(This story was published in the July 2012 issue of Rider magazine.)
Story and photos by Dennis Bible
When gold was discovered in the 1890s in the Klondike and later in Fairbanks, one of the fastest ways for prospectors to get to the gold fields was a steamship ride from San Francisco or Seattle to Valdez, Alaska. Once in Valdez, the hopeful prospector shouldered his 150- to 200-pound pack and started hiking up the 360-mile “Valdez Trail.” Roadhouses sprang up along the trail about a day’s walk from one another, offering food and shelter to the weary travelers. Most of the original roadhouses have since burned, rotted or been torn down for various reasons, but the few that survive to this day have a very rich history.
The old Valdez Trail is now the Richardson Highway, a paved, generally two-lane, 366-mile artery from Valdez to Fairbanks through the heart of Alaska, crossing the Chugach Mountains and the Alaska Range. Magnificent views of glaciers and the Alaska Pipeline are just a couple of the treats in store for travelers along this route, from Valdez on Prince William Sound to Fairbanks on the Chena River.
Knowing that some motorcycle riding friends were coming to Alaska for a two-week visit in the summer, we planned a five-day ride on the old Valdez Trail. Reservations for the Alaska State Ferry and lodging were made and we committed to roll out from our homes on the Kenai Peninsula on a Monday in late July. Wouldn’t you know, it was pouring rain. Nevertheless we rode 85 miles from Sterling, Alaska, to the Portage turnoff, then headed east up Portage Valley to the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. At 2.5 miles end-to-end, this is the longest combined Vehicle-Rail Road Tunnel in North America—the only land route from Whittier (a World War II supply port) to the rest of Alaska. Built in 1943, it was used solely for railroad service until 1998 when the Alaska Department of Transportation added a vehicle road deck that allows cars, trucks and motorcycles to alternately share the tunnel with trains.
Once in Whittier we grabbed a quick lunch and queued up to board the Alaska Marine Highway fast-ferry M/V Chenega to Valdez, via Prince William Sound and Bligh Reef, of Exxon Valdez fame. This boat is a twin hulled, 235-foot catamaran powered by four huge diesel engines driving four water jet pumps that give it a cruising speed of about 37 mph.
After riding the ramp down to the car deck, we had to tie the bikes down securely using ratchet straps and soft ties that we had brought along for this purpose. Passengers are not allowed on the car deck once the ship is under way, and the last thing you want on your mind when you feel the boat rocking is “How’s my bike?”
The three-hour ride to Valdez was smooth, and along the way we saw Bowhead whales, sea lions hauled out on their favorite rocks and a lone iceberg (called a growler). Once in the Port of Valdez, the scene took on a beautiful, surreal look as elegant, undulating wisps of mist and cloud partially shrouded the harbor and city. After docking, we unshackled the bikes and rolled into historic Valdez, Alaska, Mile 0 of the Richardson Highway. We took a quick tour of the downtown and waterfront area, caught a glimpse of the Alyeska oil pipeline terminal and loading facility across the bay, then headed north past the old Valdez town site that was destroyed during the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake. We stopped in Keystone Canyon to view and photograph beautiful Bridal Veil Falls (mile 13.9), then climbed up 2,678-foot Thompson Pass.
Heading down the north side of Thompson Pass we came to Worthington Glacier at mile 28. You can walk up and touch this one! Continuing north, at mile 56 we passed the old, original Tiekel River Lodge, now closed, one of the original Valdez Trail roadhouses. We were following the Alyeska Pipeline route, and would be seeing sections of the pipeline and pump stations (there are 12) for the next three days as we worked our way north to Fairbanks.
Our first overnight was at the Copper Center Princess Lodge overlooking the Copper River Valley and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, our newest and largest national park. We had only ridden 215 miles but it had been a long, wet, 12-hour day and we were ready for a break. The Princess Lodge is first class and a great jumping-off place for all the activities in the Copper River area.
On day two we were up and hungry after a good night’s rest. A two-mile ride took us to the jewel of the roadhouses on the Valdez Trail, the Copper Center Roadhouse, dating back to 1896 and currently operated by third-generation owners, Tom and Kim Huddleston. We had come for their famous sourdough pancakes, made fresh from a 150-year-old sourdough starter. These large, thin flapjacks have a special sour, sweet tang you’ll find nowhere else. Add ham, sausage, butter, molasses syrup and good coffee, and you’ll want to make this place your home. Tom even sent us on our way with three complimentary cups of his special sourdough starter.
After breakfast we headed north toward Fairbanks, with a short stop at the Gakona Roadhouse at mile 2 of the Tok Cutoff. This Roadhouse was established in 1904 and offers food, lodging and a tavern. Continuing up the Richardson Highway we passed the Sourdough Roadhouse at mile 147. It was established in 1903, destroyed by fire in 1992 and reopened in 1994.
We stopped for gas and water at the new Paxson Lodge at the junction of the Denali and Richardson Highways at mile 185. The original 1906 Paxson Roadhouse can be seen crumbling in the willows and alders across the road from the DOT yard at mile 185.5.
Looking at the remains of the old roadhouse, Mike reminisced about a winter long ago when he hitched a ride from Glennallen to Tok in the open bed of a hunter’s pickup truck. No big deal, except the temperature was 40 below zero. The only thing that kept him from freezing to death was a still-warm caribou carcass the hunter had just shot. Mike hugged that caribou until they got to the Old Paxson Lodge, where—covered with caribou hair—he bailed out of the pickup and hustled into the lodge, thawing out next to the wood stove while he waited for a better ride.
Climbing rapidly, we topped 3,280-foot Isabel Pass at mile 198 in a distinctly alpine setting at Summit and Fielding Lakes. Then we started our slow, winding descent along the Delta River, passing through the multi-colored talus slopes of Rainbow Ridge. Around mile 220 we found an opportunity to get “up close and personal” with the Alyeska Pipeline for pictures.
At mile 227.4 we came upon the original Black Rapids Roadhouse, built in 1902. Currently under restoration, the new Lodge at Black Rapids was built on the hillside above the original roadhouse and offers modern-day accommodations.
In sunny Delta Junction we took a break at the Visitor Center at the junction of the Richardson and Alaska Highways, where they have a good display of Alaska Pipeline equipment, giant mosquitoes, Alaskan gifts and helpful information about lodging in the Fairbanks area. Rika’s Roadhouse, built in 1910 at mile 275 is now a State Historical Park and offers overnight RV parking, camping, a restaurant, bakery and gift shop. It’s worth some time to check out the rich history of this huge roadhouse and 10-acre park on the banks of the Tanana River.
Since all the hotels and lodges in Fairbanks were booked up, we stopped for the night 13 miles from Fairbanks at the new Hotel North Pole in North Pole, Alaska. Yup, candy-cane light poles line Santa Claus Lane, and we were just two blocks from Santa Claus House, “Where the Spirit of Christmas Lives All Year Long!”
We met up again the next day for lunch at Chatanika Lodge, at mile 28.6 of the Steese Highway, right in the heart of the gold fields north of Fairbanks. Huge stacker dredges worked the creeks, streams and rivers here from the 1920s through the 1960s, leaving miles of gravel windrows produced by the giant machines. The second largest dredge in Alaska sits idle but imposing just across the road from the lodge.
After lunch we rode 60 miles east on the Chena Hot Springs Road to 100-year-old Chena Hot Springs Resort for a relaxing dip in 105-degree “Rock Lake,” a great dinner and a restful night’s sleep. This place has more going on than a Florida theme park and way too much to describe here.
The roadhouses along the old Valdez Trail are a large part of the wonderful and unique history of the gold rush era in North America’s “Last Frontier.” It is a rare and rewarding experience to be able to visit and explore these historical sites from more than 100 years ago. You find yourself looking down the trail for that weary prospector wearing a heavy backpack, eyes gleaming, breathing hard, and hurrying to make his fortune in the bonanza fields along the banks of the Chena River.
It was a two-day, 500-mile ride on the Parks Highway from Fairbanks to home on the Kenai Peninsula, past monolithic glaciers, rushing rivers, alpine lakes and the tidal flats of Cook Inlet. But with good riding friends, our Valdez Trail Roadhouse Run was still over all too soon.
Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel:
Chena Hot Springs Resort: chenahotsprings.com
Is that flag person signaling me to come up front? But there are several cars, trucks and RVs ahead of me. What’s up?
A little known fact is that the flaggers at the construction sites on our Alaskan roads and highways (as well as in Canada and the Yukon) actually do want the motorcycles up front when a pilot car is being used. The pilot vehicle operator is responsible for getting all the vehicles in their charge safely through the construction area, so when they’re leading the way they need to be able to see the motorcycles behind them in case one or more should encounter trouble in the loose, wet gravel and mud of the construction zone. If you are buried in the pack behind the coaches and fifth-wheel trailers and you go down, the pilot vehicle operator will never know to stop and take corrective action. It would be dangerous to be down and disabled with all those dump trucks and earthmovers lurching around in the dust and smoke.
For your own safety, and in cooperation with the road construction crews, take advantage of this policy by making sure the flaggers see you as you approach the construction zone. When I’m approaching a construction area, I pull out a little to the left of the lineup and flash my high beams to get the flag person’s attention. Sometimes I’ll park the bike and walk up to talk with the flag person if they don’t see me right away. But either way, I’ve always been allowed to move up to the front of the line. A side benefit to this is that there’s a whole lot less dust and dirt in the air if you’re right behind the pilot vehicle.
Of course, drivers have been known to take exception to this practice on occasion, and will take the first opportunity to accelerate and spray dirt and gravel on you as the pilot vehicle releases you. Watch out for this immature behavior. Otherwise enjoy one more of the many rewards of traveling by motorcycle in the 49th and largest state.