2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   TRIP NOTES FROM VALDEZ TO SUTTON-ALPINE:
 LOTS OF SCENIC GLACIATED MOUNTAINS

SUNDAY, JUNE 17

 
"The Glenn Highway runs along the Matanuska River . . . a National Scenic Byway
surrounded by glaciers, mountains, and broad vistas. You might see hawks, eagles, falcons,
and sheep from the many pull-offs and lookouts . . . The Matanuska Glacier is one of
the most dramatic glaciers you can see in Alaska from the road system."
 
~ snippets from one of the 2012 Bearfoot guides, a free Alaska travel magazine
 
 
We have read that the drive between Valdez and Anchorage, our next destination, is one of the most scenic in the entire state of Alaska, coursing through gorgeous valleys and over some low passes between the Chugach, Wrangell, and Talkeetna Mountain Ranges.

This is reportedly a favorite area of the professional photographers who take the pictures you see in enticing promotional materials for Alaska tourism. Now we know why.

If you were to fly from Valdez to Anchorage you'd be soaring over glaciers and ice fields most of the way. It's about twice as far to drive between the two cities but it's well worth the effort. You'll see many more details that way, including some of those glaciers.


View toward Worthington Glacier on the north side of Thompson Pass

The distance is short enough to cover in one day in an RV or passenger vehicle, a little less than 300 miles, but there are enough things we want to see that we are taking two days to make this drive. It would be easy to spend much more time in this area. We need to come back later this summer or on a subsequent trip to see some of the things we missed today.

This morning we retraced about 113 miles of the Richardson Hwy. back up to Glennallen. (We covered that section southbound last Thursday.) Then we traveled another 126 miles west on the Glenn Hwy. toward Anchorage, territory that was new to us.

Along the way we made lots of stops, including the village of Copper Center, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, overlooks above the Matanuska Glacier, and the Alpine Historical Park.


Our last view of the lengthy Matanuska Glacier and the beginning of its lengthy river valley

Tonight we're boondocking at a spacious turnout along the Glenn Hwy. near the Sutton-Alpine community. In the morning we have reservations for a tour of the popular musk ox farm cooperative near Palmer. By early afternoon tomorrow we'll be at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in northern Anchorage, where we plan to spend a couple of weeks.

That's the executive summary. For more details, read on.

This page covers the route from Valdez to Sutton-Alpine. I'll have separate entries for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the museum at Alpine, the musk ox farm tour, and the remainder of the drive to Anchorage through the Mat-Su Valley.

Sit back and enjoy the ride!

FROM HERE TO THERE

Like just about any drive through mountainous terrain the journey by road is significantly longer than the distance "as the crow flies." Usually that doesn't matter to us because the scenery along the road is so rewarding.

Here's a AAA map section of South Central Alaska showing our road route from Valdez to Anchorage highlighted in yellow:

The Richardson Hwy. is AK4; the Glenn Hwy. is AK1. I also highlighted some of the towns I'll mention in the text.

You can see what I meant about all the glaciers -- those white areas with blue lines in the Chugach Mountains north and west of Valdez. That's a huge amount of ice, some of it thousands of feet thick. Dark green areas are state or national parks. Light green areas are national forests.


Low clouds over the Chugach Mountains early this morning as we left Valdez;
the Richardson Highway follows the Lowe River closely for several miles.

We left our campground in Valdez about 8:30 this morning and arrived at our overnight parking spot about 5 PM. We spent a couple of hours at the national park visitor center, half an hour at the Alpine  historical museum, and had several shorter stops for various reasons, including photo ops and a lunch break.

We ran into a variety of weather today -- cool 40s F. in the morning to warm, sunny mid-50s F. in the afternoon, some sun, a few light sprinkles of rain, some mist, some blue sky, some overcast sky, and lots of interesting clouds.

The photos in this and the next two entries reflect that variety.


Some blue sky over a lake west of Glennallen on the Glenn Hwy.;  the Chugach Mtns. are in the distance.

Compared with the wet drive south to Valdez on Thursday, we had much better visibility today driving the other direction along the Richardson Hwy. We had great views that we missed a few days ago east to the Wrangell Mountains and on both sides through the Chugach Range.

