The Richardson Highway is Alaska's oldest and longest highway. Not surprisingly, it is also the best connected; you can access the Edgerton/McCarthy, Glenn, Slana-Tok, Denali, and Alcan Highways from the Richardson.
Before the shorter Parks Highway (Anchorage to Fairbanks, 362 miles) was completed in the early seventies, the Richardson (along with the Glenn, 435 miles from Anchorage to Fairbanks) was the only route between Fairbanks and Anchorage. When the Parks Highway opened, the Richardson experienced a "dying off" of businesses as the traffic decreased. While there has been a resurgence along the Richardson in more recent years, you can still see a number of closed properties and abandoned buildings.
From the perspective of someone who lives in Anchorage, the Richardson splits in two at Glennallen (Mile 115), where you turn north to go to Fairbanks (Mile 362) and south to go to Valdez (Mile 0).
Valdez to Glennallen
Valdez to Worthington Glacier
Mile 0 of the Richardson is actually four miles out of Valdez. This is a result of the tidal wave destruction that occured after the 1964 earthquake. After the quake, Valdez was rebuilt four miles from the original townsite.
From Mileposts 13 to 16 the highway winds through dramatic Keystone Canyon, carved by the Lowe River. Part of the drama is due to the beautiful waterfalls and cascades that plunge down the steep canyon walls.
A few miles past Keystone Canyon the highway climbs a steep grade to the summit of Thompson Pass (2,678 feet) at Mile 26. This is a beautiful area above treeline, dotted with wildflowers and inviting to hike. The landscape shows all the features of recent glaciation including a number of lakes. Blueberry State Recreation Site is as Mile 24.
Be aware that Thompson Pass is an area of extreme snowfal that may melt off later than other areas. We once drove to Valdez in June, planning to camp at Blueberry Lake, and found the entrance to the campground still blocked with snow. The Milepost has this interesting paragraph on page 458 of the 2004 edition: "The National Climatic Center credits snowfall extremes in Alaska to the Thompson Pass station, where record measurements are: 974.5 inches for the season (1952-53); 298 inches for the month (February, 1953); and 62 inches for the 24-hour period (December, 1955)," That's a lot of snow!
At Mile 26 is Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site. This is not a campground but an excellent place for glacier viewing. Note: Do not approach the glacier too closely; visitors have been killed by ice calving off the front of glaciers. It is also unsafe to walk on glaciers without special equipment due to the danger of falling in a crevasse.
Worthington Glacier to Glennallen
With the exception of a few short bits of boring "green tunnel" as you near Glennallen, the next segment of the drive offers interesting scenic vistas of mountains and rivers. Squirrel Creek State Recreation Site is a pleasant little campground at Mile 79.
At Mile 82 is the junction with the Edgerton Highway which runs 33 miles to Chitina on the Copper River. (Contrary to a number of similarly spelled Alaskan place names, this town is pronounced CHIT na, not Chi TEE na.) From there, the unpaved McCarthy Road gives access to McCarthy and the old Kennicott Mine, a National Historic Site. Note: the McCarthy Road is rough and has no services. Even thought it's less than 60 miles, expect to take at least three hours ONE WAY and it should not be attempted without AT LEAST one regular sized spare tire on a good rim. (See pictures below.)
As you leave the mountains you begin to get some dramatic views to the east of the Wrangell Mountains. My favorite stop is the Willow Lake pullout at Mile 88. The lake serves as a reflecting pond and interpretive signs help you identify the volcanic peaks you can see on the clear day: Drum (12,010 feet), Sanford (16,237 feet), Wrangell (14,163 feet), and Blackburn (16,390 feet).
At Mileposts 100 and 106, a segment of old highway makes a loop to Copper Center.
At Milepost 106.8 is the Wrangell-St. Elias Visitor Center and Park Headquarters, where there are wonderful exhibits, nature films, nature trails, bathrooms, and a bookstore. A life-sized replica of a wooden fish wheel used down the way on the Copper River sits in front of the building.
At Mile 115 is the junction with the Glenn Highway to Anchorage. Travelers headed from Anchorage to the Alcan Highway drive on the Richardson for the next 14 miles to Gakona Junction and the Slana-Tok Cutoff at Mile 128. The junction with the Glenn Highway is fairly conspicuous because it occurs in the middle of Glennallen, but there are only a couple of buildings at Gakona Junctions and travelers must be on the lookout for this turn.
