The Richardson Highway is Alaska’s first highway, stretching from Valdez in the south to Fairbanks up north. The road runs about 368 miles through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Far North. A road trip to or within Alaska definitely warrants a drive along the Richardson Highway.
Began as a Klondike Gold Rush project, in 1898 the U.S. Army did an exploration of the route, and work started the following year (ExploreNorth). Throughout the years, upgrades and improvements were made to the Richardson Highway, and it now stands as an excellent, completely paved road. It is traversable all year long and is kept open during most weather. Occasional avalanches and construction can cause closures and delays.
The Richardson is one of my favorite roads to travel in Alaska. However, many people are unaware of its breathtaking beauty and comfortable ride. Sometimes even Alaskans are wary of the road (generally without cause in my opinion), and they consider it somewhat boring. But this attitude causes a person to close his or her eyes to the wonders that surround a car traveling along the highway.
Some of the highlights include:
Keystone Canyon This canyon is striking. Sheer rock walls and cliffs emerge from beside the highway with waterfalls tumbling over them around every corner. The Lowe River’s steel gray waters flow alongside and under the highway. In the winter, the waterfalls turn to ice, and it’s possible to catch glimpses of ice climbers making their way up the canyon.
Thompson Pass At an elevation of 2678 feet, Thompson Pass resembles what I imagine Scotland looks like. Lakes dot the landscape, and fishing is good at various points of the year. In autumn, the color change is gorgeous, and in the winter, the sheer amount of snowfall is mind-numbing. Sledding, kite snowboarding, and snow machining are all fun activities if you feel a desire to pull over for recreation during your winter drive through the pass.
Worthington Glacier Although locals say that Worthington Glacier has receded extensively in recent years, it’s still an amazing stop. A visitor center and informational signs provide background education for travelers who stop. Take the short hike from the parking lot, across the melted water, and right onto the glacier for a close-up view of the blue-colored ice. Be careful if you do choose to access the glacier; footings can be treacherous. Nearby blueberry patches turn ripe around August.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park A visitor center is located just off the highway. Find a gift shop, helpful rangers, short trails, and small museums. The bathrooms are clean and well-stocked.
It makes an excellent place for a picnic.
Glennallen The town itself does not have much going on. It is small, and it doesn’t offer a lot of amenities. However, it is a good place to stop and get some gas and snacks if necessary for the trip. Turn off and drive a few miles down the Glenn Highway for the grocery store. It has quite a few options for hungry travelers.
Paxson Lake A lovely place to camp or fish, Paxson Lake is great except for the bugs. Be prepared for large numbers of mosquitoes in the summer if you choose to stop.
Pipeline For anyone who wants to see the pipeline, the Richardson Highway is a great way to do this. Viewpoints are located along the road, and the pipe is suspended over the Tanana River. It’s very interesting to see this engineering marvel.
Services are well-spaced and generally quite good during the summer. They are more limited in the winter, so plan accordingly. Smaller towns and stops generally have more expensive fuel. The Russian food at the Tonsina Lodge is excellent, check it out. Other than that, enjoy a leisurely drive. The Richardson Highway has a lot to offer in terms of natural beauty but with very little traffic or tourist traps. Driving it is a fantastic way to explore some of Alaska’s rich heritage and history.
References and Further Reading:
“Explore the Richardson Highway, Alaska.” ExploreNorth. N.Pag. Web. 25 Aug. 2010.