Unfortunately we didn't get to see all of the Chugach Mountains along the Glenn Hwy. between Glennallen and Sutton because of some low clouds and rain but we saw enough of them to be duly impressed with their grandeur. By the time we got to the Matanuska Glacier area we could also see the Talkeetna Mountains to the north.


Another lake, more clouds, and some rain over the Chugach Mountains west of
Glennallen;  that snow looks like it is fresh, not what's been there all winter and spring.

We passed many streams, lakes, and wet areas again. What isn't white with snow is very, very green. 

We saw numerous wildflowers the entire way -- purple-blue lupines, pastel blue and pink vetch (sweet pea), bright pink fireweed, those ubiquitous yellow dandelions, and others.

Although we consciously looked for wildlife in the wetlands and edges of forests we didn't see much wildlife today except for birds.

KEYSTONE CANYON

Our first stop this morning was not intentional but it turned out to be somewhat educational.

Keystone Canyon is about 15 miles north of Valdez, a narrow canyon along the Lowe River with numerous waterfalls, rainforest vegetation, and historic trails. I wrote about it previously.

Several miles of the Richardson Hwy. are being repaved through the canyon, necessitating one-lane traffic with a pilot vehicle. We lucked out on our way to Valdez last week and didn't have to wait for oncoming traffic. This time we had a 15-minute wait with a group of other northbound vehicles that eventually numbered over a dozen.


Approaching Horsetail Falls on the left and Bridal Veil Falls up ahead
as we follow other vehicles through Keystone Canyon this morning

We came to a stop behind several other vehicles and a congenial flagman came over to my passenger window to let us know we'd have to wait 10-15 minutes.

As he stood there waiting for more vehicles to accumulate behind us we talked for a few minutes. Among other things he explained that the highway department was tearing up the old pavement and putting down new as quickly as possible since the summer season is so short.


It's no wonder this highway needs frequent repair, with a mountain stream flowing
right next to it.  But Keystone Canyon is the only place for a road to the town of Valdez.

I thought to myself, This is summer?? There's snow everywhere and it's 45 F. in the middle of June!

Meanwhile, the five people in front of us had gotten out of their rental car to stretch. They came back to our truck to ask the flagman questions about the trees and flowers along the side of the road.

One of the men jokingly asked if dandelions are the state flower. I've had the same thought, knowing full well that they aren't (forget-me-nots have that distinction). Dandelions are large and everywhere along the roads in the Yukon and Alaska. Jim says that this must be Dandelion Central, where the ubiquitous weed . . . er, wildflower . . . originated.


Lots of dandelions along the Richardson Hwy. north of Keystone Canyon

Soon Jim got out and talked with one of the men about their vacation itinerary.

The two couples flew to Fairbanks from Georgia with one of their grown daughters. They spent 13 hours in the small car yesterday driving to Valdez, spent just one night there, and now they're headed to Anchorage. They have only five days to see as much of Alaska as they can see by car, then they'll be on a cruise through the Inner Passage for a few days. When they reach Vancouver they'll fly back to Atlanta.

Whew! I can't imagne blitzing so fast through an area this large.

Above and below:  Two other pretty falls in Keystone Canyon

After we admired all the waterfalls and blue glacial melt water of the river through Keystone Canyon Jim and I talked about how thankful we are that we have the luxury of going slowly enough to see so much more than folks who have only a short time to spend in Alaska. Neither of us wanted to do that when we were working and had just one, two, or three weeks at a time for a vacation. Even with an entire summer we'll miss more things than we can possibly see and do.

And the cost to fly, rent a vehicle, stay in motels, buy meals, perhaps take a cruise up or down the Inside Passage . . .

Wow, thatís expensive. I donít think our fuel and camping expenses for the entire summer will cost that much. Of course, we also have wear and tear on the truck and camper and we have to buy food (we seldom eat out). But weíre saving $$$ by boondocking some places, staying at relatively inexpensive campgrounds all summer, and seeking free or inexpensive entertainment everywhere we go.


