In search of Alaska’s Best Unknown Destinations
Story by Lee Klancher
Motorcycle Escape Magazine
“There’s no law north of the Yukon River, and no God north of the Arctic Circle.” -Alaskan saying
At the Seaview Bar in Hope, Alaska (pop. 137), my buddy Peter Peil and I were enjoying an after-dinner beer with a local and two guys who were regular visitors. Once they learned we were in Alaska to ride the Dalton Highway, which stretches 414 miles from Fairbanks to the Arctic Ocean, Paulie (the local) launched into tales about the perils of traveling the remote gravel road.
Truck on the “Haul Road” in Alaska
“Black bears don’t exist on the North Slope. The browns eat ’em,” Paulie told us. “And the truckers would just as soon run you off the road as look at you. If they don’t run you off, rocks the size of your fist thrown off the tires will take your head clean off.”
This wasn’t the first time we’d been warned of the dangers of traveling the so-called Haul Road. We’d heard tales of soft gravel taking down riders, snow in July, herds of caribou clogging the road, brown bears making meals out of motorcycle seats, and clouds of giant, bloodthirsty mosquitoes.
Phil Freeman, the owner of Alaska Rider Tours, filled us in on the real hazards when we called to rent a couple of Kawasaki KLR650s from him.
“Riding the Haul Road is no problem, provided you use a little care,” Freeman said. “The real danger is what Alaska might cause you to do. The last guys who came up here and rented bikes from me for more than two weeks turned the bikes in early and bought land. They bought a piece out by McCarthy, and I haven’t heard from them since.”
We’d rented the bikes for 15 days, but we assured Freeman that our interest was in seeing the state, not moving there. Our plan was to ride north to Fairbanks, spend three days riding the Haul Road, and then explore as much of the rest of the state as possible.
With a warm-up ride to Homer out of the way, our next task was to ride 350 miles north from Anchorage to Fairbanks, and then make a 150-mimle leg to the James Dalton Highway, otherwise known as the Haul Road. It was built to access the oil discovered at Prudhoe Bay and runs parallel to the Alaskan Pipeline.
This is one of the most remote stretches of road on the continent, with only four gas stations in 414 miles and a diverse geography that includes the Brooks Range (home of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Gates of the Arctic National Park) and a broad expanse of Arctic tundra. On the north end of the road in mid-summer, temperatures average 37 degrees and daylight is a 24-hour affair.
The combination of midnight sun and interesting geography is more compelling than the road itself, which is a mix of well-maintained gravel and chip seal (essentially pavement) in much better condition than Paulie’s dire warnings had indicated. The mosquitoes, however, were worse than imagined. When we stopped at the head of the Dalton Highway to take a photograph, the murderous little beasts swarmed and attacked. We donated a few pints of blood at each photo stop until we took up the Alaskan tradition of adding heavy applications of bug spray (otherwise known as Alaskan perfume) to our morning routine.
Riding the Dalton Highway
The first 180 miles of the Dalton are wide gravel, easy enough to ride and remote enough to be worth a visit. The bridge crossing the Yukon River is a narrow, wood-planked wonder, and a stop at the Arctic Circle sign for a picture is an essential experience. The Hot Spot Café is another worthy stop, with hamburgers that motorcycle adventurer Greg Frazier accurately described as “the size of a goddamn catcher’s mitt.”
The best ride on the highway is the more remote northern half. The road rises to 4800 feet to cross the Brooks Range at Atigun Pass, and then slopes across Arctic tundra to the Arctic Ocean.
The road across Atigun Pass is a narrow, hellaciously steep stutter-bump-filled stretch of gravel cut into the side of the mountain and bordered by a rusty, avalanche-battered stretch of guardrail. The mountains are steeply pointed piles of black sandstone and shale. When we came through, the sky was as dark as the mountains, with on-again, off-again rain showers and mist dripping on the land. The whole thing had the feel of Tolkien’s Mordor, a mysterious and remote land.
Dust-covered trucks roaring past us on the downslope and the knowledge that a couple camped in the Brooks had been taken by grizzly bears completed the post-apocalyptic feel of the place.
North of the pass, the black mountains give way to a verdant valley, with broad green meadows topped by mountains draped with loose gray rock covered in red, yellow, and brown grasses and moss. The effect is like driving through a valley covered in Berber carpet.
