretive signs relate key information.

About a half-mile later, turn to the northeast on Rika’s Road for a visit to Big Delta State Historical Park, which recalls the early days when gold fever was luring prospectors into unexplored territory. Costumed guides are on hand to lead tours through a re-created 1910 roadhouse.

3. Delta Junction
Creeks, lakes, spruce groves, homesteads, campgrounds, and fields of barley form a pleasing mosaic in the Delta Junction area. A couple of roads wend through the town, and a visitor center lies just south of the intersection of Rtes. 2 and 4. From this point onward, Rte. 2 is known as the Alaska Highway, a rugged, often unpaved road that leads southeast for more than 1,400 spectacular miles to Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada.

As for the Richardson Highway, it heads south along Rte. 4, climbing beside the Delta River into the Alaska Range. The road is well supplied with scenic turnoffs, and binoculars often prove helpful, especially when observing bison—transplanted to the area in the 1920s—and herds of caribou.

4. Isabel Pass
After passing colorful wildflowers, a peak called Donnelly Dome, and a retreating glacier that once nearly engulfed the road, the Richardson Highway peaks its highest point—3,000 feet—at Isabel Pass. As it descends from the pass, the route skirts picturesque wildlands with campsites, lodgings, lakes, and free-flowing rivers. The Wrangell Mountains, with three peaks over 16,000 feet, rise to the southeast.

5. Wrangell–St. Elias National Park and Preserve
Several mountain ranges converge here in our largest national park, where glaciers—one of them larger than Rhode Island—engulf alpine summits and valleys. Park headquarters and a visitor center lie near mile marker 105, just north of Copper Center. Only two roads, both of them dirt, lead into the park’s interior. They dead-end at the tiny towns of McCarthy and Nebesna, the limits of civilization.

A real challenge to the hiker, who must be self-sufficient, the park offers few services or facilities. Those adventuring away from the towns find themselves crossing vast untrodden tracts—the realm of Dall sheep, mountain goats, bears, and caribou.

6. Worthington Glacier
Crossing paths with the pipeline several times, Rte. 4 climbs into the Chugach Mountains for a tour of forests, tundra, and peaks. One notable sight along the way, the Worthington Glacier, is visible at mile marker 30. A turnout allows for easy viewing, and a spur route at mile 28.7 leads even closer to the frozen giant, its blue ice blemished with glacial debris and crevasses.

The drive then continues to Thompson Pass, where one winter, snow piled up to an incredible depth of 974 inches, a record for the state. The views—at first mere glimpses through narrow chasms—open up to reveal snowfields and jagged slopes. Take some time to explore the region, an alpine Eden laced with creeks and abloom with flowers and foliage plants.

7. Keystone Canyon
After a 71⁄2-mile descent from the pass, Rte. 4 swings into Keystone Canyon, then snakes for some four miles through the sheer-sided gap. The canyon walls hem in the Lowe River, whose waters, slate-gray with glacial debris, give life to streamside stands of cottonwoods. Bridal Veil and Horse Tail falls plummet at roadside, lending a lovely grace note.

8. Valdez
Spread on a ledge dramatically wedged between mountains and the sea, today’s Valdez was rebuilt four miles west of its original site, devastated by a tsunami in 1964. The community dates to the late 1890s, when gold seekers flooded the area.

Today the emphasis is on black gold, for in Valdez the oil flowing down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is pumped aboard ships. The well-protected harbor also accesses the Alaska Marine Highway, a National Scenic Byway. Ferries cruise to the nearby retreating Columbia Glacier, where sightseers watch in awe as huge blocks of ice tumble to the sea, and as far south as Prince Rupert, Canada.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest