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Richardson Highway

(Alaska Route 4 and 2)

The Trail to the Goldfields
Valdez, Alaska to Fairbanks, Alaska
592 km, 368 miles

Northern Highways - Alaska, the Yukon & northern British Columbia

Richardson Highway Links

    Alaska's first highway remains one of its most spectacular. From sea level at Valdez, it climbs over the Chugach Mountains, along the dramatic Copper River, and finally through the broad, fertile Tanana Valley to Fairbanks, Alaska's second-largest city.

'Alaska's First Family' - a statue along the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks, Alaska     The highway's history goes right back to the Klondike Gold Rush, when thousands of people were trying to find the easiest way to reach the gold fields. In 1898, a U.S. Army exploration party under the command of Captain William R. Abercrombie did a rough survey of a route starting at Valdez. The following spring, work began on the 5-foot-wide pack trail that would eventually become the Richardson Highway.

    The following year, construction on a military telegraph network began. A crucial part of the network was a line from Fort Liscum, at Valdez, to Fort Egbert, at Eagle. Much of the pack trail was upgraded as part of that work. The trail was further improved in 1902 due to the rush to the new gold strike near what is now Fairbanks, and the current highway follows that route fairly closely. During that rush, the first permanent roadhouses were built along the trail. At least one of them, the Copper Center Lodge, is still operating (although in a newer building, constructed in 1932).

    In 1913, the Army sent a truck on a trip from Valdez to Fairbanks and back - it was able to make about 50 miles each day. Also that summer, the first civilian vehicle made the trip. On July 29th, Bobby Sheldon and three passengers left Fairbanks in a Model T Ford that he had shipped to Fairbanks by paddleweeler, and 4 days later they had successfully reached Valdez. Within a couple of years the use of trucks and automobiles on the road had became common. Now, you can travel along Alaska's gold route in comfort, on a paved, all-weather highway.

    Among the many sites of interest and possible stops along the highway are:

  • Keystone Canyon, one of the most challenging parts of the highway's construction, is also one of the most beautiful, with large waterfalls falling over the sheer cliffs.

  • as it goes through Thompson Pass, the highway recahes an elevation of 816 meters (2,678 feet), affording wonderful views of the valley and surrounding peaks.

  • the Worthington Glacier is the mostly easily-accessible glacier in Alaska - you can drive to within about 500 feet of the ice, and you can even walk along the edge of it.

  • a small park on the Tiekel River offers short walks and a great view of Mount Billy Mitchell.

  • the highway parallels the Trans-Alaska Pipeline for much of its length. Of note is one of the pump stations, which pushes the North Slope oil though the pipe with huge jet engines, and the bridge that carries it across the Tanana River.

  • mountain viewpoints are common.

  • the End of the Alaska Highway monument at Delta Junction.

  • Eielson Air Force Base sits right beside the highway and aerial tankers and jet fighters are often seen.

The waterfalls in Keystone Canyon near Valdez, Alaska are popular with photographers in the summer, and ice climbers in the winter.

    For visitors, both Fairbanks and Valdez offer many attractions and services, from tours of Prince William Sound and the Chena River to glacier and Arctic Circle flights. Hotels and restaurants are available in both cities to suit everyody's tastes and budgets.

    A major side-trip is available along this route, to one of Alaska's undiscovered gems. The community of McCarthy and the very impressive ruins of the Kennecoot Copper Mine are accessed via the Edgerton Highway and McCarthy Road, a total of 93 miles from the Richardson. Relatively few tourists venture into McCarthy, so the location offers a sense of solitude not available in many locations. As well as the historic mine, the community offers what some consider to be the finest flightseeing in Alaska.

    If you have questions about the Richardson Highway or any other routes, check the links below, or post your question on the Alaska Forum at TripAdvisor.

Richardson Highway Links

The Evolution of the Richardson Highway
From pack trail to scenic modern highway.

The Richardson and Steese Highways in 1931
A 24-page illustrated mile-by-mile guide to the highways, published in 1931, has been put online.

Links to a wide range of local information, from history to accommodations, transportation and outdoor recreation.

Delta Junction
A guide to the community and area.

Black Rapids Glacier
In 1937, the rapid advance of this glacier had people wondering if would destroy the Richardson Highway.

Lodge at Black Rapids
This new lodge at Mile 227.4, opened in 2009, is open year round.

Water's Edge Cottages
Located at Summit Lake, between Delta Junction and Glenallen.

A guide to the attractions and services in the community and surrounding area.