That carpet was soaked as we came through, and a steady drizzle was falling. Peter and I stopped to eat our lunch. Huddled in the lee of a pile of grizzly-bear-sized rocks, we sliced fat chunks of cheddar cheese and summer sausage with Pete’s Leatherman.
“You know,” Pete said, rain running down his cap and onto his cheeks, “This is f***ing great.”
We looked at each other and broke up laughing, knowing that the joke was that he was right. The rain and cold only added to the feeling that we were 250 miles from anything resembling civilization, in a wild, beautiful land where the sun doesn’t set, brown bears are toothy tyrants, and small avalanches routinely tear chunks out of the guardrails.
After the road leaves the Brooks Range, it loops around another small range and then turns north to run toward the Arctic Ocean. The mountains turn to broad-shouldered hills, and the hills eventually flatten out into the broad expanse of the North Slope.
The Dalton was at its worst in the rolling hills just north of the pass. The potholes were huge, the stutter bumps constant, and the giant rocks fist-sized, as promised, though they simply lay in the road as obstacles rather than flying off the truckers’ tires as the murderous missiles Paulie had promised.
The truckers, also, did not live up to their billing. They were unfailingly polite, slowing down to let us pass and giving us plenty of space on the road. In fact, they went out of their way not to run us off the road.
The weather north of the pass also turning in our favor, and the dark clouds over the Atigun Pass gave way to clear skies. Temperatures warmed up to nearly 60 degrees, which is positively balmy for the North Slope. Under blue skies, we crossed Ice Cut, a long c limb onto the flat tundra, and hit the chip seal, a mix of rock and tar that looks like fresh blacktop.
The surface was as smooth as brand-new asphalt, and the broad, green tundra as lush as an alpine meadow. With the sun shining in a pure blue sky, I half expected Julie Andrews to burst over the horizon leading a cadre of singing children.
After the road crosses back onto gravel that runs arrow-straight across the tundra, the industrial town of Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay appear on the horizon. A few towers and buildings poke up into the sky, with bright orange dump trucks and heavy equipment parked nearby. The town is company-owned, and has all the charm of a truck-stop bathroom.
The sun shines 24 hours a day midsummer at Deadhorse, rising on May 22 and setting on July 20. Workers spend two-week shifts in the depot town, and stay in company housing, eat company meals, and obey company rules that forbid drinking, hunting and harassing wildlife and/or tourists.
We spent a forgettable evening in Deadhorse, and recommend that you do the same only if you feel the need to take the Prudhoe Bay tour. The only other way to see the Arctic Ocean (and the “town” of Prudhoe Bay) is to take a three-hour commercial tour.
Riding out to McCarthy, Alaska
The next morning, we got up early and found the temperature had plummeted to 34 degrees and a steady rain was falling. We rode the entire 414 miles of the road that day in bad weather. Thanks to Aerostitch electric vests, however, we stayed warm and dry despite the cold downpour.
With the Dalton Highway behind us, the second part of our Alaskan adventure began when we came to the junction of the Dalton and Elliot highways. Exhausted from running more than 400 miles of gravel in bad weather, we were less than excited at the prospect of another 100 miles of the same out to Manley Hot Springs.
The portion of the Steese Highway that runs to Manley is narrower, rougher, and more poorly maintained than the Dalton Highway. When we rode it that July evening, the wind was howling across the area, nearly blowing us off the tope of the 3207-foot treeless summit of Wickersham Dome. With the KLR leaned into the wind and potholes rattling the bike to bits, I wondered if Manley Hot Springs would really be as good as tour operator Phil Freeman promised.
The point at which I knew Freeman had steered us right and the long ride would be worth it came at the Manley Hot Springs city limits, where a large sign read, NOW ENTERING MANLEY HOT SPRINGS. NO SHOOTING.
Founded in 1907 as a resort, the town of Manley Hot Springs has a roadhouse, a general store/post office, a tiny airstrip and about 40 permanent residents who survive by working in a nearby mine or catering to the fishing and backpacking tourist trade.
