2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   VALDEZ, ALASKA'S LITTLE SWITZERLAND:
AN OVERVIEW & A BIT OF HISTORY

 SATURDAY, JUNE 16

 
"Called the 'Switzerland of Alaska,' Valdez (val-DEEZ) is ringed by snowcapped mountains.
As the northernmost ice-free port, the town was established in 1898 as an outfitting point for
miners taking the hazardous pack trail over Valdez Glacier to the northern gold fields."
 
~ AAA's Western Canada and Alaska Tour Book, p. 369 of the 2011 edition
 
 
Now that was a tough beginning on the route to the Klondike!

Our campground was close to Valdez Glacier, which is smaller now than it was during the gold rush. Thousands of stampeders braved the slick ice, avalanches, dangerous crevasses, snow-blindness, exhaustion, and other hazards on their quest to find gold via the All-American Route to the interior of Alaska.

For some it took two months to haul their heavy gear eighteen miles from sea level to 5,000 feet to the pass at the top of the glacier. They had to move a year's worth of supplies by dog sled and on their backs over five steep ice walls along the narrow, winding, crowded trail. Along the way the prospectors set up temporary tent towns.

That was just the first eighteen miles of their journey to the Klondike! They still had many more miles of rugged, unexplored Alaskan wilderness to negotiate after that.

If you look at this map of the Valdez area courtesy of The Milepost book you can see that there is still a large white glaciated area north of Valdez:


Points of interest = Trans-Alaska Pipeline and Terminal, Worthington Glacier, Valdez Glacier,
Thompson Pass, and Old Town Valdez. The green areas are public parks, forests, and preserves.

The dangerous gold trail over Valdez Glacier was later relocated through Thompson Pass and developed into a much more sane dog sled and wagon road called the Keystone Canyon Trail in the early 1900s. The Richardson Highway was built on/near that wagon road for automobile travel in the early 1920s, connecting Valdez to Fairbanks.

The discovery of copper in the Wrangell Mountains northeast of Valdez brought further development to the area in the early 1900s. Note the place names in the map above -- Copper River, Copper Center. Some silver was also mined near Valdez.


A large mural on a building in Valdez commemorates the All American Route to the Klondike gold fields.

One of the more interesting tourist attractions in the area is the old picturesque Kennicott Copper Mine near McCarthy (just off to the east on the map above). We didn't visit the mine on this trip because of the long drive over rough roads through Wrangell-St. Elias National Park to reach it but I'd like to see it someday.

A FASCINATING MIX

Valdez, a beautiful little seaport town with about 4,100 residents, was our first real destination point in Alaska. We stayed for three nights and got quite a bit done in the one afternoon and two full days we spent in the area. If more rain hadn't been predicted, we would have stayed longer.

This map section from the official state highway map shows the relationship of Valdez (below arrow I drew) to other popular tourist destinations in South Central Alaska:

The setting is simply stunning, especially when the sun is out.

Situated in a deep blue glacial fjord in the northern part of huge Prince William Sound, the little port town is surrounded by an estuary, water, and the 5,000-foot-high Chugach Mountains, which have some snow on them year-round:

We were surprised, however, to find more than a little snow at sea level in the middle of June.

At the visitor center we learned that Valdez averages more snow than any other sea-level town in the world. The average is 325 inches of snow each winter; this past winter they got 489 inches. Yikes!

Even in mid-June there is still snow on the ground in town in shady places at sea level and large, dirty piles of snow in vacant lots and parking areas where it was dumped to clear the streets:

 

Fortunately all the bright green grasses and leaves and colorful flowers look like spring-time. You should see all the dandelions! We're definitely in our Dandelion Time Warp in Alaska.

Imagine how bright it was along the bike path and Richardson Hwy. when all these dandelions were still blooming a few days ago:

Now they're just dandelion puffs, waiting for the wind and rain to spread their seeds so even more dandelions will come up next year.

Valdez is the northernmost temperate rain forest climate on this continent. In addition to all the snow, the town also receives an average of 64 inches of rain each summer so it's very lush by mid-June even after a harsher-than-normal winter:

Thick rainforest growth along the bike path (above) and
Dock Point Trail (below) looks almost tropical.

We enjoyed Valdez even though it was overcast and/or rainy more than sunny the short time we were there. You can see from the photos that we did have some sun.

It was raining lightly when we arrived on Thursday afternoon. Jim jokingly asked the woman at the visitor center when the sun comes out and she replied, "This is about as good as it gets!"

I have to admit that clouds often enhance scenery rather than detract from it:


View across Duck Flats from the Richardson Hwy. at the NE end of town

Don't let the prospect of either snow or rain deter you from visiting Valdez. Despite the chilly, damp climate we had a good time there and wish we'd stayed longer.