Some of the best "free" entertainment in Alaska is the unique scenery. This unusual hill is
close to the Glenn Hwy. east of the Matanuska Glacier. The Chugach Range forms a backdrop.

That said, if you have the desire and available play money to visit Alaska when you're still employed and/or have limited time for the trip, by all means do so.

Alaska is a fabulous destination. Putting it off until you're retired and have all summer may backfire on you for any number of reasons.

SCENES FROM KEYSTONE CANYON TO COPPER CENTER

The surface through Keystone Canyon wasnít nearly as rough today as it was on Thursday. We were able to keep up with the pilot vehicle this time and didnít bounce as much as before. I was able to get some photos of the various waterfalls but was shooting into the sun so my pictures don't do justice to the beauty of any of the falls we passed.  

The 2,500-foot climb to Thompson Pass was long but gradual:

.

On the other side of the pass we could see two glaciers prominently to the west (Worthington and 27 Mile):

By this time most years you can drive to a parking area near Worthington Glacier and take a short walk to it but the side road is still covered in snow this summer. That's one of the things I'd like to come back to do.

Driving through this area it's hard to believe it is June 17 and we're at only 2,500 feet elevation:

As we descended from Thompson Pass we got back into the "green zone" where it looks like spring again.

At MM 63-4 we could see the Trans-Alaska Pipeline for a little while. The white line in the next photo is the pipeline, not a stream:

Most of the 48-inch diameter pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to this area is above ground. Approximately the last 40 miles of it are buried near the Richardson Hwy., over Thompson Pass, and down to its terminus at the Port of Valdez.

At the time it was built in the mid-1970s the pipeline was the largest and most expensive privately funded construction project ever undertaken in the U.S. The booming "Pipeline Days" changed the landscape and economy of Alaska forever. The line is owned and operated by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, a consortium of several oil companies. One way Alaska citizens benefit directly is receiving an annual PFF (Permanent Fund Dividend) from oil tax revenues.

The clouds were higher today and we could see the peaks through the Chugach Mountains better than on Thursday. By the time we got to scenic Willow Lake at MM 87, however, the tops of the Wrangell Mountains were partly obscured by clouds:


Note the float plane on the other side of Willow Lake. There are numerous such planes in Alaska.

This turnout above Willow Lake is reportedly a good place to see the mountains reflected in the water when the sky is more clear than it was this morning.

There was minimal traffic on the Richardson Hwy. until we got close to Glennallen.  We were surprised about MM 70 to see the burned-out carcass of a travel trailer along the side of the road.  That got our attention. We assume a propane tank blew up.

Nope, no photo. We were past it before I could get my camera out and the lens open.

HISTORIC COPPER CENTER 

As we left the Chugach Mountains farther behind on the approach to Copper Center and Glennallen we entered the southern region of the vast Copper River Valley. We saw more of the wide river bed last Thursday, farther north along the Tok Cutoff, but we learned more about its history today.

During the last ice age a mile-thick glacier covered this area. When it melted a huge lake formed until it was drained by the Copper River. Now there are hundreds of streams and rivers and thousands of lakes in this part of Alaska.

Needless to say, it's a popular fishing area.

This region is the home of Ahtna Athabascans, one of ten or eleven Native Alaskan tribes that continue to live in Alaska. Glennallen is the largest town in the area. There are many small villages and settlements in the Copper River Valley with no local governments, just Native village councils.


View of Mts. Drum, Sanford, Wrangell, and other Wrangell-St. Elias peaks
from an overlook on the Richardson Highway above Copper Center

I mentioned the 1898 gold rush in the entries about Valdez. Gold wasn't the only valuable mineral discovered in Alaska. The Copper River gets its name from the enormous copper deposits in this region. Native Americans have traded copper for other goods for centuries. In the 20th Century one of the largest copper mines in the country, Kennecott, was located in what is now part of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

At MM 100 we turned east on the six-mile loop that runs through the little town of Copper Center, one of the Ahtna villages that is readily accessible to visitors. This loop was the original route of the  Richardson Hwy. until part of it was relocated to the west.

Lots of folks were fishing on the Klutina River. We passed a campground, various stores, a museum, a lodge, several houses, and a bike path.