The highlight of Manley is the hot springs. The owner, Charles Dart, bough the land surrounding the springs in the mid-1950s and built four stone Japanese baths shortly after. He added a greenhouse built from 2x4s covered with sheets of plastic, and he and his wife planted flowers and grapes inside. Today, he rents the springs out an hour at a time and supplies a knife and a bag so you can pick and bag grapes during your soak. The grapes are crisp and delicious, and soaking in a tub 150 miles from anything resembling civilization while eating grapes and smelling flowers makes the long drive on bad roads worthy every pothole and stutter bump.
After two days of taking in Manley, we headed south to our next offbeat destination, McCarthy. This required going back to Fairbanks and heading south on the Richardson Highway.
McCarthy is nestled in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the country’s largest national park. The only way in to McCarthy is a 61-mile gravel road that winds from Chitina over the Copper River and through the wilderness, with snow-covered peaks watching over your ride.
The road ends at McCarthy, a boomtown founded when copper was discovered in the area just after the turn of the century. The mine, which employed more than 600 people at its height, closed in 1938, and the area’s population dwindled soon after.
The remote town nearly disappeared during the Cold War, with only a handful of people remaining. When 9.6 million acres of wilderness near McCarthy were made into the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in 1979, the area experienced a resurgence in tourism.
The park, which is six times larger than Yellowstone, contains four mountain ranges, a massive active volcano, and the Malaspina Glacier, a sheet of ice larger than the state of Rhode Island. This wilderness is accessed mostly by foot and McCarthy is one of the primary access points.
Today, McCarthy is a funky little town with a couple of restaurants and hotels, and a great little bar that features a terrific open-mike night. Locals who moved here to escape the modern world co-exist somewhat uneasily with a steady influx of tourists that includes new-age hipster backpackers, mountain-climbing roughnecks, and motorcycle bums like Pete and me.
One of the area’s many attractions is the battered remains of the Kennecott Mine. The buildings are mostly intact and currently undergoing slow by determined renovation. To access the mine and the town of McCarthy, you have to cross a bridge over the silty rapids of the Kennicott River.
That bridge is only about four feet wide, and tourists in cars are forced to walk across and then take a shuttle up to the mine. Motorcyclists, however, can ride across the bridge and up to the complex of buildings that was the Kennecott copper processing plant.
Riding past the plant and up to the mine is forbidden, sort of. Pete and I rode into town and stopped to talk with the park rangers, a young woman in Birkenstocks and a wool sweater draped over her park uniform. When we asked if we could ride farther up the road, she smiled at us tentatively and said, “No, well, you’re not really supposed to do that.” We dutifully parked our bikes and walked through town and hiked a few miles up to the foot of the Kennicott Glacier.
Later that night, we checked out he open-mike night at the New Golden Saloon, the only bar in McCarthy. The show included a terrific flute player in a flannel shirt and heavy black work boots, and a young Patagonia-clad guy playing Dylan on a washtub.
As we were leaving, Pete struck up a conversation about where you can and can’t ride motorcycles with Tim, a grizzled McCarthy veteran with a white beard and a ponytail spilling over a brown sweatshirt and red suspenders.”Go up to the mine on your bikes,” he said. “Tell anyone who gives you trouble that you’re my guest.”
Stream crossing, Alaska
Tim went on for nearly an hour, telling of his concerns that the increasing development of the park was a danger to McCarthy. “People come across that bridge and think they’ve found a green utopia here,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re a bunch of self-appointed social engineers who are screwing up McCarthy.”
The next day, we talked to Brad, the owner of the lodge where we stayed. He told us that there was talk of the road to McCarthy being paved. Despite the fact that Brad was barely making ends meet with his lodge, he had no desire to see the road to McCarthy turned into an easy drive.
“The way it is now, people that are here really want to be here. That’s why I cam out here, and I don’t want to see that change,” he said.
Brad also tipped us off that the Fairbanks University was selling off small plots of land just outside of town. That fact ate at Pete for the remainder of the ride, a jaunt down the rest of the Richardson Highway through the stunning Thompson Pass and into Valdez.
By the time we got back to Anchorage, with 3500 miles of Alaska under our belts, Pete was talking about checking the prices and trying to get financing for a piece of land in McCarthy. When he told Phil Freeman about his plans, Freeman didn’t even pretend to be surprised.