Alaska is usually explored in two ways; a cruise or a road trip. In the last leg of our Alaska trip, we chose a road less traveled to explore this stunningly beautiful land. Trust me; it was an experience of a lifetime. We enjoyed spectacular drives, awe-inspiring vistas and loads of adventures. Usually, tourists take Route 3 while returning from Fairbanks to Anchorage, instead we choose Richardson Highway (Route 4). Our journey from Fairbanks to Valdez on Richardson Highway was spectacular as we could see the transition from winter to summer.
The last few days were exciting and adventurous with incredible cruise experiences of Kenai Fjords National Park and 26 Glacier cruise. We then visited Denali National Park and Preserve and Fairbanks, which was again a memorable experience. Looking forward to more excitement, we started from Fairbanks to Glennallen.
The beginning of summer on Richardson highway in Alaska with frozen lake and slow flurries coming down
We took Richardson Highway also known as Route 4 from Fairbanks to Glennallen. Richardson highway is Alaska's first road between Fairbanks and Valdez and is 368 miles long. It is considered to be one of the top 10 scenic drives in the US, and we could not agree more. We started early in the morning from Fairbanks planning to stop along the 250-mile stretch to enjoy the vistas. The weather along this stretch was foggy with intermittent drizzles. There was hardly any traffic along this stretch and we passed a few tiny towns that had around 7-8 houses. We tanked up on fuel before leaving Fairbanks as there are not many gas stations en route to Glennallen. There are no restaurants along this route either, so make sure you stock up water and snacks for the drive.
My daughter experienced snow for the first time in her life and her joy was out of bounds
Summer arrives late in this part of Alaska. We visited during end-May which was a cusp between winter and summer so we experienced the best of both seasons. Frozen Summit Lake on Richardson Highway with seaplane marks and snow flurries coming down make for a winter wonderland appearance. This drive took us through multiple glaciers, waterfalls, frozen delta river valleys, and highest elevated lakes. We made a million stops on our way to enjoy the irresistible snow and spectacular surroundings. Keep your cameras ready to capture all the beautiful sights...we sure did and have no regrets.
One of the most beautiful drives in Alaska on Richardson highway
We reached Glennallen after a 7-hour drive from Fairbanks. Glennallen is at the junction of Richardson Highway and Glenn Highway. There are not much things to do in Glennallen Alaska except there is a small supermarket and a few restaurants to grab a bite. We enjoyed a delicious pizza here and parceled some for the next day as well. Food was a challenge for us because the concept of veg food does not exist in Alaska. We then checked into the Caribou Hotel. Nestled in beautiful natural surroundings, the hotel was the perfect stopover. The Caribou Hotel in Glennallen was rustic and comfortable and bore an antique look. The reception was adorned with stuffed animals of all sizes making for a rather unique ambience.
Taxidermy of caribou heads on display at the front desk of Caribou Lodge in Glennallen
After freshening up at Caribou Hotel, we took the road to Valdez which is a 3-hour drive from Glennallen. Again, ensure you tank up at Glennallen because refueling is a challenge until you reach Valdez. The drive from Glennallen to Valdez is out of this world, probably one of the best drives of my life. It was a bright sunny day with clear blue skies. We were treated to empty tarmac bordered by shrubs and an extensive white carpet as far as the eyes can see. The glaciers in the distance were dazzling under the sun alluring us to get closer.
A perfect drive on a perfect day with sunny skies and dazzling snow-covered Chugach mountains on Richardson Highway
The further we drove, the more awe-struck we were by the sheer magnificence of this winter wonderland. Passing by glorious snow-capped Chugach Mountains decorated with cottony clouds, we stopped innumerable times to capture this spectacle. We drove through Thompson Pass which is a mountain pass through Chugach Mountains in Alaska. At a height of 2,600 feet, Thompson Pass in Alaska receives an average of 500 inches of snow annually. Thompson Pass snowfall makes it the snowiest place in Alaska. Driving was never more enjoyable and rewarding...the vistas are etched in our minds forever.