The only place we stopped was near the Post Office to get a humorous photo I saw in The Milepost  (p. 480 of the 2011 edition) Ė an old outbuilding where a visitor from Valdez tacked a ďCity HallĒ sign as a joke years ago. The owners, whose house is very close, let it stand. Now itís a popular photo-op for visitors:

I regret that we didn't spend a little more time in Copper Center. As in other areas of Alaska, this little town has a unique blend of Russian Orthodox and Native Alaskan cultures. There is a small church that we didn't see with colorful painted fencing and traditional "spirit houses" in the cemetery.

We also missed the Copper Center Lodge, a roadhouse built in 1896 that is still in use today, and the Copper Center Museum with several century-old log buildings showcasing memorabilia from the great Copper Valley Gold Rush of 1898 (there isn't any gold in them thar hills, the prospectors discovered to their dismay). 

I'd like to see all of those places on a return visit to the area.

We came out on the current Richardson Hwy. at MM 106 and continued north for less than a mile before reaching the turnoff for the Wrangell-St. Elias NP visitor center and Ahtna Cultural Center. I'll show you pictures of that in the next entry. Here's a teaser:


Can you identify the scat?? (Fortunately, these are synthetic replicas!)

Then we returned to the Richardson Hwy. for a few more miles to Glennallen, where we turned left on the Glenn Hwy. and aimed west toward Anchorage.

Glennallen is in the middle of the Copper River Valley area. We couldn't see as much of the huge drainage area today as we did farther north on the Tok Cut-Off last week.

ALONG THE GLENN HIGHWAY

I was busy calling the Musk Ox Farm about our visit in the morning and missed most of the town of Glennallen, which has a population of fewer than 500 people; Jim said I didnít miss much. We had enough fuel and didn't stop for anything else.

We were warned by the MWR supervisor at Valdez Glacier CG about some rough and difficult road between Glennallen and Anchorage.

She was right. The road is rougher than we expected for such a busy highway but permafrost knows no bounds. We had lots of wavy road, patched areas of pavement, and three gravel breaks, one about half a mile long. Much of the pavement was just fine.

 
Storm above the Chugach Mountains west of Glennallen

Going west we climbed to 3,322 feet at Eureka Summit, back down several hundred feet, then up to 3,000 feet at Tahneta Pass. The grades were easy and the views south to the Chugach Mountains  were gorgeous when we could see intermittent sunshine glistening on the snowy peaks.

Much of the time low clouds obscured the views, however.

We were in forested terrain with numerous lakes but didnít see any caribou or moose. There were warning signs for both in several places.


King Mountain looms over the Matanuska River at MM 83.

The Milepost was very helpful in this section, as in every other section. We would have missed some features without it, such as the liquor store that also sells office supplies at MM 182. We think that is an interesting combination.

We also located Sheep Mountain, Pinnacle Mountain, and prominent pyramid-shaped King Mountain (above) with the help of the book.

MARVELOUS MATANUSKA 

We had several views of the Nelchina Glacier to the south but didnít stop for pictures. It was on Jimís side of the road, which is difficult for me to photograph while we're moving. (I frequently take pictures on my side while in transit and some turn out to be decent.)

We stopped at least three times, however, to view and photograph the Matanuska Glacier between MM 110-101. The views were pretty good even with some mist and low clouds.

The Matanuska Glacier is very different than the other glaciers weíve seen so far. This one was below us in the valley. We could see both the terminus (melt water where the Matanuska River begins) and the thick blue ice back into the valley for several miles.

The glacier is currently about 27 miles long. Eighteen thousand years ago it extended all the way to  Palmer. It has been fairly stable the last 400 years. There is a lot of black mud where the ice has recently receded and plants havenít grown yet:


Even in the mist we could see the black mud between the trees and the blue ice of the glacier.

We saw signs for some businesses that lead hikes to or on the glacier.

We could have driven closer to it if we'd been in just the truck but we didn't want to risk any nasty surprises with the Cameo. The Milepost said the side road is steep. We'll have to do more research about access and whether we can hike by ourselves to the glacier or only with a tour guide. I believe the only access point is through privately-owned Glacier Park, which charges a bundle to get close to the glacier.

