Vacation from Fairbanks

Posted by lwpetersen | August 7, 2011 | travel alaska

What follows is a seven day road-trip through Alaska. There are a lot of pictures and this is a long post. You will want to come visit Alaska afterward. Of course, the nice thing about living in Alaska is that it’s really easy to vacation in Alaska. I’m not posting all the pictures on the blog because there are too many (although I’m posting a lot). With about a thousand still to edit I won’t have them all up right away anyway. I have a dedicated set on flickr here.

Day 1

After a week in Fairbanks with Kate’s parents, Dave and Sandi, the four of us took off in a southern direction to experience a different side of Alaska. The first day was a drive to Glenallen, a small town on the Glenn Highway just off of the Richardson Highway. Kate and I had already made most of this part of the drive down the Richardson on our first anniversary.

Before we even got to Delta Junction we got our first glimpse of wildlife. A bull moose was in a small waterway on the side of the road munching on some plants in the pond.

Bull Moose in Water
This was taken on the Richardson Highway just a little bit north of Delta Junction. He was munching on some of the water plants.

Down on the Delta RiverOnce out of the Tanana Flats region, the valley that fills in the area between the Alaska Range and the hills just north of Fairbanks, we entered into the eastern end of the Alaska Range. We passed by the Black Rapids Glacier and the Castner Glacier (both of which were mostly invisible on this cloudy day and then we reached Rainbow Mountain and Rainbow Ridge. Here the road is constricted between the Delta River and the eastern mountains making for a nice view.

BumblebeeWhile down between the braids of the Delta river I noticed that there were tons of bees and bumblebees in the fireweed.

Before the rain really set in we did get a good view of the Gulkana Glacier winding down the eastern Alaska Range just north of Paxson.

Gulkana Glacier

When we finally arrived at Glenallen we went to eat dinner and then promptly went to sleep with plans to head to Kennecott for a day trip the next day.

Day 2

Glenallen sits on the western edge of the Wrangell Mountains and the Wrangell St. Elias National Park, the largest National Park in the country. When combined with the adjacent Kluane National Park across the Canadian border they make up the largest area of protected land in the world. At more than 20,600 square miles the park and preserve together make up an area a little bigger than the states of New Hampshire and Vermont together. With volcanoes.

On Friday (July 29th) we drove the full length of the McCarthy Road, a sixty mile dirt road into the park off the Edgerton Highway. It’s about a full 100 miles from Glenallen and we got a late start in the morning. Below are some of the things we saw.

Cloudy Morning
Near the Copper and Chitina Rivers in South Central Alaska. I took this just northwest of Chitina before getting on McCarthy Road.

At Liberty Falls
Our first stop was at the Liberty Falls State Rec area. This is not Liberty Falls, just the stream below. I haven’t posted a picture of them yet.

Chitina River
The McCarthy road parallels the salmon rich Chitina River for the first few miles. Incredible valley!

Kuskulana River
The Kuskulana River near the big bridge on the McCarthy Road.

Fields on the McCarthy Road
Another pretty view from the road.

Gilahina River
The Gilahina River: I took some pictures while Kate panned for gold.

Gilahina Railroad Trestle and McCarthy Road
Really cool structure along the McCarthy Road (mile 29) in the Wrangell St. Elias National Park. The McCarthy Road is a 60 mile long dirt road that terminates at McCarthy (going a little further to the historical Kennicott ghost town and mines. The NPS describes the bridge:

“A classic reminder of a bygone era, this wooden structure was originally
890 feet long and 90 feet high, required one- half million board feet of
timber, and was completed in eight days in the winter of 1911. Because of
the rugged landscape, over 15% of the entire railway was built on trestles”

They left out the -40 and lower temperatures that they were working in.

