Valdez is a commercial fishing and shipping port with a history that is both colorful and tragic. It’s also a fun town to visit in a stunning location.
Recall that Mount Saint Elias, at 18,009 feet the second highest peak in the US, is only 10 miles from the ocean’s edge as the eagle flies (yes, we confirmed that this is the expression to use in Alaska). That means our relatively short drive to Valdez would cross yet another mountain range – the Chugach Mountains, the tallest, steepest mountains we’ve seen yet – before dropping into the city. Valdez is near the end of a narrow arm of the Prince William Sound where glacial rivers dropping down from tall, steep, glaciated mountains on 3-1/2 sides of the city turn the water a distinctive aquamarine color.
Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve is the most superlative and unique-est we’ve ever visited. It’s the largest National Park in the US. At 13 million acres, it’s roughly 6 times the size of Yellowstone. It is surrounded on 3 sides by other parks including Glacier Bay National Park (US), as well as Canada’s Kluane National Park and Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park, creating an enormous international wilderness area. Mount St Elias is the tallest peak in the park at 18,008 ft and the second highest peak in the US (Denali is 20,308 ft). Mount St Elias is also 10 miles as the eagle or raven flies (we’ve not seen many crows in Alaska!) from the ocean, providing one of the highest reliefs in the world as well as a uniquely preserved ecosystem in its entirety. Established in 1980, Wrangell-St Elias is one of the most recent additions to the National Park Service.
Like most National Parks, WSE’s mission is to preserve and protect natural scenic beauty, wildlife populations and their habitats all while providing and balancing access and recreational opportunities by visitors. WSE also celebrates the region’s 20th century mining history. Unlike most National Parks, WSE also provides continued opportunities for the few small communities and the subsistence lifestyles of the people who live there – yes, people live deep in this wilderness, surrounded by the National Park.
I got an email about a month ago from Dana, my old friend and college roommate. Among other news, in this email he mentioned a trip upon which he and Muffin were about to embark to BC and the Yukon. I wrote back that we’d just come up through there, had that day entered Alaska, and were planning on spending the next couple of months exploring there before heading back towards home through BC and the Yukon. There ensued a series of “Wait, what?!” emails back and forth and, to summarize, we figured out that we could arrange at the end of June to rendezvous in Tok, which is Alaska’s ultimate crossroads where the Alaska Highway meets and splits from roads in every possible direction.
Our Arctic Ocean excursion took 4 long days of intense driving (there’re no public spaces or sightseeing spots in Deadhorse other than the shuttle, so we didn’t spend a whole day there), and we needed a brief respite before our re-provisioning stop back in Fairbanks.
Outstanding items on Nick’s list included a drive on the Steese Highway and a hike there. The Steese is an older road north of Fairbanks originally build to connect the city to the Yukon River where goods were shipped in. After the construction of the Alaska Highway, the port on the Yukon was less busy, though it is still in use today. There are also some mining operations along the way. Recreationally, the Steese is a beautiful drive to and through the tallest of the White Mountains. Since the road begins between the end of the Dalton Highway and the city of Fairbanks, it was a perfect opportunity for us.
OK! Who wants to hear about our 1000-mile excursion out and back on a (mostly) great, (mostly) gravel road? It totally rocked!
The James W. Dalton Highway, originally known as the North Slope Haul Road and now also known as Alaska Route 11, is the northernmost road in all of North America. It is one of the most remote roads in the US. We did some research before deciding to drive it. Guide books, including the Dalton Highway Visitor Guide, all mention the challenges of the drive and warn about rough gravel, no shoulders, steep grades, trucks, flat tires, broken windshields, breakdowns (and waiting for days for a tow truck), lack of services, no cell coverage, and that you could die. The Wikipedia entry: ‘Anyone embarking on a journey on the Dalton is encouraged to bring survival gear.’ We checked in again with Ed and A-J who drove the highway last year: ‘Yeah, you’ll love it!’
We’ve known Nick for a pretty long time. He was 2 months old when we first visited Stump Sprouts, the World’s Greatest B&B, owned by his parents Lloyd and Suzanne in the Berkshires. Little did we know at the time, that visit would evolve into a same-time-next-year, Memorial Day get-together with a group of close friends for over 30 years. Through the years, we got to know Nick initially as a little guy hanging around, then a kid who could come on some of our shorter bike rides, then as a teen who’d kick our butts on our longer bike rides. Then, he was off to college. Although we saw less of him, Lloyd and Suzanne kept us updated. As a young adult ready to take on the world as a nordic ski coach and continue living his outdoor adventure lifestyle, Nick moved around a bit, settling in Fairbanks.
Denali is Athabascan for ‘The High One.’ It’s an understatement.
There is so much rich, fascinating history about Denali and its relationship with the history of Alaska, gold mining, environmentalism and national park development it’s hard to know where to start. So, I decided to start with an abbreviated, simplified history of the Park Road.
Doug: Holy cow! Look at that! Sue: OMG! So beautiful! D: We’ve been driving for an hour and already have a hundred photos. Too many? S: You’re right. Maybe we have enough for today. D: Oh, wow, look at that. Let me get a photo… S: You’re right. Pull over!
A bit more than two weeks after leaving Mile 0 in Dawson Creek, BC, we arrived in Delta Junction, AK, at Mile 1422 and the official end of the Alaska Highway. Unlike Dawson Creek, where RVs line up for pix of the start and much of the town’s activity is focused on this unique claim to fame, there’s not usually much of a line at the highway’s end in Dalton Junction. Many travelers split off once in Alaska at Tok, choosing one of three directions, so there are fewer and far more distributed tourists arriving in Delta Junction, though we did see another RV during short our visit. And of course we did take the required Mile 1422 marker photo!
We’ve crossed the border into the interior of Alaska! We left Haines, re-entered Canada, then came back into Alaska (see photo) southeast of Tok, where we’ve still got a short way to go to the end of the Alaska Highway, then we’ll be poking around up here for awhile.
We’ll keep posting updates when we can get onto the internet.