July 10, 2015

A Visit to Valdez

After a peaceful night at the Chitina airstrip, we awoke to the sound of a plane landing.  Tim went outside and greeted Bill, our pilot from the previous day.  All was quite again as the plane took off to McCarthy with a full load of passengers.

When Tim and I had arrived at the airstrip, we noticed several fish wheels in the Copper River, so we walked down to take a look.  I had never seen one up close, except for the traditional one at the visitor center at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.  Every summer Alaska residents may obtain permits to operate fish wheels, and the Copper River is a prime location to see them in action.  Fish wheels and dip netting are subsistence programs to help people feed their families.  No salmon were snared in the wheel while we were there, but the process was interesting to watch.

Traditional and Contemporary Fish Wheels

Next up was a drive to the small town of Chitina, where we stopped at the National Park ranger station.  Here we had the most interesting chat with Ranger Earl.  Earl has lived in the area for over 30 years and has some amazing stories that he can tell.  He witnessed the creation of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in 1980 and the intense opposition on the part of local residents who felt their lifestyle was being taken away from them.  Things have cooled since then, and Alaskans still retain ownership of their private property in the park.  Unlike older national parks in the Lower 48, these properties will always remain in private hands unless the owners choose to sell to the National Park Service.  Earl is a great resource for the National Park Service, and it was a privilege to spend time with him.

Our other stop was the Hotel Chitina, where we had the second best meal since leaving Haines.  I had been a bit hesitant to order the salmon cakes, but I’m glad I did.  They were delicious.  

Downtown Chitina

Although we had no plans to drive the McCarthy Road from Chitina to McCarthy, we did want to cross the bridge over the Copper River to see if any fishermen were still there.  The riverbank was still quite active, and we saw more fish wheels, as well as people using dip nets.  I’m really glad we waited until Sunday to go down there, however.  The rest of the weekend was said to be nuts!

More Fish Wheels on the Copper River

I really loved our time in Chitina, McCarthy and Kennecott, and I feel that we were able to experience a bit more of the “real” Alaska.  We encountered almost no tourists from outside the state, and this was certainly different than our time in Southeast Alaska. 

We had originally decided to spend one more night in the area, possibly at Kenny Lake, before making our way to Valdez.  As we were driving back on the Edgerton Road, I mentioned to Tim that we might want to think about driving to Valdez that day.  I’m always open to changing my mind, but Tim thinks I’m nuts.  Why the sudden change?  The weather was beautiful, we would have a guaranteed view of the gorgeous scenery along the way and it was still early in the afternoon.  After a bit of hesitation, he agreed and we were off.

There are a lot of scenic highways in Alaska, but the Richardson Highway has to be one of the prettiest.  The road took us through the Chugach Mountains, next to deep blue lakes and up close to the Worthington Glacier before cresting at Thompson Pass.  We caught glimpses of the trans-Alaska pipeline and made our way through Keystone Canyon where we saw cascading waterfalls before arriving in Valdez.  We could not have asked for more perfect weather for making this drive.

Traveling the Richardson Highway to Valdez

Following the Tonsina River

Spotting Worthington Glacier above the Highway

Lining Up to Enjoy the View of Worthington Glacier

Descending from Thompson Pass

Passing by Blueberry Lake

Passing through Keystone Canyon
Admiring Bridal Veil Falls

Valdez is an interesting town that has been struck by tragedy on at least two occasions.  The 1964 earthquake decimated the town and forced it to be relocated four miles away, while the Exxon Valdez oil spill created an environmental disaster in the adjacent waters of Prince William Sound.  Valdez is a pleasant town in a beautiful setting, and it’s especially nice when the sun is out.  That doesn’t happen too often, so we were grateful for a sunny day to explore the town.

We walked along the harbor, watched a boat as it was being lifted out of the water and had a delicious salmon roll at The Roadside Potatohead.  We drove out to Allison Point where we observed fishermen reeling in large salmon and spent an hour or so at the very informative Valdez Museum.

Enjoying a Walk along the Beautiful Small Boat Harbor

Getting a Lift

Fishing Near Allison Point

As much as we enjoyed spending time in town, what we really craved was some downtime.  We had been moving every night since leaving Haines, and we were growing weary.  After one night at the very-crowded Eagle’s Rest RV Park, we decided to check out a possible boondock location.  Several years ago I had read about a scenic spot at Robe Lake just outside of town, and that’s where we went.  It was everything we were looking for.

From This . . .

To This!  (And, It's Free!)

To say that our spot on Robe Lake was just about perfect is an understatement.  The lake is beautiful, it is surrounded by mountains, and it has a solid Verizon 3G signal.  We pulled in so I would have a panoramic view of the lake from my front seat, and we decided to stay for at least three nights.  Rain was in the forecast, but we didn’t care.  

Our site was not exactly quiet during the day and early evening, but that actually turned out to be ok.  Two seaplanes were tied up on the lake, and I loved watching them take off and land.  Kayakers and a few boaters came by to enjoy time on the lake, and it was also fun to watch them.  A truck camper pulled in each night, and we shared tips with the couple from Belgium.  

Different Moods at Robe Lake - Sunny

Foggy and Rainy

A Bit Cloudy

Our View Included the Other End of the Lake, Which Was Just as Gorgeous

I made a point of talking with many of the people who stopped by, all of whom were Alaskans.  One gentleman has lived in Valdez for 30+ years and operates the orange aquatic weed cutting machine that is parked in the lake.  Two pilots were here to spot fish for a group of commercial fishermen, while several others were in town to work for the oil company.  Families from Fairbanks were here for a vacation.  All had a story to tell, and we learned quite a bit about the various lifestyles of this amazing state.

We didn’t leave Robe Lake for two days.  Our respite here was just what the doctor ordered.  We’re ready now to do a bit more sightseeing, and next up is a glacier and wildlife cruise in Prince William Sound.  It should be fun.


  1. This sounds like the perfect way to see Alaska...seeing the nontourist areas and meeting locals! I would imagine a visit to Alaska could be exhausting. It would be hard to let time go by without touring but we all need to recharge in order to enjoy the rest of our visit. This looked like a beautiful spot to just enjoy the beauty of the area:) I enjoyed learning about the fish wheels. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Although we love meeting fellow RVers on the road, especially in Alaska, we have really enjoyed talking with the locals to get a different perspective on life here. We do find that taking a break is essential for avoiding burnout. I'd hate to come all this way and burn out before the summer is over!

  2. Each place is more beautiful than the last! Enjoyed learning about the fish wheels but I must say that next time I eat salmon, I'll think of the fish wheels. :)

    1. After the next post, you may think about nets instead!

  3. Even with the fog your site on the lake was beautiful ... I can see why you didn't leave for two days. We had our first encounter with a fish wheel when we did the Riverboat Discovery Tour in Fairbanks ... they had a working wheel that the guide described as we watched it run.

    1. That site was very special, and it was very hard to tear ourselves away from it. The fish wheels were so interesting. I'd love to see one actually catch a fish. The ones we saw up close came up empty!

  4. Robe Lake was absolutely beautiful - I wish we could have stayed there. Must have been a wonderful and relaxing two days!

    1. Robe Lake was one of the prettiest places we've camped, and it was a wonderful place to relax.


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