Long Lake
Long lake is about three miles long on the north end of the McCarthy road at mile 45ish. There were a few nice looking homes out here.
The NPS description:

“Each year, an average of 18,000 sockeye salmon struggle up the silty Copper and Chitina Rivers to spawn in the clear waters of this lake. This salmon run is unique as the longest duration sockeye run in North America. Salmon begin entering the lake in September and spawning continues all winter into April. A spring along the lake’s far side keeps some of the lake unfrozen, and this is where carcasses of spawned salmon provide a rich food supply for hungry winter predators such as ravens, eagles, mink, foxes, lynx, wolves, and coyotes.”

Crystalline Hills
North of the McCarthy Road. The clouds broke up a little and light shone on the rocky hills.

Rocks in the Clouds

Kennecott Riverbank
Riverbank along the Kennicott River at the end of the McCarthy Road.

Icefall
When we arrived at the end of the road we were greeted by the Stairway Icefall, one of the largest icefalls in the world that dumps into the Kennicott glacier.

Once at the end of the road we parked the car and took a footbridge across the Kennicott River to catch a shuttle bus up to the town of Kennecott. This place is an old copper mine and mill facility right in the Wrangell Mountains and it is totally unreal. When we got off the shuttle we were looking over the Kennicott glacier.

Debris covered glacier
Fireweed adorns the hills in late July above the Kennicott glacier. It is about 27 miles long and about 8 miles across at the widest.

Kennecott

KennecottAbove: The old ammonia leaching plant at the Kennecott Mill town and the debris-covered Kennicott glacier. The southern flank of Mt. Blackburn is in the background peering through the clouds. In the early 1900’s this area was found to be the largest concentration of copper in the world. In the thirties most of the high grade ore had been depleted and the mines started to close one by one and finally deserted in 1939.

Left:The once whitewashed building on the left is the hospital, the red buildings are the bunkhouses.

Today this is part of the Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark. If I had worked here I don’t think I would have been a good miner with views like these.

Donoho Peak and the Root Glacier
Just south of here the Root Glacier and Kennicott Glacier mesh together in a mess of rocky moraine.

Kennecott Mill Town and Porphyry Mountain
Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark and Porphyry Mountain.

After this long day we took the shuttle from Kennecott back to McCarthy where we had dinner.

McCarthy Evening

McCarthy (population 42) is 60 miles away from a paved road and about 200 miles from any town with a population over 1000. It took one evening in the local tavern to decide that I want to live here. Kennecott mines and mill town are just a little to the north riding next to enormous glaciers, towered over by Mt. Blackburn, and surrounded by the Wrangell St. Elias National Park.

From McCarthy we had a half mile walk back to the footbridge and the car. It was a great day. Although now there is a 60 mile drive back on an unpaved road and then about another 40 back to the hotel. We got back at around 1:30 in the morning. End of vacation: day 2.

Reflection in the Wrangell St. Elias

Just after sunset on the McCarthy road after a full day somewhere near mile 50. Really nice reflections of the Mountains and color in the water.

Day 3

It’s time to head down to Valdez. A late morning breakfast into a short drive with really frequent stops to enjoy the view.

Tiekel River
A short roadside stop along the Tiekel River. This spot is approximately 70 miles north of Valdez.

Richardson Highway View

More views on the Richardson Highway. There’s a lot to look at on this road.

Near Mt Diamond

Entering the Chugach Mountains on the Richardson Highway. The clouds were moving quickly making shooting the side of the hill very dynamic.

Worthington Glacier Overview

The Worthington Glacier creeps down the mountainside toward the highway. Lighting was certainly not ideal, almost backlit, but I think it made a pretty shot anyway.

Richardson Panorama

Looking northeast on the Richardson Highway near the Worthington Glacier about 25 miles north of Valdez, AK. There is an exceptional view around every corner and in every direction here. It pays not to hyperfocus on the massive glacier in front of you because you will miss things like this.

Terminus

I took a walk out to the terminus of the Worthington Glacier. There were a couple of people out climbing, but I was in my chacos. Sad, but at least there were lots of pretty things to look at.