There is a state recreation site above Matanuska Glacier at MM 101 with a campground and scenic rest area. That free viewpoint was one of our photo stops.


One of the places where we pulled off for great views of the Matanuska Glacier

At the recreation site the Edge Nature Trail leads through a boreal forest to glacier viewing platforms with interpretive signs. I wish now that we'd walked down there. We might go back since it's only a two-hour drive from Anchorage.

Overnight RV parking is allowed in both the rec site campground and rest area for a more reasonable fee than at the privately-owned Glacier Park CG.


Leading edge of the Matanuska Glacier;  that's pretty "cool" with the misty background.


Close-up from photo above

The glacier varies from two to four miles wide and continues to scour the valley as it gradually moves forward and recedes.

The Glenn Highway follows the Matanuska River downstream to Palmer. You can see how wide the glacier used to be as it gouged out the rock and dirt in the valley over the last 18,000 years:

 

ALONG THE MATANUSKA RIVER VALLEY TO SUTTON-ALPINE

Sometimes the Glenn Highway is high above the valley, sometimes close to the river (next two photos below). Itís a popular place for folks to fish, if all the vehicles at the turnouts are any indication.

Near its headwaters the Matanuska River is a pretty glacial blue and not running too fast. Farther downstream it is faster and more of a cement color from all the silt that is coming down with the mountain streams.

The 25-mile section between MM 91-66 was a different kind of challenge than the bumpy highway from MM 187 to 91 (numbering begins in Anchorage, so we were going "backwards").

It looked like an entirely different road Ė more narrow, more curves, right next to the trees or river, depending on how high we were.

Signs warn slower drivers (e.g., RVers) to move over when possible if five or more vehicles are following. Jim had to move over only once. A few vehicles piled up behind us in the last two miles of the narrow part of highway before a passing lane opened up; he couldnít pull over. The turnouts on that section tend to be very short or narrow.

That curvy section sure was scenic, though.

The best river and mountain views were on Jimís side so I missed getting pictures of most of them. They're in our memory bank.

OVERNIGHT RESPITE

There are lots of turnouts along this section of highway that are suitable for spending the night in an RV, especially if you have a small one. We considered several of them as we drove along.

The one we liked best, next to Long Lake near MM 85, was too crowded with fishermenís vehicles. Another before Caribou Creek (about MM 107) looked like it might be too cold and windy at a higher elevation but it sure had a great view.

Most of the turnouts on this highway as it follows the river are on the south (river) side. We found one at MM 62.8 that is on the south side but large enough to be off the road a ways. We continued farther to see if we could park overnight at either Granite Creek (too small) or the Alpine Historic Park in the town of Sutton-Alpine a mile farther west. Thereís a short paved bike trail between the creek and town.


Large turnout along the Glenn Hwy., with the Chugach Range in the background

We didnít see a good place to stay overnight in town. We turned around behind the historical park and stayed long enough to investigate the open-air museum featuring old equipment and concrete ruins of the Sutton Coal Washery dating back to 1920. I'll show photos of the old buildings and equipment in a separate entry.

Since weíre getting close to the musk ox farm we want to visit in the morning we decided to go back a mile to the rest area near MM 63. We parked with our door to the aspen forest. The Matanuska River is beyond it and out of sight. A no trespassing sign discouraged us from exploring in that direction.

There are lots of dandelions, yellow daisies, and pretty blue flowers in the grass out our door. Cody enjoyed some time outside the camper while we ate dinner.

About an hour after we got settled in a nice Class A motorhome parked along the trees behind us, facing the other direction.

Although we didnít talk to them we were glad to have the company; it makes us feel safer than if weíre alone or have neighbors in a passenger vehicle or junky trailer. [We saw them again the next day as we both approached Anchorage.]

At this rural pullout we are vacillating between no bars and four bars of strength on our Verizon cell phones, with extended service. Neither of us is able to get online with our MiFi card but we can make calls, if necessary. Jim was happy to discover he can get three NPR stations on the TV. He didnít have any TV reception in Valdez. You just never know . . .

Next entry:  a short visit to the USA's largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias

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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