On our second day in Alaska we woke up in Seward to the sound of rain. It was not an encouraging sign for our long drive from Seward to Valdez. We got dressed, had breakfast, loaded the car and headed out. We had an eight hour drive ahead of us, not counting stops for breaks, eating and sightseeing. Since we wanted to cram as much of Alaska into our time here as possible, and with two drivers it was doable.
We started back up the Seward Highway which is both an All-America Road and a National Scenic Byway. It is easy to see why. Driving back towards Anchorage we passed through tiny towns with names such as Moose Pass. We passed many signs warning to watch for moose but to our disappointment we never saw any wildlife.
The further we got from Seward the better the weather became so as we approached Anchorage the sky was clearing and the sun was peeking through. To our relief it looked like the weather was on our side. We stopped for lunch at an overpriced restaurant. By day two we realized all the food in Alaska is expensive. Groceries as well as restaurant food is much more costly than we are used to paying in the lower 48.
We stopped at the Matanuska Glacier and State Recreation Site for a view of the Matanuska Glacier. It is so hard to capture the beauty in pictures! This glacier is the largest road accessible glacier in North America. It is four miles wide and extends for many miles back into the Chugach Mountains.
It was getting late afternoon by the time we turned off Glenn Highway onto Richardson Highway, the last leg of our drive to Valdez. Richardson Highway was the first road built in Alaska and ties together many different highways.
It was hard to believe possible but the scenery became even more amazing with waterfalls after waterfalls cascading down from the mountains. Between the spring thaw and the recent rainfall, they were gorgeous. But along with the beauty came increasing clouds and the threat of more rain. Along the way we had our first glimpse of the great Alaskan Pipeline. We will have more about the waterfalls and Pipeline in the next blog.
As we began the long climb up Thompson Pass, elevation 2,678 feet, the temperature dropped to 46 degrees and a heavy fog blanketed the summit. In winter this pass averages fifty feet of snow and feeds the ice fields from which glaciers flow. We crept over the top and as we descended the fog began to clear as we dropped almost to sea level. It had been eleven hours since we left Seward and we were beginning to count the miles to Valdez.
Valdez is nicknamed “Switzerland of Alaska” because it is ringed by snow capped mountains. Like Seward, there really isn’t that much to do in Valdez unless you love to fish. Valdez is definitely more about the journey rather than the destination. After checking into the hotel we drove around the harbor but the fog definitely distracted from the beauty.
Valdez was the jumping off point for the 1898 Alaska Gold Rush. Many residents arrived during the oil rush boom of the 1970’s and 1980’s but over the years the town has seen a decline in population. Since Valdez is the northernmost ice free port it is the end of the Alaska Pipeline.
Valdez has suffered two unfortunate events. On Good Friday, 1964, a 9.2 earthquake struck Alaska. It was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America. Known as “The Great Alaska Earthquake, it killed 32 people in Valdez alone and the entire town was destroyed. The town was then moved four miles from the end of the harbor to a safer location.
In 1989 Exxon Valdez dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into nearby Prince William Sound, the largest oil spill in North American history. Located just 25 miles from Valdez, the town became the center of clean up efforts.
Valdez is also known as the Snow Capital of Alaska. In the winter, with an average annual snowfall of 25 feet per year, houses can be buried up to their eaves in snow. It is usually early summer before the massive piles of snow heaped into mounds in the center of town is melted.
We were really tired so after looking around the town and eating dinner we fell into bed and fell asleep the minute our heads hit the pillows.
Next up: Waterfalls, the Alaska Pipeline and the drive to Fairbanks