Glennallen to Fairbanks
Glennallen to Paxson
The Richardson crosses the Gulkana River at Mile 127 near where it empties into the Copper River. The highway loosely parallels the river for the next part of the drive. The Gulkana is a National Wild and Scenic River and popular destination for fishing and float trips.
The first half hour or so out of Glennallen is boring "green tunnel," except that southbound travelers get some distant views of the tall peaks of the Wrangell Mountains. Then the highway gets interesting again as it climbs toward the Alaska Range. Numerous small lakes are typical of the terrain left behind after glaciation. Caribou migrate through this area at certain times and one fall we were lucky enough to see a few animals cross the highway, probably members of the Nelchina herd.
There are two BLM campgrounds on this stretch of road: Sourdough Creek at Mile 147 and Paxson Lake (a large lake) at Mile 175. Both campgrounds have boat launches and are connected by the Gulkana River.
At Paxson (Mile 185) is the junction with the Denali Highway. At one time this was the only access to Denali National Park and Preserve, which is now most easily accessed from the Parks Highway.
Paxson to Delta Junction
Isabel Pass (3,280 feet) is my favorite part of the Richardson Highway. There are hills, mountains, rivers, lakes and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to enliven the views. In the Paxson area, the Gulkana River rushes down a narrow canyon. The highway winds around Summit Lake (Miles 191 to 195). After crossing the divide at Mile 197, the road follows the Delta River, another National Wild and Scenic River, to the town of Delta Junction at the conflluence with the Tanana River.
When I was a child, my mother took me and my brother and sister on a trip up the Richardson. It was probably the late '50s. I don't remember why or where all we went, but Isabel Pass was burned into my memory. I was completely enchanted. I also recall that Black Rapids Glacier (viewpoint Mile 225) was still a big deal in the minds of adults at that time as my mother told me the story of how it came to be nicknamed "the galloping glacier" after surging forward 3 miles during the winter of 1936-37. It may be retreating now but it will always be the galloping glacier to me. On a more recent trips through Isabel Pass, I spent a pleasant hour in a roadside ditch identifying wildflowers and a sunny afternoon on the rock dike at the Donnelly Creek State Recreation Site (Mile 238) watching the water sparkle in one of the Delta River's many braided channels..
Another personal Isabel Pass story: I attended the University of Alaska in Fairbanks in the early '70s. The Parks Highway did not open until my junior or senior year, so my friends and I would make the long drive up the Richardson from Anchorage. I was one of the few who had a car (don't get me started on stories about trying to keep a car going during a Fairbanks winter!) so every trip back and forth I would have four young men (one of whom I later married) wedged into my 1967 Mustang. Every fall, these young men would offer to change my tires to snow tires for me. And I would always say, "No, I need to be good at changing tires, because some day I may have a flat tire in Isabel Pass," this being the worst flat tire disaster I could imagine. Well, I may have hexed myself, because sure enough, one winter a front tire blew as we were driving through Isabel Pass. The road was icy and we had a few hair-raising moments skidding across both lanes while I fought to get the car back under control. Ironically, it was my four passengers who jumped out and changed the tire. But I could have.
One of our favorite stops is the pulloff at Mile 243 at the north end of the pass. You get a close-up look at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and Mt. Hess (11,940 feet) as it looms across the Delta River.
Delta to Fairbanks
The Highway crosses the Tanana River, a large tributary of the Yukon, at Big Delta and then follows it to Fairbanks. There are good views of the river at Mileposts 288 and 294.On a clear day you have a sweeping view of the Alaska Range to the south, including three standout peaks from east to west: Hayes (13,1832 feet), Hess (11,940 feet), and Deborah (12,339 feet).
The last hour of driving into Fairbanks is boring "green tunnel." There are recreational opportunities at Birch Lake State Recreation Site (Mile 305), Harding Lake State Recreation Area (Mile 321), and Chena Lakes Recreation Area (Mile 346). The latter area is part of the Chena River flood control project. Another point of interest is the Santa Claus House in North Pole at Mile 349.
Richardson - Parks Loop
An excellent way to have a great road trip through a lot beautiful scenery without any backtracking is to drive one direction on the Parks Highway and the other on the Richardson and Glenn Highways.