Riches to the south

Weekend Wanderlust

Jamie Hazlett / Sun Star Columnist
April 26, 2011

It is a frequent pleasure of mine to hop in the car and drive south along the Richardson Highway toward Delta Junction. This might sound odd, but the river-edged panoramas the route offers make the trip well worth the time and gas money. This summer, with fuel prices expected to peak at more than $5 a gallon, many of us will be searching for cheap getaways.  With thrift in mind, we hit the Richardson, your short route to the sea and places in between.

At the far end of the highway is Valdez, a city that seems to be clinging to the surrounding cliffs for dear life. The final section of switchbacks leading into town offer stunning views and, when there’s a semi behind you, compulsive nail biting. The eye candy doesn’t end once you reach your destination, especially if you invest in a wildlife- or glacier-viewing tour of Prince William Sound. I still have fond memories of a trip my family took with Lu Lu Belle Cruises when I was five. Despite having taken several similar tours since from a variety of companies and in several places along the Alaska coastline, the Lu Lu Belle experience remains my favorite for its small size and knowledgeable staff. Fishing for pink salmon is a great activity for anglers or anyone who enjoys freshly caught seafood. On your way in or out of town, don’t miss Worthington Glacier or the Horsetail and Bridal Veil falls, all of which are great photo opportunities.

Midway between Valdez and Glennallen is the turn onto the Edgerton Highway, which heads towards the historic McCarthy mining area. This area, including the surrounding Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the largest in the country, is well worth a visit if you have the time. Services are relatively sparse in the McCarthy area, so do your research and plan. Chitina, known by most Fairbanksans as a place to dip-net for salmon, is also located along the Edgerton.

Glennallen is more than just the junction of the Richardson and Glenn highways. The Aspen Interpretive Trail offers a short, one-mile jaunt through the forest near town along an easy, clearly marked path that is suitable for virtually all ages and abilities. As with any occasion when you’re out in Alaska, keep your bug dope handy and your eyes peeled for wildlife. Give a nod to the 40-year anniversary of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that established the first Alaska native corporations, with a visit to the Ahtna Cultural Center.

The Paxson Lake area is great for fishing, wildlife viewing, camping and hiking. Bear sightings have been common in this area in the past, so stay alert. The drive between Paxson and Delta Junction is a scenic overload, with sweeping valleys rushing to meet ice-covered peaks. The 60 miles or so just south of Fort Greely are especially amazing in late summer and early fall, when the alpine tundra turns the brilliant red that our trees can’t quite manage. As you approach Delta, watch for caribou and wild bison. On the north side of town, you’ll find the historic Rika’s Roadhouse and Quartz Lake. The lake is gorgeous year-round, and summer visitors can rent small watercraft right on the lakeshore. Hiking, volleyball, camping, fishing and numerous other activities make Quartz Lake a destination that everyone will enjoy. Closer to Fairbanks is Harding Lake, which offers some of the same activities as Quartz without as long of a drive.

The road south might look empty on a map, but that is one of its many charms. A sense of isolation has given the communities that do exist along the way a unique air, something that is becoming rare in our ever more connected world. Don’t let gas prices – or anything else, for that matter – keep you from experiencing one of the most breathtaking highways in existence.

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