The Alaska Road System and our road trip to Valdez

Alaska has very few road connections compared to the rest of the U.S.  The road system covers a relatively small area of the state, and Juneau, the state capital, is not accessible by road, nor is much of the western part of the state.  Anchorage, while way south, is the center of the universe in Alaska — more than half the population of the entire state (737,000 people, give or take) lives in the Anchorage metropolitan area — so nearly all the roads that do exist, and there aren’t many, connect to Anchorage.  That said, we did rent an SUV for two weeks so we could drive to a couple of the national parks (south to Kenai Fjords NP in Seward and north and east to Wrangell-St. Elias NP in Chitina) and drive to a few towns of interest to us.  While Valdez was not on our radar screen when we planned our time in Alaska, it was recommended as a beautiful drive by C.D. and Kathy at our B&B, so we decided to take a day trip down the Richardson Highway to the coastal town of Valdez.

Three things stand out in our minds about this trip.  First, was the drive itself.  In every direction and around every turn the views were spectacular!  Have a look at what we saw, keeping in mind the pictures don’t do it justice:

View from the Thompson Pass on the Richardson Highway en route to Valdez
View from the Thompson Pass on the Richardson Highway en route to Valdez
Glacial silt stream with the Worthington Glacier in the background
Stunning glacial lake along the Richardson Highway in Alaska
Stunning glacial lake along the Richardson Highway
Laura & Fred at Worthington Glacier
Fred and I at the glacier
Hiking up to Worthington Glacier
Hiking up to Worthington Glacier – space and distance are so deceiving out here!

The next highlight was seeing the Worthington Glacier.  There are several types of glaciers; this one is a valley glacier.  Gravity pulls the ice and moraine down as it bulldozes its way through the valley.  Like most other glaciers on the continent, this one is receding, although thankfully not at the rate of most others.

A state park provides access to the glacier, and we had lots of fun hiking to it, then on it and under it — there was a cave-like overhang that we could walk into — pretty cool, if not a little eerie and scary!  The blues and turquoises of the glacier were spectacular to see up close.

Valdez is a little fishing port where the highway ends; it’s one of the most important ports in all of Alaska.  It receives products for use in the interior as well as ships oil brought down via the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska.  Here in Valdez the oil is loaded onto tanker ships for transport.

Worthington Glacier
Approaching Worthington Glacier from the Richardson Highway / Alaska Hwy 4
The beauty of Valdez
Approaching Valdez

We didn’t come here to see the oil and gas terminal, however; we got guidance to see the fish hatchery and this was the third noteworthy experience of our roadtrip.  The Solomon Gulch Hatchery had a fish weir that was in place during this, the spawning season for king salmon (a.k.a. chinook) and we watched for nearly an hour as hundreds, if not thousands, of salmon attempted to return to their place of birth to spawn and die, thus completing their interesting and complex lifecycle.

Our road trip to Valdez was just one of many highlights during our Alaska adventures.  We had a terrific day and were grateful for the suggestion to make a drive down yet another highway that came to an end in this great little Alaska town.