Day three in Alaska began the same way, with rain. And just like the day before, the weather quickly improved and it became a magnificent day.
After breakfast we found a geocache along the picturesque Valdez Harbor located on Prince William Sound and at the foot of the Chugach Mountains. We set out on another long drive from Valdez to Fairbanks. Three hundred and sixty-three miles to be exact. Another long but fun filled day. By the way, we used the famous and invaluable Alaska travel planner/guide called “The Milepost” constantly during our travels. We highly recommend it to anyone planning a trip to Alaska.
We set off once again on the Richardson Highway, and headed up and over Thompson Pass. As we crossed we could see the tall snow poles which snowplows use as guides. They were as tall as light poles! Fortunately this time we crossed without the fog. Along the way we passed many gorgeous waterfalls such as Bridal Veil and Horsetail Falls as we drove through Keystone Canyon. We can see why this area is nicknamed “The Land of Waterfalls “. The road is also known as “The Adventure Corridor “.
We continued on to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. This park has the country’s largest glacial field and at 13.2 million acres is our largest national park. Yes, larger than Denali or Yellowstone! In fact it would hold SIX Yellowstone parks! It holds nine of the 16 tallest peaks in the United States. Much of the park is wild, isolated and inaccessible by road so is best viewed by boat or air. It wasn’t established as a national park until 1980. With a long drive ahead we stopped at the Visitors Center and saw their movie about the park and continued on.
We had great views of the Trans-Alaska pipeline from Valdez to Fairbanks. Oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska in 1968 and by 1977 the Pipeline had been laid. The pipeline carries oil 800 miles from Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean to the pipeline terminus at Port Valdez. We stopped at several viewing areas with informational boards during our drive. We were surprised at how the pipeline snaked along, sometimes on the right, sometime on the left, sometime above ground and sometimes below. This mainly depends on soil conditions. Where the warm oil would cause the icy soil to thaw and erode, the pipeline is above ground. If the frozen ground is mostly well-drained gravel or solid rock and thawing is not a problem, the pipeline is underground. The zigzag pattern often seen, as well as Teflon coated crossbeams, allows for pipe expansion or contraction due to temperature changes or movement caused by such things as earthquakes. The pipeline has an earthquake detection system where ground accelerometers at pump stations measure earth movement. There are computers to identify and check important supports, valves and other such items after an earthquake. The pipeline design was tested in November, 2002 by a large 7.9 earthquake. Today the Pipeline carries less oil but over the last 40 years has transported over 17 billion barrels of crude oil to Valdez. Oil output peaked in 1988 at two million barrels of oil per day. At this rate it took 4.5 days for the oil to travel from one end to another. After the Pipeline was completed in 1977, some workers settled in small towns around the state and the population grew. The infrastructure created by the Pipeline has had a lasting economic impact, especially due to the taxes levied on oil allowing the state of Alaska to increase spending on various needs.
As the day wore on we began to bemoan the fact that in our travels we had not seen any wildlife. Lo and behold shortly after that conversation, up ahead on the side of the road was a moose. Just casually sauntering along the roadway. We slowed down and he looked over at us as if to ask, “What are you looking at? “ I bet he was thinking, “Gee, more crazy tourists! “
Delta Junction Visitor Center was a nice rest break for us later in the afternoon. This is the official end of the Alaska Highway. The Alaska Highway was finished during WW II and begins in Dawson Creek, British Columbia and end 1,422 miles later in Delta Junction. In the early 1940’s soldiers built the road in below zero temperatures in winter and muddy conditions in the summer. Many African American troops worked on building the road.
We also passed Eielson Air Force Base but they had signs along the highway prohibiting the taking of photographs. I did read in The Milepost that the runway there is 14,507 feet to accommodate B-36 aircraft and is the second longest runway in North America.
Our last stop of the day before reaching Fairbanks was at the town of North Pole (pop 2,117). Not THE North Pole but just a town. Supposedly the town was named North Pole in the hopes it would attract tourism and perhaps a toy manufacturer. It didn’t work. We stopped there for a quick dinner at a fast food restaurant where it appeared they had a large group of teenagers hanging out looking for trouble. I blame in part the restaurant manager who could control such behavior if he cared or tried. Anyway, all the light poles are decorated like candy canes. We took a picture of Santa Claus at Santa’s House. It would have been fun to stop by the post office and have something postmarked North Pole. I didn’t think about it at the time. Frankly the town with the candy cane light poles and street names like Rudolph, Santa Claus Lane and St Nicholas Drive seemed tacky and overdone. Anything for tourism and a buck.
We ended the day pulling into the hotel after another 12 hour day. Really tired and really happy with everything we had seen today. As we thought about the day, we reflected on the roads we easily traveled today and the conditions workers encountered as they built those roads over glaciers, icefields and danger of avalanches in sub zero weather and much less than ideal conditions.
Next up: Two days in Fairbanks