Mesmerizing beauty of Thompson Pass snow just before Valdez
Being the end point of Alaska, Valdez is where the Trans-Alaska pipeline terminates and oil is shipped out from here. From Valdez you can load your car into a ship and enjoy the sail to Whittier as well. Ideally done in the peak of summer, this 14-hour boat ride is all-in-one and takes you through stunning glaciers and the sighting of wildlife is spectacular. This done, you do not need to go on any other cruise in Alaska. Unfortunately, we had already finished our south Alaska tour so we did not opt for this experience. Learn more about Alaska Marine Highway System.
I could not resist my desire to pull over for some photo ops, luckily there was no traffic
We then returned back to Glennallen experiencing the same stunning drive again. In our excitement, we missed tanking up before leaving Glennallen and almost ran out of gas on our return drive. Luckily, we saw a gas station at Copper Center close to Glennallen, where we fueled up. This was also an experience as there were just two fuel pumps with an analog meter. It made a huge roar as I started fueling the car and scared me for a while. I got confused as the fuel pump did not indicate which one is for the petrol. Green colored hose represents diesel and black represents petrol in the United States, it was a good learning. A round trip from Glennallen to Valdez and back took about 6 hours. We drove for 14 hours that day, the longest in Alaska on one particular day!
After a rested night at Caribou hotel, we now took up Glenn highway and headed for an adventure I was desperate to do in Alaska. Matanuska Glacier Hike is an experience I did not want to miss on my Alaska tour. Matanuska Glacier is one of the largest glaciers in Alaska, accessible by car. It is 80 miles south of Glennallen and 100 miles north of Anchorage on Glenn highway. It is a bit tricky to reach the spot. I was given GPS coordinates by the tour operator. That required me to take a deviation from Glenn highway after Long Rifle Lodge on an unpaved road to Glacier Park Road. I was confused and reached out to the staff of Long Rifle Lodge to clear my doubts.
Panoramic view of Matanuska Glacier State Park from Long Rifle Lodge
Eventually, we reached a small gift shop after a little over a mile, where the glacier access fee ($20) needs to be paid. There are a couple of companies that offer Matanuska Glacier guided tours and one does not require prior glacier hiking experience. It was a 3-hour tour and all the hiking paraphernalia was provided. Each Matanuska glacier hike tour is limited to a group of 10-15 people with a dedicated guide. The guide explains the history of Matanuska glacier and other interesting facts. While my wife and daughter chose to go on a self-guided walk around the glacier, I reserved a slot for the hike.
Me super excited as we prepare for the hike to Matanuska Glacier
Due to several factors, the hike is never confirmed until the last moment. Firstly, the weather must be good enough to venture inside the glacier, and secondly, there must be at least 7-8 hikers for the excursion to be economically viable. It rained until the previous day, so hikes were canceled. I was fortunate that the next day was bright & sunny and we had enough people to go.
Here, I'm outfitted with helmet, crampons & ice axe in the middle of glacier
The Matanuska Glacier in Alaska was formed 10,000 years ago and spans 27 miles long and 4 miles across. Unfortunately, it is calving faster than expected because of climate change and the base of the glacier has retreated significantly. As we hiked across the glacier we came across blue lakes, ice caves and tiny streams. We tasted the natural water which is believed to be the purest form of water on the earth. The unique phenomenon of blue lakes in the glacier is magical. It happens because when the sun shines, the dense ice absorbs all the colors of the spectrum except blue. The crystalline structure of glacial ice scatters blue light creating a blue effect on the lakes. Amazing, right?
A glacial lake with the purest form of water on earth
We wandered around and explored the glacier while capturing as much as we could on camera. We scraped the surface of the glacier with our spikes and below the gravel there was ice! This debris-rich ice is referred to as "basal ice". As we immersed ourselves in this extraordinary wonder of nature, our guide told us about a unique phenomenon that happens here. It seems when cold air of the glacier propels the warm air of the valley skywards, a microclimate of sunny skies and pleasant weather is created around the glacier. This is called a "weather hole". Interesting! I started the trek 3-layered because of the cold although I was advised only one layer. By the time I returned, I was completely soaked in sweat. This Alaska glacier hike was one of the best experiences of my Alaska trip.
