Alaska - Western Canada Journey

Day 16

Palmer To Valdez


Day 16 was supposed to be just about driving from one place to another. Of course we did have to make the drive from Palmer to Valdez. However, what we did not expect was the great sceneries along the way. Both Glenn Highway and Richardson Highways offered majestic views of the Chugach Mountains and their glaciers, with the section of Richardson highway near Valdez offering among the top scenic road views we have ever seen - roadside glaciers, high mountains and waterfalls seemingly coming down from the clouds. The intended visit to Wrangle-St. Eilas National Park was much shorter than expected due to lack of access. On the other hand, we saw salmon runs for the first time, witnessing the brutal law of nature in the process. Once again, the day ended with pouring rain!

Day Journal

After an exhausting long day the day before, we took our time getting out of the motel. A good night sleep and a big breakfast helped replenish our energy. Our road to Valdez would take us through a stretch of Alaska Highway 1 to Glennallen. From there, we'd take Alaska Highway 4 to Valdez, with the intention to stop and hike at the Wrangle - St. Elias National Park.

Glenn Highway (Alaska Highway 1) - Palmer to Glennallen

From Palmer, Glenn Highway was just like any other freeway, with many lanes, relatively straight and plenty of traffic. However, it soon became a two-lane road climbing up steep mountains and down to valley floors with many twists and turns requiring steady hands and eyes on the road. There were a few turnouts offering views of panoramic views the Chugach Mountains, and distant view of the Matanuska Glacier. Glenn Highway with its beautiful sceneries was also designated a national scenic byway. Although we did not have time to visit, Matanuska Glacier is accessible and would be a fun place to visit and walk on the glacier per descriptions we found. At some places, erosions of mountainsides revealed multi-colored hillsides due to the presences of a variety of minerals in the area. The final section approaching Glennallen was relative straight and downhill with few things to see, except the view of Mount Drum dominating the skyline directly in front of us, with the moutain first appearing as a small object in the horizon, and gradually filled up the entire skyline.

Wrangle-St Elias National Park

We stopped by the main visitor center located on Richardson Highway a short drive from Glennallen, which double duty for us as a long rest stop. Incredibly, this park is the largest of the US national parks, with the size six times that of Yellowstone NP. Connecting with Canadian Kluane National Park and others which together forming a World Heritage Site of over 24 million acres, this is one of the world's largest internationally protected area. Ten of 15 highest peaks in North America are located in this park, with four different mountain ranges converge here. Copper is the main resource in the park, with mining still going on today. Being so remote and with no real access roads, future generations will likely still be able to have adventures exploring this park which includes backpacking, hiking, mountaineering among others. After speaking with the ranger, we found that exploring the park is quite limited due to lack of access road. Most sightseeing can be done by chartered airplanes at several cities and towns. A 3-hour drive on dirt road would take us to Kennecott Visitor Center, but with enough caveats listed by the ranger we spoke with, we decided to reconsider whether to make that side tour later. At the end, we settled with attending a short ranger walk and watching a park movie.


Richardson Highway to Valdez

The drive to Valdez from the national park was tame to begin with, but as we approached Valdez, the road wound its way up Thompson Pass with the now familiar mountain vista of Alaska coastal regions. Probably due to the Chugach Mountains blocking the clouds, we encountered the rain as soon as we entered the mountainous region. The cloud covered peaks created an illusion of extremely high peaks above the cloud. There were endless streams flowing down the mountainsides, and with the cloud covering the top, they seemed to come down from the sky. We also encountered a roadside glacier called Worthington Glacier. Unlike Mount Drum that gradually revealed itself and thus not shocking us, nothing prepared us for the view of Worthington Glacier that almost suddenly appear at the end of the road. We stopped several times to take pictures of the glacier before reaching it, not knowing that soon thereafter, we could actually drive to a viewing platform right at the base of the glacier just a short way from the highway. As we neared Valdez, we entered a narrow canyon called Keystone Canyon with wildflowers clinging to the vertical rock cuts on the side of the highway. We were also treated with nice views of Bridalveil and Horsetail Falls behind the mist and cloud, creating an even more mystical sense. On the way down to town, we spotted a lone trumpeter swan swimming in a small pond. Although not designated as a national scenic byway, this drive was among the most scenic for us. Our attempts to capture natural beauties could not do justice to what we experienced in person.



