(2nd in a series of 3 posts on Alaska travel)

From Denali we drove our 21-foot RV as far north as Fairbanks. Soon after leaving Denali the land flattened out as we drove through low-growth forest along lenghty stretches of straight roads. Fairbanks is the largest city in Alaska’s interior, with a population of about 32,000, at the confluence of the Chena and Tenana Rivers. The White Mountains and the Yukon River lie to the north.  The air was crisp and cool as we pulled into town on a late August afternoon.

We saw a spectacular exhibit on the northern lights at the Museum of the North on the campus of the University of Alaska. We learned why it was so difficult for us to see the lights during our trip, though we heard a number of other travelers raving about having seen them. The northern lights normally strut their stuff around midnight or a little after, hours when we were apparently dead to the world. Ellen and I discussed setting our alarm to wake us up around 1:00 a.m., but by bedtime we could not bring ourselves to do it. Such weakness.

The Northern Lights from an exhibit at the Museum of the North, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

The Northern Lights from an exhibit at the Museum of the North, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

 

Fairbanks sits a few miles northwest of North Pole, a small town we passed through along the Richardson Highway on our way to Valdez. The polar North Pole is considerably farther north. Santa Claus House is a major family attraction in North Pole, Alaska, only five blocks from # 1 Santa Claus Lane! 

Santa Claus House in North Pole, Alaska, a store that's a major stop for families driving through. (Source: San Diego Reader.)

Santa Claus House in North Pole, Alaska, a store that’s a major stop for families driving through. (Source: San Diego Reader.)

A few days later, after seeing dazzling snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, and rushing creeks and rivers swollen by rain, we stopped at Worthington Glacier along Richardson Highway about thirty miles north of Valdez. We were at eye level with the glacier, up close and standing on bare ground where ice had been several yards thick in photos of the recent past. The loss of ice was dramatic and to a considerable degree foreboding, even in 2003 when we were there. 

Worthington Glacier north of Valdez, with Ellen standing where the glacier  once stood. We drove away with a foreboding feeling.

Worthington Glacier north of Valdez, with Ellen standing where the glacier once stood. We drove away with a foreboding feeling.

Soon we drove into Valdez in south central Alaska. Surrounded by extraordinary natural beauty, this was one of the poorest looking towns we had ever seen, with run-down buildings, mangy dogs roaming aimlessly, and a down-at-the-heels look in every direction. Valdez is the southern terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline that goes to Prudhoe Bay, the pipeline that was touted as an economic boon to Alaska before its construction. Valdez is on the northeast coast of Prince William Sound, where the tragic 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred.

If Valdez ever benefited from the “economic boom” of the oil industry, it was a very small boom. The town’s approximately 4,000 residents appeared to live on thin margins, judging by the poor condition of many small buildings and the nearly total lack of anything that resembled prosperity. There were no large supermarkets, no notable shopping or museums, and no thriving neighborhoods. In a search of Valdez websites, I was hard pressed to find any photos of buildings in the city, but abundant photos of nearby scenery. Those who have benefited most from Alaska’s oil boom apparently live elsewhere. 

My personal reaction was that Valdez wasn’t worth driving into, but the surrounding area was so spectacular that we would not have wanted to miss it. One of the rewards was stopping for lunch on the Glenn Highway, west of Richardson Highway about a three-hour drive east of Anchorage, and eating at a place where the view out back was of a nearby panoramic glacier–right there in front of us!

Color along the Glenn Highway, east of Anchorage, in the first week of September.

Color along the Glenn Highway, about 150 miles east of Anchorage, in the first week of September.

Don’t miss the interior of Alaska. It will give you a sense of the real Alaska, away from hoards of tourists. It’s where Alaska travelers go. 

Related posts: 

Alaska—Denali National Park in Retrospect  (1st in a series of 3 posts)

Alaska—The Kenai Peninsula and Anchorage  (3rd in a series of 3 posts).