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  • Writer's pictureKarl Sander

Two Wheels to Valdez

For this last weekend’s adventure, I took my trusty warhorse to Valdez, Alaska. We discovered the waterfront town the previous year, when we were staying in Copper Center and exploring Wrangell–St Elias National Park. Our bed and breakfast hosts suggested we make an afternoon trip to Valdez, which we hadn’t realized was actually that close. On that trip, low clouds obscured the mountains as we headed over Thompson Pass, but we could see enough to know that it had to be stunning when the weather clear. So, last summer, I’d periodically look at weekend forecasts and when there appeared to be a decent chance of staying more or less dry, I decided to head out.

If you look up the drive time between Anchorage and Valdez, it tells you six to seven hours — so you COULD do the round trip in one day, if you really wanted to. But it wouldn’t leave much time to stop at any of the scenic viewpoints or to enjoy the town itself once you got there, so I planned to spend the night before heading back. Being tourist season, and short notice, hotel rooms in the small town were expensive, so I figured I’d camp and found an RV park/campground a couple blocks from the center of town with tent spots for $15 a night. A backpacking tent laid sideways against the bike’s sissy bar isn’t any wider than the saddlebags (and it’s only that wide because of the tent poles), and my sleeping bag in its stuff sack fit nicely on top. Everything else I’d need for a night, especially in a place where I didn’t have to worry about packing food, fit in the saddlebags with room to spare.

I set off in the early afternoon, another advantage of not attempting a Cannonball Run-style round-trip being the ability to get started at a gentlemanly hour (though, now that I think about it, a Captain Chaos costume would make quite a statement on the highway….). It’s 140 miles between Palmer and Glennallen, just less than what I can comfortably make on a single tank, so I topped off the tank before continuing. The highway follows the Matanuska River, which roughly forms the boundary between the Chugach Mountains to the south and the Talkeetna Mountains to the north. There’s a handful of descending hairpin turns to cross creeks that feed into the river before climbing back up to views across the valley, including Matanuska Glacier, which is one of the more easily accessible glaciers in Alaska. I didn’t stop this trip, but it’s close enough to Anchorage I can easily visit it later.

Matanuska Glacier along the Glenn Highway

Matanuska Glacier along the Glenn Highway

The gain in elevation isn’t terribly noticeable, but the highway climbs up to over 3,000 feet to cross Eureka Summit. What is noticeable, however, are the Chugach fading farther away from the highway to the south while the Talkeetna Mountains disappear to the north as the road meanders through boreal forest — though the stunted spruce are spaced far enough apart that it doesn’t really feel much like a forest at all. The area is dotted with small lakes, some with houses that made me wonder if they’re someone’s full-time residence or part-time cabin. This close to the highway, they’d hardly count as being in the ‘bush’ — but still far enough away from anywhere else that one wonders what they did for a living, what their grocery trips must look like, or what they’d do if they fell and couldn’t get up.

Also, for the next couple hundred miles, the roads are sprinkled with frost heaves. You can see them coming by watching the lane lines and sometimes tire marks ahead of them; when you’re prepared for them, they’re actually kind of fun. And sometimes, if you’re admiring the passing scenery, you don’t see them coming and find your rear end momentarily removed from the seat. That’s less fun.

Mt. Sanford, Mt. Drum, Mt. Wrangell from the Richardson Highway

Mt. Sanford, Mt. Drum, Mt. Wrangell from the Richardson Highway

As clear as that Saturday was, Mt. Drum and Mt. Sanford come into view long before reaching Glennallen — which is impressive considering they’re 30 and 45 miles east of the junction, respectively. At Glennallen, I topped off again at the aptly named “Hub of Alaska” and ate a late lunch from a taco truck that seemed to have docked (permanently?) to the side of the Copper Valley Chamber Visitor Center.

From there, it was a relatively short 115 mile ride south to Valdez with views to the west of the Wrangell Mountains. I rode past the bed and breakfast we had visited last year (after a short debate with myself decided against dropping in unannounced). To the right, cryptic street signs on random dirt turnoffs announce the proximity of the Trans Alaska Pipeline, which I first crossed over just west of Glennallen — easily missed unless you happen to see the gated response base that was originally supposed to be Pump Station 11. Soon enough, it’s visible to the right of the highway, then on the left along with the inactive Pump Station 12. It crisscrosses the highway a handful of times — on the right side for the climb up to Thompson Pass where it cuts the hairpin corner, and on the left side as the highway finally approaches Valdez.

Trans Alaska Pipeline Crossing

The brown street signs announce an access road for the Trans Alaska Pipeline. In this case, the buried pipeline is crossing the highway, and I'm standing more or less right on top of it.