We arrived in Valdez late in the day thanks to the many stops along the way as usual. The town was surrounded by the Chugach mountains, giving it a picturesque setting. With the mountains shrouded in low clouds and fogs, the scenery looked very much like those out of Lords of the Ring. Despite also being a place that cruise ships frequent, it retained its character without being overly touristy like Homer. It was nice and clean, with smaller RV parks than those in Homer or Seward. I was surprised to find a small convention center in town. Like Seward and Homer, there were ample of tours and activities for all energy levels.

A quick check with decent looking motels was clear to us that most of them were full. Finally, by suggestion of a motel clerk, we found a motel that looked from the outside like stacked together ship containers. It turned out that the motel still had a few rooms left, so we asked for the key to check out the room. The corridors matched our impression of the exterior - narrow, square, and loud/squeaky floors. The room was quite utilitarian, plain, small but functional. Given the downpour outside, we were in no mood of searching further and decided to take the room. It was a good thing we did, since soon thereafter, we saw the no-vacancy sign! I seldom think much about places we stay overnight, except there is something unique about them such as the B&B in Anchorage at the high end, and this motel that reminded me of boot camp days.

Spawning salmons

Valdez Marine Terminal Access Road

Having secured the room and eager to look for wildlife, we backtracked our drive part way to go to the Valdez Oil Terminal road since there had been reports of grizzly bears and eagles. The drive was fun, with Prince Willam Sound on one side and mountains on the other and many waterfalls along the way. The rain let up some, but the search for wildlife was fruitless. There must be some side road that people took to catch glimpses of wildlife because I could not imagine bears would venture out to this high traffic road. I could be wrong since I saw posted signs warning about encountering bears. Our hope to see the southern oil terminal did not materialize since the road was closed to public traffic a few miles from the terminal. After gazing at the oil terminal from afar, we made a u-turn to go back.

Suddenly, we saw many seagulls circling a small stream and fighting each other. Curious, we stopped along the road and found them pecking at something in the stream when they were not fighting. Upon closer look, we got really excited since we then saw them pecking at salmons trying to make their way further upstream. It was a mesmerizing scene even though too cruel for my taste. I understand the law of nature and the circle of life, and thus accepted the fact that seagulls kill to survive. However, what we saw was beyond killing to survive. It seems that these seagulls just killed. Right after killing one salmon, a seagull would leave it and go after another one. After taking several pictures under suboptimal condition due to the rain and low lights, we went on our way, shaking our heads at what we had just seen. Nevertheless, we were still quite excited to see salmon run for the first time.

Seagull and salmon

Valdez Glacier

On the way back to town, we made a detour to see Valdez Glacier. The road was not well maintained and this glacier was not as well known as others such as Worthington or Matanuska glaciers. However, it was the first glacier we found that emptied into a lake with small icebergs floating about. I managed a few pictures, again under suboptimal conditions. The following morning, we inquired about kayaking tours on Valdez Glacier Lake, but due to the rainy condition, there was no tour offered. It would have been exciting to kayak next to icebergs and explore ice caves.

In town, we did not want to wait in line for a meal and so opted for a fast food fish and chip dinner. It was surprisingly good to us, perhaps thanks to being hungry after a full day of activities.

All photos in and around Valdez are included in the Valdez photoset.

Roads and Weather

The roads from Palmer to Valdez were great, with mountainous sections requiring careful handling but nothing out of the expected.

The weather was overcast most of the way, and turned nasty as we approached Valdez. It stayed wet through the entire time we were in Valdez causing us to cut short our stay.

External Links

Glenn Highway

Wrangle-St. Elias National Park official site, tourist information

Richardson Highway

Worthington Glacier official site, additional information

Valdez dedicated tourist site, more travel info

Valdez Marine Terminal official site

Valdez Glacier hiking tours