We managed to ride our bikes two days, do some hiking, walk all over the harbor and campground, drive to some interesting spots, and do some indoor activities. I'll cover all that on several pages so I can show you lots of pictures.

WELCOME TO THE NEW VALDEZ

Although it is no longer a port of entry for gold and copper seekers the town remains an important gateway to Interior Alaska. It offers the shortest link, via the Richardson Highway, to much of the state for cargo arriving by ship -- and for tourists traveling by ferry or wheeled vehicles.

Valdez is 304 highway miles from Anchorage (115 air miles) and 366 highway miles from Fairbanks.

If you're traveling in an RV allow plenty time for a trip to either city to or from Valdez because of road conditions and all the interesting things to see along the way.


View from the harbor area to the mountains "behind" the town

Several other significant historical events since the gold rush have shaped life in Valdez -- the five-minute, 9.2-magnitude Good Friday earthquake in 1964 that forced the town to relocate four miles south to its present location (and played havoc with several other Alaskan towns), the construction of the Trans-Alaska (AKA Alyeska) Pipeline and Marine Terminal in the 1970s, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, which also occurred on a Good Friday.

I'll talk more about the earthquake in a bit and show some photos of the original town site.


One of several panels of information displayed on the wall outside the Old Valdez Museum

Copper and gold mining play a more minor economic role now in Valdez than the oil, fishing, and tourist industries do.

Construction of the Alyeska Pipeline was completed in 1977. It runs 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska to the marine terminal in Valdez Harbor, where it is loaded into tanks or tanker ships.

We could see the pipeline in various places along the Richardson Hwy. as we were driving south to Valdez earlier this week but we really had to look for it. It's not an eyesore on this stretch of highway  (don't know about farther north).


Colorful fishing nets along South Harbor Drive

Both commercial and recreational fishing and boating are big businesses in Valdez, especially during the brief summer season. Many residents earn a living fishing or taking visitors out on sport fishing trips in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska.

We enjoyed seeing the fishing boats and fish processing centers around town:

Leisure craft also fill the small boat harbor.

Many Alaska residents have their own recreational craft and this is one of their favorite playgrounds. Prince William Sound is as gorgeous as it is huge. The scenery from the water is awesome, especially when there's as much snow in the surrounding mountains as there is this June:


Another view across the harbor to the mountains "behind" Valdez

Although we didn't go out on a boat trip from Valdez we enjoyed the views of the Sound from several vantage points.

We walked and rode our bikes along the paths and streets close to the ferry terminal, dock, and small boat harbor. We also had great views of the harbor and water from the overlook trail above the convention center and the ridge trail at Dock Point Trail:


This is another map from The Milepost book.

We got a different perspective of the port, harbor, town, and mountains on the northwest edge of town from South Harbor Drive (shown above) and Dayville Rd. (off this map) where the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery and pipeline terminal are located.

I'll show more harbor photos on another page in this series.

OLD TOWN VALDEZ

The unprecedented 1964 earthquake destroyed the original town, which was located four miles east of the current town. The 9.2 quake was centered in Prince William Sound. Massive underwater landslides caused tsunami waves that killed 33 people on the wharf. Seismic earth waves also wreaked havoc on residences and downtown.

This is one of the old photos of the town that is on display outside the Old Town Museum:

So much damage occurred and the ground remained so unstable that the Army Corps of Engineers determined the whole town must be relocated. Within four years all the residents had moved to the new town. Only 52 buildings from Old Town Valdez were able to be salvaged and moved to the new site.

This is why you don't see many historical buildings constructed before the mid-1960s in Valdez. Most of the newer homes and businesses are simple and functional. This is one of the more upscale neighborhoods I saw in town:

I rode through there on my bike to check out the Mineral Creek trails.

The advantage of relocating the entire town was being able to plan it in a less haphazard manner than most towns and cities evolve over time.

We drove out to the site of the original town. There are no buildings, just interpretive signs and the cement slabs where some buildings used to stand.

This was the location of the Post Office:

We read enough information and saw enough photos of the original town and the quake/tsunami destruction that we didn't go inside the Remembering Old Valdez Exhibit in the Valdez Museum annex:

Some of the information is displayed on the wall to the left of the entrance, above, and more interpretive panels are at the original town site.

The description of the detailed scale model of the town before it was destroyed sounds very interesting, as do the other exhibits, so I'd like to go into the museum if we ever return to Valdez. We just didn't have time to do everything on our list in two days.

Despite my knowledge of this history it was still a bit of a surprise to see tsunami warning signs along the streets and roads in and near Valdez:

The other signs that were interesting were the numbers mounted several feet above all the fire hydrants -- so they can be located during the winter when the town gets massive amounts of snow. We saw numbers as high as the 400s. That's a bunch of hydrants.

Next entry:  dozens of year-round activities to enjoy in Valdez

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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