The pass on a clear day lived up to the expectations I’d harbored since our visit under overcast skies the year before. On the last run south before turning east for the big switchback over the pass, Worthington Glacier was staring me in the face, presumably sweating a bit under the July sun. At the broad turnout on top of the pass, a brown sign announces the “Trail of ‘98” and a double tracked trail makes its way down into the verdant terrain below. The double track is surely from four-wheelers, but the trail’s name refers to 1898, long before ATVs, when people were doing all sorts of bizarre things to get to interior Alaska and the chance to strike it rich in the gold rush.

Compared to the hike over Chilkoot Pass into the Yukon Territory (where Mounties reportedly waited at the border to turn back the poorly prepared), or the sea voyage to the mouth of the Yukon River and the upriver steamboat ride, the short climb from Valdez to the greater Copper River Valley must have seemed like a pretty good deal. At least in the summertime, anyway. Come winter, it’s one of the snowiest places on earth and according to some sources the state only really got serious about keeping the pass open once construction began on the pipeline.

Note to self: Look into heli-skiing trips out of Valdez.

Worthington Glacier

Worthington Glacier

Thompson Pass

Thompson Pass and the Trail of '98

The colorful sign announcing the city of Valdez is, curiously enough, 22 miles before the city as the highway nears the end of the descent out of the pass. Soon, the highway joins the Lowe River and passes through Keystone Canyon, a gorge with near vertical walls and spectacular waterfalls. Two of them, Bridal Veil Falls and Horsetail falls, are impressive enough to have warranted parking areas where cars, RVs, tour buses, and, yes, even motorcycles stop for pictures. There’s also a hand cut tunnel in the canyon, the only vestige of an attempt to build a railroad from Valdez into the interior. Apparently, disagreements arose, a gunfight occurred, and the effort was abandoned.

The day's catch in Valdez

Part of the day's catch in Valdez

I pulled into town and found the RV park/campground I’d scoped out on-line (Eagle’s Rest). It’s conveniently located at the entrance to town, next to a breakfast/burger joint, a gas station, and a Safeway and only a few blocks from downtown and the waterfront. After paying my $15 and setting up the tent, I ventured toward the waterfront. A fishing charter company was hanging — and laying out — some of the day’s catch at the obligatory harbor sign. I stopped to admire the haul, until I noticed seagulls seemed to be trying to defecate on some of the bystanders. Fortunately, their hits were “long of the target” but, before they got a lucky one in, I decided to head down the waterfront.

Valdez small boat harbor

The Valdez small boat harbor

It’s not the only restaurant in town, but we had enjoyed it so much last time (and got such a kick out of the name) that I felt obliged to visit the Fat Mermaid. I found a seat outside and despite the late lunch, I felt confident in my ability to put away a smoked salmon pizza (could have used less capers, but I almost always think that about anything I eat with capers). As it got later, it got a little chilly so I moved inside for a couple more pints before heading back to camp. While it’s true that Alaska calls itself the “land of the midnight sun,” by late July the sunset is creeping earlier and earlier into the night. And since Valdez is surrounded by mountains, the sun offers a unique backlighting along the horizon behind the campground as it just dips below the peaks.

Young ones from the neighboring tent made sure I got up early enough to eat in a very crowded diner, break camp, and get on the road before check-out time. Old Town Burgers is right next to the campground, and also does a brisk breakfast business — brisk enough to get tired just watching the lone waitress. Hopefully her Sunday mornings aren’t ALWAYS like that. The corned beef hash was homemade, and in addition to two eggs came with two pancakes on the side — which was a tasty touch, even if it was more than I had any business eating.

Bridal Veil Falls

Bridal Veil Falls

Fed and caffeinated, I hit the road. I stopped for pictures at both the waterfalls in the canyon. I dropped into the small town of Copper Center and paid a visit to the Pub at Copper Rail Depot, which we fondly recalled from our previous visit. Its interior was what we remembered, with a combination of Copper River Valley mining history on the walls and large-scale model trains on tracks suspended from the ceiling. It was early in the afternoon, though, with only one other patron there watching NASCAR (which seems to have been the only reason they were even open that early). so I figured I’d get out of their way.

The Princess Wilderness Lodge, not far away, was another spot we remembered warmly, so I made that my lunch stop before topping off the tank in Glennallen again. About 40 miles later, I had the sudden urge to check out one of the roadhouses along the highway, so pulled into the Mendeltna Creek Lodge. Its log construction along with nonstandard doors and ceiling heights gave the impression of a hand-made cabin, probably as old as the road itself. A couple was finishing a lunch that they clearly enjoyed, and I found myself wishing I had more time to hang out instead of just having a cup or two of coffee. It certainly seemed worth a longer return visit, I thought as I got back on the road. Sadly, it burned down in December 2017.

But then, a lot of Alaska has been like that for me. The more I see, the more things I find that I want to come back and see again. I have the feeling that whether I’m here for another year or another 40, I’ll run out of time before I run out of places to visit.

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