Road to Valdez: a hidden treasure
When you visit the land where mountains breathe and glaciers bleed, consider a drive along the Richardson Highway, from Glennallen to Valdez, in south central Alaska. The 119-mile route officially named an Alaska Scenic Byway offers breathtaking scenery, and the town at its end provides a unique slice of Alaskan life and history.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
When my husband and I drove to Alaska in August several years ago, we were retracing the trip my parents had made in 1975. In the Valdez section of his journal, my father had written about rain, stacks of pipe for the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, and the pipeline construction camps along the Richardson Highway.
But we were unprepared for the four glacier-clad peaks that rise majestically from the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, towering above lesser mountains in a black spruce wilderness. One of them, Mt. Wrangell, is the only active volcano in the mountain range.
All along the route, which travels along the Copper River basin, the highway crisscrosses braided rivers and looks out over magnificent views of conifer forests and mountains. Elevated sections of the famous pipeline, which parallels the highway, streak through the forests.
Farther south, the road winds through the rugged Chugach (CHEW-gatch) Mountains, the range that borders Prince William Sound. Glaciers spill down the mountains' flanks, and one, the Worthington Glacier, nearly touches the road.
From Thompson Pass at 2,678 feet, it's all downhill for the 26 miles into Valdez.
The view at the pass reminded us of Switzerland and Hawaii all at once. Jagged peaks cupping glaciers rose above us, while lush greenery and wildflowers carpeted the slopes below. All around, meltwater streams, like silver threads, bled from glaciers, falling down the rocky slopes into the Lowe River.
For Toni Anne Kwalick, a manager at the Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau, this view was the reason she moved to Valdez from California four years ago. At the summit of Thompson Pass, she remembers, she said to herself: "This is it; I have to live here."
From the pass the highway descends 7.5 miles to the valley that leads to Keystone Canyon, where it winds along the canyon floor and finally hits sea level at Valdez. More waterfalls, called Horsetail and Bridal Veil, pour over the canyon walls into the Lowe River, which rushes through the narrow canyon and unravels into a broad bed before emptying into Port Valdez.
The scenery doesn't end in Valdez, however. Humped, razor-backed mountains, like sleeping dragons with their heads in the harbor, circle the port and the city. Wreathed in vapor on that particular August day, the mountains seemed to breathe. Patches of pink fireweed flared on their velvet-green flanks. The streams coursing out of them churned with spawning pink and chum salmon.
Here in this almost tropical setting in summer, at least on the north shore of the northernmost ice-free harbor in North America, lies the city of Valdez, population about 4,400. The terminus for the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline, Valdez thrives on its oil, fishing, seafood-packing, shipping, and tourism industries, but its success has been hard-won and due in large part to the vitality of its citizens.
Named after a Spanish admiral, Valdez had its start in the late 1800s, when the town became a debarkation point for Klondike gold-seekers. Shops and businesses sprang up to service the miners, and in 1901 Valdez was incorporated as a city.