Alaska Part 1: Eastern Interior and Valdez
Updated: Jun 21, 2022
The bumpy road continued for the final 40 miles between Snag Junction and the US Border, but greatly improved once we crossed into Alaska. The scenery changed as we transitioned to smaller mountains then a flatter topography, straight roads and lots of very soggy terrain. The soggy areas were a mixture of lakes and melting permafrost, which looks a bit like swamps with very scraggly black spruce trees. In some areas a lot of the trees were in deep water, and many looked like they were dead. We guessed this was being caused by excessive permafrost melting, which we have read is occurring in many parts of Alaska.
There aren’t a lot of towns in this section of Alaska, but we did see a bit more homesteads in between the towns than what we experienced in the Yukon and the Stewart-Cassiar Highway in British Columbia. I used the term ‘homestead’ here pretty loosely. Sometimes we’d see a shack or maybe a trailer, other times it might be a trailer with a shack attached and sometimes we would see an actual house. The first ‘town’ we came to was Northway, which wasn’t much more than the gas station/convenience store and an RV park that wasn’t open. After that we passed through the town of Tok (pronounced Toke), which had a bit more going on but was still pretty darn small.
Alaska has a great boondocking policy, you can pretty much camp anywhere unless it’s private property or there is a sign saying you can’t. We spent our first night boondocking in a gravel pit just off the highway west of the ‘town’ of Tanacross. The view was a fantastic combination of boreal forest and the beginnings of the Alaska Range mountains. And since there was almost no traffic on the highway after about 10pm, it was also a peaceful place to stop. We saw a lot of moose poop around, but no moose :^(
The following day we continued on the Alaska Highway until it’s end point, Delta Junction. Conrad had developed a craving for a hot dog, so despite the fact that we had plenty of food on hand, we decided to swing by the grocery store to get him some hot dogs. Well, as per other plans we’ve had on this trip, it wasn’t meant to be, but again a silver lining made an appearance along with what we’ve come to think is a typical Alaska experience.
We go to where my phone says the grocery store should be, no grocery store. We head over to the Visitors Center which we had already planned on checking out. Along the way we see huge, long lines at one of the gas stations in town and think ‘dang, they must have some really cheap gas’. Visitor Center is closed, but one of the staff comes out and tells us why, there had been a huge wind storm the night before and the power was out all over town. We also find out that the grocery store had burned down last fall and that the only gas station in town that had a generator was the one with the long lines. Luckily, we weren’t in need of gas. Chatting away with the young lady from the Visitor center and her boyfriend, Conrad mentions his desire for a hot dog. Boyfriend says ‘I’ve got something much better than a hot dog’ and provides us with a small jar of pressure cooked moose meat. He then tells us that we can watch his tracking and taking of this particular moose by watching Season 2, Episode 2 of the National Geographic show ‘Life below Zero, Next Generation’. Turns out he did two seasons of the show before deciding that was enough. His very diplomatic comment was ‘those people from Los Angles are kinda different’ to which I replied, ‘No Doubt’! And yes, the moose meat was delicious.
From Delta Junction, we picked up the Richardson Highway (4) heading south. This road parallels the Alaska pipeline and ends at Valdez. The northern part of the road crosses over a portion of the Alaska Mountain Range and runs along the Delta River for quite a long stretch. The River bed was incredibly wide, but not deep and didn't have a lot of water in it at that point in time. It was another beautiful drive and we had the bonus of seeing a couple of moose and two grizzlies. Our destination for the night was Tangle Lakes, located 17 miles from the eastern end of the Denali Highway (8).
The Denali Highway runs 134 miles between Paxson on the east and Cantwell in the west. Most of the road is gravel and there are big signs when you enter it informing you that the road is not maintained and to use at your own risk. We knew from one of our fellow travelers that the road was paved up to Tangle Lakes, so we weren’t too concerned. After we got a few miles in, we realized we would be lucky if the campground was open as everything except the road was snowed in. We started joking that we would be camping in the Himalayas because the terrain was so striking with snow-covered peaks in every direction. The campground was not open, but there was a big plowed out gravel pit where we pulled in and set up camp. Then the sun came out to warm us a bit, Lola got to enjoy more snow rolling and we had a stunningly beautiful and free campsite for the night.
The next day we drove the rest of the Richardson Highway south to Valdez, where we were planning on boondocking again and hoping that things wouldn’t be too busy since it was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. Another great drive, less mountainous, with a lot of wide river beds until we got closer to Valdez. Then we returned to big mountains as we started the climb up the Chugach Mountain Range. We drove by Worthington Glacier, up and over Thompson Pass and past several gorgeous water falls before landing in Valdez at what must be the most beautiful campsite in the entire state. Conrad backed Two Sheds 250 yards down this little jetty which had the Valdez Glacier River on one side, a beach area on the other side, the Valdez Port (what we might call a bay) in front and 360 views of all the mountains and glaciers that surround Valdez. Added bonuses included the pile of wood ready for sawing next to a great fire pit, excellent cell coverage and the fact that it was free. I cannot imagine that we will ever camp in another spot with that much awesomeness.
The following day I took an all-day boat tour out to the Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound while Conrad stayed with Lola. The Columbia Glacier is the largest tidewater glacier in Alaska, it’s also one of the fastest moving ones in the world, traveling about 80 feet per day and discharging up to 2 cubic miles of ice into the sound annually. It has receded more than 12 miles since 1986 and is currently 34 miles long, 3 miles wide and more than 3,000 feet thick in some spots. I could not have asked for better weather and I saw quite a bit of wildlife including tons of Sea Otters, a couple of Dolphins who were more interested in fishing than playing with the boat, a Hump Back Whale, Stellar Sea Lions, Big Horn Sheep and some type of sea birds that had taken over what used to be a roosting area for Puffins. The scenery was equally amazing, you can never go wrong when emerald hued mountains meet the sea.
The boat I went out on was a smaller one which had been purpose built to navigate the glacial waterways of the Prince William Sound. About 10 years ago, the hull had been reinforced to enable us to go deeper into the iceberg areas and get closer to the glacier faces. We got about 4 miles away from the Columbia Glacier face before the icebergs were too thick to proceed, so we turned around and headed towards what is officially called the West Columbia Glacier, but what our captain called the ‘Chicken Glacier’. It’s where he takes the tourists when he chickens out of getting closer to the Columbia Glacier face. 20 years ago, there was no ‘West Columbia’ glacier, it was still all just the one huge Columbia Glacier, but as it’s receded there are a couple of smaller ones like the West which come off of different canyons in the mountains. We got within ¼ mile away from the face of the West Columbia Glacier and got to see a few bits of ice fall off, but not any of the huge calving events. Of course, it was exciting to see the glaciers, but there was also some sorrow mixed in. As we headed back out, I bid them a fond farewell knowing that the speed in which their receding has accelerated means it’s unlikely they will be there should I ever make it back to Prince William Sound again.
Given our amazing campsite and the grandeur of the scenery around Valdez (they call it the Switzerland of Alaska), we stayed an extra day just to hang out and take it all in. It was nice to have a down day too, as they have been rare on this trip. Many Alaskans we’ve spoken to say Valdez is one of the nicest places to visit in the state for a few reasons: its outstanding natural beauty, the fact that cruise ships don’t stop here and it’s far enough away from Anchorage that you don’t get day trippers or even a lot of weekenders coming from there, so it’s a quieter town all together. We loved it and would highly recommend you check it out should you venture this way.