Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Wrangell St Elias to Valdez to Glacier Country

     When departing Tok we headed south to Wrangell St Elias National Park, at 13.2 million acres the largest in the United States.  This park contains half the country's highest mountains and is also noted for it's glaciers.  In fact these glaciers encompass 25% of the park, about 5,000 square miles.  The road south of Tok to the park was once again loaded with obstacles and we slowed for at least a dozen gravel stretches that were under construction.  This 65 mile trek took us two hours.  Taking a break at Mentasta Lake Lodge we discovered the lake across the road was loaded with Trumpeter Swans.  There are plenty of these to see in Alaska, but apparently this area is home to a large nesting ground. 

     We boondocked 6 miles up the Nabesna Road on the north end of the park.  It was a very nice pull off tucked in the trees just off the road and next to a stream.  There are several of these spots throughout the 42 miles length of the road and the NPS charges nothing to camp here.  This one even had a picnic table and a fire pit.  We powered ourselves utilizing our battery bank recharged by solar panels during the 19 hour Alaska day.  We also pumped water out of Rufus Creek via our double filtration point of pumping system for shower water.  Amazingly we still had cell service and as such our Verizon HotSpot worked very well for WiFi.  We were always on the lookout as there are plenty of black and grizzly bears throughout the park.  Nearly all camping areas, even pull offs and rest areas, provide 'bear proof' trash cans.  They have a low center of gravity to prevent tipping or general destruction and you must also put your finger inside the small top entry to release the entry catch. 

     The weather has been very nice, averaging the mid to high 60s for the past week, but cooled off significantly when we woke our 2nd morning in the park.  In fact to our south, west, and in the higher elevations (above 2200 feet) snow was forecast.  We awoke the next morning to gusty winds and very dusty conditions.  We traveled another 65 miles into the park on a very good paved/gravel road checking out other boondocking sites as well as two other campgrounds we did not know about.  However, this far into the park there is no longer cell service.  We did have to ford several small rivers, but were once again treated to incredible scenery. 
     We did not see any moose or bears although there were plenty of signs informing us they were there.  We did, however, spot several bands of Dall Sheep on the high slopes.  We got as close as we could without actually climbing and got several decent shots with the 300mm lens.  If you look closely in the upper center of the picture you can see a small band of 5 sheep grazing.
     Returning to camp the wind had not subsided and we were forced to keep the RV shut up lest we wanted to have to clean quite a bit of dust and pollen.  We treated ourselves to Venison Steak and Eggs for dinner and afterwards Barb performed her usual annihilation of my Backgammon game.   

      Departing the park we headed south to the port city of Valdez.  Once again for the first 30 miles we ran into the array of gravel construction areas that were at times pretty rough.  Nearing the town of Valdez you wind up into the Chugach Mountains, but it never seems that steep.  The other side of Thompson Pass coming down is another story.  Only near the top of the pass do you break out of the low clouds and drizzle enough to see much.  We were able to see the Worthington Glacier near the top of the pass.

There are hundreds of glaciers within the mountains surrounding Valdez, six of which are immediately accessible from town.  Three require either a boat or air tour, but were able to see the Worthington, 27 Mile, and Valdez Glaciers on our own.  

     At the head of Prince William Sound, Valdez is the terminus of the Alaskan Pipeline.  We camped outside of town at the Valdez Glacier Campground, part of the Armed Forces Park system open to retirees as well.  Full services at incredibly modest prices.  The town of Valdez sits literally on the edge of Prince William Sound at the bottom of the Chugach Mountains very much like a Norwegian Fjord.  With the low cloud cover the surrounding lower hillsides are a lush green that would remind you more of a south seas island than Alaska. 
But, once the clouds lifted a bit you were able to see the grandeur of the harbor and the village.
Looking west from a hill overlooking Prince William Sound

    The village consists of assorted small shops, including a fully stocked Safeway store.  This was our first grocery shopping expedition in Alaska and we were not prepared for the increase in food prices.  For example a loaf of Sara Lee Whole Wheat bread cost $5.49 and an standard size bag of Ruffles Potato Chips cost $6.49!  At these prices I decided I would pass on a restaurant review here.  Keep in mind these were the prices in Valdez.  The village also has a large harbor to host the armada of fishing, crabbing, and touring boats that dock here.  The entire fjord and village area is outlined by a 8 mile long, paved recreational trail for both riders, joggers, and walkers alike. 


     The biggest attraction here cannot even be visited.  The Valdez Marine Terminal is the terminus of the Alyeska Pipeline.  Beginning in Prudhoe Bay the pipeline stretches 800 miles.  This 1000 acre storage facility is located across the bay and is only accessible by facility personnel.  It used to be open for tours, but once again the events of 9-11-2001 changed all that.  The facility has 18 storage tanks holding over 7 billion barrels of oil and is able to support two full size tankers at it's berths.  We were here during low tide and wondered just how deep the water actually was that would allow ships of that size to utilize this harbor.  We were informed by the harbor master that the fjord is 3 miles wide and within 1/2 mile of shore the depth ranges from 750-1200 feet!  Additionally, even though Valdez has it's own refinery, diesel is $4.59/gallon.

     Leaving Valdez we headed back via the Richardson and Glenn Highways toward Anchorage.  This drive is over 300 miles so we stayed the night just over halfway, boondocking near Sheep Mountain. On the way we passed the enormous Tazlina Glacier as it winds its way through the Chugach Mountains.   
     The next morning we stopped at the Matanuska Glacier which is very easily accessible by vehicle or on foot.  27 miles long, at its terminus Matanuska Glacier is 4 miles wide.  We stopped long enough to shoot a few pictures and then continued our journey. 

Next stop.....Anchorage.  The truck needs an oil change and we have a bit of 'big city' shopping to do. 

1 comment:

  1. Awesome scenery! I can't believe how much a loaf of bread costs!!!