Heading south we hit Thompson Pass and started the downhill venture to Valdez. Near the end of the hill we drove through the gorgeous Keystone Canyon and stopped to take some pictures of Bridal Veil Falls and Horsetail Falls.

Bridal Veil Falls

The huge Bridal Veil Falls in Keystone Canyon, just a few miles north of Valdez, Alaska.

Water on Rock

Closeup of the Horsetail Falls in the Keystone Canyon. I’m convinced that no part of this cascade would make for a poor picture.

Suddenly we were in Valdez, checked into the hotel and out exploring the harbor.

Sea Otter in Valdez Harbor

Sea otter just chillin’ and eatin’ in the cool harbor waters.

Valdez Harbor

The harbor was a gorgeous turqoise color and the mountains rose high above the harbor. It was a wonderful evening, but then the rain started and didn’t stop while we were there. The rain wasn’t a problem, everything was gorgeous anyway!

Day 4

Up early to catch the charter boat to go salmon fishing! We rode out to the mouth of a few bays in Prince William Sound on the boat, “Knot Bad”. It really wasn’t bad at all and we all had a lot of fun reeling in big fish.

Kate Fishing

Sandi Fishing

Dave reeling one in

Sandi and Kate on a Boat

Headin back to Valdez Harbor

This place is gorgous, from the water to the mountains. The edge of Anderson Glacier can be seen in the upper right.

Kodiak and Island Mist in Valdez Harbor

Back in Valdez Harbor the Kodiak (one of the boats on the Discovery Channel’s “The Deadliest Catch”) was docked in the harbor. When they are not crab fishing they buy fish off of fisherman out at sea and haul them back in their giant tanks.

Silvers

It was truly a full day of fishing. Ten hours later we returned from Prince William Sound with our limit of 24 silver salmon yielding about 92 lbs. worth of meat. The fish were cleaned and packed for us at fish central and Kate and I took home about 16 lbs. to fit into our small freezer.

All in a day's work

Day 5

After a lot of go-go-go it’s nice to have a quite restful rainy day. We spent the day exploring some of the local museums and took a drive around the harbor to the local fishery. There were a lot of pink salmon struggling up the gulch to die. It was kind of weird.

Spawn

Pink salmon swimming upstream near the hatchery at Valdez.

We also saw a bear eating some salmon. I think he was about a three year old cub, no sign of mom around. He was just eating the juiciest parts of the salmon and then leaving the rest. There were plenty to choose from and he seemed quite happy.

Got Me a Fish

Any other fish wanna mess

King of the Cubs

Day 6

Another day on a boat. The Stan Stephens is a company that does wildlife cruises out to some of the glaciers in the area. We went out on a mid-size craft and it was a pretty rough day whenever we weren’t in a bay. There were sick people. It was rainy, so Dave and I mostly had the outside deck to ourselves. The longer tour was canceled due to rough water, so we took the shorter six hour ride out to the Columbia Glacier. Here are a few sights we saw along the way:

The Kodiak

The Kodiak crab fishing boat from the Discovery Channels “The Deadliest Catch” outside of the harbor in Valdez, Alaska.

Foggy Harbor

Valdez Harbor

Lonely Island

I wouldn’t say that wildlife was abundant on this trip. However, we did see quite a few sea otters and sea lions. We also had some Dal Porpoises ride with the boat for a while and we saw a few jaegers and gulls flying around.

Tandem Cuteness

A couple of sea otters out in Prince William Sound.

I told you - Get Off

The sea lions were barking mad out at the bouy.

Jaeger

Jaeger skimming the water near the Columbia Glacier.

Once we turned into Columbia Bay the water started to get a little calmer. Soon we entered into this expanse filled with icebergs everywhere.

Undercut Ice

Cascades and Icebergs

Sighting the Columbia Glacier

First time I could see the glacier through the fog in Columbia bay. This thing is huge!

Source of Icebergs

This is about 3 miles from the Columbia glacier. That is the glacier from 3 miles away. It is really big.

