The reality that road-tripping in the 49th State can’t be covered in just one column brought to mind the ill-conceived plans of a visiting family some years back.
Having often seen Alaska placed down below California on national TV news programs maps, they failed to look at the mileage scale on the map used for planning their trip. They announced to hosts that they would drive to Denali, then drop down to Homer before going to Seward for a whale-watching charter the following day. Those places may be only a couple of inches apart on a map, but a very long day’s non-stop drive. Time to enjoy the scenery, sample Alaska cooking and learn about the Northland absolutely needs to be figured in.
Last week we went south. This week we will look at the even larger, but less populated, northern part.
Anchorage has plenty of attractions, but since most readers are in this area we’ll not mention those.
We cannot, though, overlook the northern section’s many opportunities.
Just a half hour or so out of downtown, the Nature Center at the end of Eagle River Road is a beautiful spot where we can view Nature in peaceful wonder. Artifacts and information are on display and the visitor center volunteers are founts of facts. A few miles farther up the Glenn is Thunderbird Falls, a cascade of about 300 feet. A short hike takes us to where we can see the splash into the pool below.
Continuing north, there are points of interest to both east and west. Turning right, we follow the winding Eklutna Road past the plant that treats water from the glacier-fled lake that supplies Anchorage. Its taste and purity have won national awards. At the end of the road is the lake itself, a part of Chugach State Park. West of the highway is Eklutna Village where a visitor center is located. The St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church built in 1870, or possibly even earlier, at Knik and relocated to Eklutna in 1900 is near the newer structure. Colorfully painted spirit houses cover the graves of parishioners who have passed on.
Just up the highway, the Eklutna Flats in summer shines with wildflowers.
The Flats subsided by three feet in the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, the resulting tidal inflow dulling the former brilliance of those flowers. Wild iris, fireweed and bleeding hearts once covered the full expanse.
A road to the right, the original Palmer Highway, branches off to pass a power plant built by the federal government in 1954 and now owned by three local utilities. Its tail race emptying into Knik Arm is a popular fishing spot for salmon. The Butte community at the end of the Arm is the location of a reindeer farm where visitors are able to view the animals. That section of the Old Glenn continues on to Palmer.
Palmer is the city formed by the Matanuska Colony in 1935. Two hundred families were relocated from the Midwest to settle and farm the fertile ground. A Colony Museum is maintained by volunteers and displays furniture and implements from that period. Palmer is the site of the State Fair held before Labor Day each year. Giant vegetables, crafts and animals raised by locals are on display.
From Palmer, the Glenn Highway extends to Glennallen and then Copper Center, where it intersects with the Richardson Highway leading to Valdez. That highway also connects at Tok Junction with the Alaska Highway, the road linking Alaska with Outside.
Valdez is the terminus of Alyeska Pipeline, the 48-inch steel tube that brings crude oil from the North Slope to be loaded onto tankers headed for Outside refineries.
Along the scenic route is the road to McCarthy, site of the Kennecott Copper Mine. The mine now is a historic site overseen by the National Park Service. Open year-round, the Valdez port has been heavily used since late in the Nineteenth Century. Valdez was severely damaged in the 1964 earthquake and relocated to its current location farther inland.
The Alaska Highway, then known as the Al-Can, was built in 1942 as an overland connection to the Territory. It was a vital supply route, built by Army Engineers under harrowing conditions. The 1,382-mile rough road was pushed through in record time. It now is paved and heavily traveled.
The Richardson Highway links Valdez with Fairbanks. As it nears the northern end it passes through the city of North Pole. There the Santa Claus House is famous world-over for its permanent Christmas display. In season, volunteers mail greeting cards bearing the North Pole postmark and answer letters to Santa.
Two routes from which to choose.
Backing up to the fork where we took the Old Glenn Highway to Palmer, we now take the Parks Highway. That route became a shorter alternate to connect Southcentral Alaska with Fairbanks, trimming two hours from the eight-hour drive over the Glenn.
Near the beginning of the Parks is Wasilla, the largest community within the massive Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Known for its many recreational opportunities, its numerous lakes and streams abound with fish. Boating, swimming and picnicking bring out throngs of people on sunny days.
From Wasilla, the Knik-Goose Bay Road branches off to follow Knik Arm eastward toward Cook Inlet. The town of Knik was a metropolis during the Gold Rush. A stop on the original Iditarod Trail, it now is headquarters for the famed annual race. Trading posts and hotels served travelers along the Iditarod Trail who stopped to rest. It also was home to trappers, early farmers and miners. A port at Knik served steamboats that plied the waters of Cook Inlet to supply mining camps.
Hatcher Pass is atop a link between the Glenn and Parks highways.
Now best known as a recreational area being considered for a major ski resort, it is the site of the historic Independence Mine developed in 1906 by Richard Hatcher and now an Alaska State Park. The hard-rock mine operated until gold mining was shut down during World War II. Several buildings are being restored and a small museum is open to the public.
North of Wasilla is Big Lake, the largest of a string of lakes that are popular with boaters. Alongside the highway can be seen the capped casing of a well drilled during a search for oil.
Talkeetna, a stop along The Alaska Railroad and jumping off spot for mountaineers hoping to summit Denali, is 114 miles north of Anchorage.
It is reached from a spur taking off the Parks at about Milepost 100. The quaint settlement is a favorite tourist spot with a nice lodge just before you reach the city where you can have a terrific view of the “Three Sisters,” Mts. Denali, Foraker and Hunter.
The Denali Highway at Cantwell, a short distance south of the entrance to Denali National Park, also links the Parks and Glenn Highways. The Glenn connection is at Paxson. The eight-mile stretch is sparsely populated and not maintained during winter months.
North America’s tallest peak can be viewed from several points along the highway, but the majestic Mt. Denali (“The Great One”) is 133 miles from Anchorage. The road is closed to most vehicles but buses take tourists into the park for a closer view. While the view is overwhelming, the sight of wildlife along the road inside the national park makes as great an impression as does the mountain.
Shortly after leaving Nenana, site of the annual guessing game on the time of breakup, when a tripod topples and stops the clock, we reach Fairbanks, 323 miles from Anchorage. Incorporated in 1903 during the Gold Rush, Fairbanks overtook Nome as Alaska’s largest city. It houses the University of Alaska and is home to a large military complex. Its temperature variation is the widest in the entire United States, stretching from 80 below to 100 above zero.
From Fairbanks, the Steese Highway continues north to Circle on the banks of the Yukon.
That is not the farthest north road, however. The Elliott Highway out of Fairbanks goes to Manley Hot Springs and intersects with the Dalton Highway, the haul road to Deadhorse on Alaska’s North Slope. Another spur from Fairbanks is the Old Steese Highway which ends at Chena Hot Springs, a popular resort.
Excellent guides for people traveling Alaska’s roads are the Milepost, which has been around for several decades and updated regularly, found at www.themilepost.com, and a comprehensive online resource, www.Alaska.org.
Whether for an afternoon or a full summer of exploring, Alaska has something for everyone.
Enjoy the beautiful scenery, the people, the wildlife and the variety. And please drive safely. We want you to keep reading!
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.