Thursday, August 26, 2010

Slight Jaunt South on the Richardson...

When I woke up early Saturday morning (August 21st) it was cold and foggy. Probably the coldest it has been any morning since being in Alaska. The fog was pretty thick but thankfully it wasn't at ground level. It seemed to be hovering about 15 feet above the ground.

From Glennallen, I headed south on the Richardson Highway (Route 4) towards Valdez. There really wasn't anything I wanted to see or do in Valdez but the Worthington Glacier was on the Richardson (85 miles south of Glennallen and about 30 miles north of Valdez) in the Chugach Mountains near Thompson Pass, which happens to be the snowiest place in Alaska. Besides, it was supposed to be a pretty drive. And it would have been except for the fog and the clouds.

You can see a little patch of blue coming through the clouds, promises of things to come. This is the Worthington Glacier, taken a few minutes before 9 o'clock. I don't know its dimensions. Lets just say that it's big!

The trail up to the top of glacier (a mile long with a 1200 foot elevation gain) was “officially” closed and warning signs were posted regarding the instability of the glacier and the area surrounding it. However, I saw several people scrambling over the rocks and hiking out to it, though they only went to the face of the glacier, not to the top. Two people can be seen in this photo, above and to the right of the trees. (Double-click on the photo to see a larger version.) If you are interested, in July 2004 several guys hiked to the top of the glacier. They have posted an entry with lots of neat photos at Natural Born Hikers.

If you look real close, you can see that two people are standing at the bottom edge of the glacier, in the center of the picture. Really.

Cropped and enlarged version of the previous photograph. Can you see them now?

To the north and west, the skies were trying to clear. The little lake was formed when the glacier retreated. The drive back to Glennallen in the afternoon more than made up for the dreariness of the morning. Although clouds filled the sky, there was also plenty of sunshine!

The mountains are part of the enormous Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

This last shot was taken when I drove east for a few miles on Alaska Route 10 (Edgerton Highway), which goes to the town of Chitina, 34 miles away. The unpaved McCarthy Road begins at Chitina and ends in 60 miles at the Kennicott River. It's another half mile to McCarthy and five miles further to the town of Kennicott. (Visitors cross the Kennicott River on a footbridge, then walk or take a shuttle to McCarthy and Kennicott.)

“The Milepost” states that the McCarthy Road is recommended for those who like adventurous driving. Motorists should watch for sharp rocks, railroad spikes, no shoulders, narrow sections, soft spots, washboard, potholes and roller-coaster curves. You might think that railroad spikes would be an odd thing to have to be on the lookout for but the McCarthy Road was built on a railroad right of way after the railroad was torn up. You may also think that I'm adventurous, but foolish I'm not and I didn't even attempt to go down McCarthy Road.

The towns of Chitina, McCarthy, and Kennicott are the gateways to the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, which in reality, isn't accessible to the average person. It is wilderness in the truest sense and a haven for experienced backpackers and mountaineers.

Back on the Richardson Highway I stopped at the Visitor Center a few miles south of Glennallen and watched a 22 minute film. That is the only way that I and most people will ever be able to “visit” the park. It looks incredibly beautiful. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest unit of the national park system encompassing nearly 24 million acres. It contains the greatest collection of peaks over 16,000 feet as well as the largest concentration of glaciers on the continent. It is also the reason why it is an almost 600 mile drive from Glennallen to Haines!

Homer is at the end of the Kenai Peninsula in the lower left. Haines is in the lower right corner, a driving distance of approximately 900 miles. The route from Valdez to Haines more or less follows the perimeter of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Skagway is only 15 miles from Haines via ferry but is 300 miles via the highway! The yellow-highlighted routes are the roads that I've traveled thus far. (On the day this post was scheduled – August 24th - I was in Haines.)

I stopped for the night at Tok, which is at the junction of the Alaska Highway, in the middle of the map and 90 miles from the Canadian border.

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