Columbia Glacier

This is the closest we got, still about a mile away from the glacier in Columbia bay. The ice was getting pretty thick. The boat crew said this was the closest they had been able to get all summer! We seriously lucked out on every outing we took over the last couple of weeks.

Otter Iceberg

These guys were enjoying their day until a couple of waves smacked into their floating Island.

Lonely Ice

Working back out to the mouth of the bay after some great glacier viewing.

Once we were heading back into Valdez Harbor again we rode up against the northwestern shore to get some nice views of the waterfalls dumping into the sound. The landscape here is really incredible!

Somewhere southwest of Valdez

Another gorgeous, rainy, foggy day in Valdez, Alaska. It really doesn’t matter what the weather is like in places like this.

Fog, Falls and Bald Eagle

Another foggy waterfall shot from Prince William Sound. Can you spot the bald eagle?

Into the Blue

Lush greens of the northenmost temperate rainforest in the world contrast with the stark blue waters of Prince William Sound. The watefalls are nice too.

Back in Valdez Harbor

For the last time we returned to Valdez Harbor by boat. Once again the view was stunning. The boat in the frame is the Kodiak crab fishing boat again.

Day 7

Oh no! It’s the last day. That means waking up early and driving from beautiful Valdez to Anchorage. We have to first backtrack to Glenallen and then take the Glenn Highway all the way in to Anchorage. We stopped briefly at the Worthington Glacier again. It was a cloudy day which made the ice significantly more blue.

Glacial Ice

Magpie in a Puddle

The Glenn Highway we knew to be a popular corridor for RVs taking the shortest way to or from the Anchorage area via the Alaska Highway. Supposedly in is incredibly scenic, however I was left a little unimpressed. There is a lot of tourist travel, people in RVs driving far under the speed limit with no comprehension that they should pull over to allow the stack of cars behind them to pass. The scenery was nice, but I’ll say I’ve seen much better in the interior. The Matanuska glacier rides close up to the road and is definitely worth exploring. As we got closer to Palmer there were more ‘city’ drivers who were really impatient, rude and driving much too fast for the road conditions adding up to be the least pleasant experience driving the whole trip.

Fireweed Landscape

Somewhere on the Glenn Highway there was some really vibrant fireweed blooming.

Matanuska Glacier and River

Fairbanks is the largest town I’ve been in for an entire year now. Anchorage was frightening to me. It felt very much like a big city, and had all that big city traffic that I’ve been nowhere near for an entire year. I don’t remember the last time I’ve been in a traffic jam, other than maybe 20 cars waiting for a light on Airport Road or the Steese Highway. Yuck.

We dropped Dave and Sandi off at the airport and said our goodbyes. It was truly a wonderful trip. The whole experience was great: Denali National Park, the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, Farmer’s Markets, the Red Green Regatta, Golden Days, all of the stay in Fairbanks, The Eldorado Gold Mine, The Richardson Drive, Kennicott and McCarthy, Valdez, Boats, Bears, Sea Wildlife, everything.

Then Kate and I headed north to the Parks Highway. Traffic was slow and gross until we got north of Wasilla. The entire Anchorage area made me really thankful that we live in Fairbanks; quiet, nice. To be fair though, we didn’t have time to explore, so I’m sure that view will change once we see something other than traffic. But, we had a cat to get back to.

Once back in the Alaska Range things because stunningly gorgeous once again.

Back in the Alaska Range

Mountainside Light

As we were exiting the Alaska Range to the north of Denali National Park it started to rain. The Sun was low on the horizon (and it was only 9:30pm, yay!), but bright to the north. Of course there is a rainbow coming out of the mountains. It was one of the best I had ever seen; it was obviously the mountains way of waving goodbye to us after all those wonderful days.

Rainbow outside Denali

More pictures:
The Other Side of the Rainbow Temperate Paradise Columbia Glacier and Icebergs Kennecott Bunkhouses and Hospital

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