Matanuska glacier guided tour is the best way to hike an Alaska glacier
While returning from Matanuska Glacier, we did a pitstop at Long Rifle Lodge. The restaurant located at a higher level offered a beautiful view of Matanuska Glacier and the surrounding landscape was stunning. There is a little valley as well that is frequented by several animals. Many visitors come here to indulge in gaming as it is legal in Alaska. The restaurant, with many stuffed animals like Kodiak grizzly, mountain goat, black bear and musk ox mounts, adorning the walls was proof of this. It was a truly incredible place and we spent a couple of hours soaking up the splendor of nature and enjoying a fabulous vegetarian meal.
The interior of Long Rifle Lodge restaurant with stuffed animals
After the eventful day we headed to Palmer, a beautiful town very close to Anchorage. While driving on Glenn Highway, exercise caution as there is a huge population of moose in this area. We were cautioned several times to drive slowly and keep an eye out for these "speed breakers" that may spring up from nowhere and a collision can be disastrous. Rescue is challenging here because the location is remote. Driving through stunning landscapes, we reached Palmer and checked into a beautiful Airbnb. With a pool table, basketball court, spacious kitchen and bunk beds, this was luxury in the wilderness. It was the ideal stopover as Anchorage has not much to explore for the kind of tourists we are.
By the time we reached Palmer, summer was in full bloom
The next day, we explored Palmer which was a quaint beautiful town. We didn't have many things to do in Palmer. It was a Friday so there was a Farmer's Market which we visited. The town was lively with locals out on the streets enjoying the summer. We then took a scenic drive to Hatcher Pass. Located in the Talkeetna Mountains, Hatcher Pass is a local hotspot for winter sports. The drive was very scenic and enjoyable. We stopped at several viewpoints to enjoy the vistas. While there are many hiking trails in Hatcher Pass, skiing and snowmobiling is also popular. There were many riders on snowmobiles riding around on the snow. There is a Hatcher Pass Lodge where you can stay in beautiful cabins. We did not stay there, rather we drove to Anchorage.
Colorful cottages of Hatcher Pass Lodge, framed by Alaska glaciers
Our last day was reserved for Anchorage, the main city of Alaska. It was also our exit point to Seattle. We spent a relaxed day downtown. We visited a museum in a government building that showcased the history, life & culture of Alaska. We then headed to a summer market and indulged in retail therapy. Anchorage was the only place that offered an opportunity to shop so we purchased souvenirs etc. We ended the trip on a gastronomic high as we feasted on varieties of food in Anchorage, unlike in the remote areas.
A final farewell to Alaska at Anchorage airport
Our Alaskan trip was truly a holiday of a lifetime. We enjoyed every minute of the 11-day long road trip. The splendid vistas, exciting adventures and the uniqueness of this jewel of the Arctic had us mesmerized. There were many first times and rare indulgences that we did not experience before. Our adventures in "The Land of the Midnight Sun" are captured in our memories for a lifetime.
What is the best month to drive in Alaska?
A road trip to Alaska works best during the shoulder season between May and September. The roads are clear of snow and driving is relatively easy during summer. The weather gets better as the summer peaks. However, if you want to see the transition then mid of May is the best time to drive in Alaska.
Is the drive to Valdez worth it?
Absolutely, it is one of the best drives in Alaska during summer. The stretch between Glennallen and Valdez that passes through Thompson Pass is quite stunning. The shining Chugach Mountain of Alaska is a treat to watch.
How long is the Matanuska Glacier Hike?
There are several Matanuska guided tours ranging from 3 hours to 5 hours. It also depends on which season you choose to hike.
Can you hike Matanuska Glacier on your own?
Yes, you can. But it is advisable to go for a guided Matanuska Glacier hike tour. There is an option for a self-guided walk in the periphery of the glacier. You still have to pay a glacier access fee of $20 to reach there.