The Ultimate Fall Colors Road Trip

The Ultimate Fall Colors Road Trip

I often have people asking me where and when to visit in Alaska for good photo opportunities.  Recently, Seward photographer Ron Niebrugge posted a blog about what are good photo opportunities throughout the year.  Ron’s advice is sound, and he is a superb photographer.  But I thought I would take it another step further and start providing detailed itineraries about great trips at certain times of year.

I will start this blog series with what I think would be the ultimate fall colors road trip.  It takes about five weeks for autumn to run its course from the upper Arctic down through southcentral Alaska where Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula are located.  Most of the areas that provide great opportunities for fall colors landscape photography and wildlife photography are on the road system.  But, keep in mind, the distance from the end of the Dalton Highway at Deadhorse to Anchorage is approximately 850 miles.  Also, a couple of the roads through some of the more scenic areas are prohibited by a rental car contract, namely the Dalton Highway, the Denali Highway and the McCarthy Road.  Finally, before you head out on any Alaska road trip, purchase the most recent issue of The Milepost.  It is the ultimate driving guide to Alaska, providing maps, detailed information about facilities, and mile-by-mile indications of where features are located on each highway system in the state.

If you had the time, here is what I would suggest would be the ultimate fall road trip for a photo excursion in Alaska.  I would start in Fairbanks around the third week of August and head north to the Dalton Highway.  If you are driving with few stops, it is about a three day drive to Deadhorse.  But, this is a photo trip, and you always drive with stops.  In addition, I would not go all the way to Deadhorse.  Rather, my trip up the Dalton Highway would end just shy of Deadhorse in the Franklin Bluffs area.  While photographing the oil and gas infrastructure would be interesting, you cannot access it without being cleared through British Petroleum security, and there really is no reason to be in Deadhorse except for to go visit the oil infrastructure and Arctic Ocean.

The Dalton Highway begins approximately an hour north of Fairbanks.  To get there, simply follow the Elliot Highway out of Fairbanks, and keep following the signs that direct you to the Dalton Highway.  Almost immediately out of Fairbanks you will notice that the fall colors are starting to change, but are not yet where you would like for photography.  Do not worry, as you head north, the colors will change dramatically.  It is one of the true pleasures in driving north in Alaska in the autumn: the land turns into fall all around you as you go.

There are many points and locations to photograph along the Dalton Highway.  Key points include the Yukon River crossing, Finger Mountain, various points of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (particularly at the point where the highway crosses the South Fork of the Koyukuk River just south of Coldfoot), the town of Wiseman, Sukapak Mountain, various river crossings (like the Hammond and Dietrich), Atigun Pass, and Galbraith Lake.  At Galbraith Lake, you find yourself within hiking distance of Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Beyond Galbraith Lake, you head out of the Brooks Range (Alaska’s largest mountain range) and head into a completely different landscape.  Here, you are above the treeline, looking out at a vast Arctic landscape with scattered bluffs and roaming caribou (they are migrating to their wintering grounds at this time).

Once you have reached the Franklin Bluffs, turn around and head back south.  The advantage of backtracking is having the chance to see the scenery from a different perspective.  You will particularly see this as you travel through the Brooks Range.  Some mountains or mountain passes look completely different as you head south compared to heading north.  A fine example is Sukapak Mountain.

The key challenges for any Dalton Highway trip include lodging, food and fuel.  The only place to refuel on the Dalton Highway, other than in Deadhorse, is Coldfoot. To call it a town or a village would be misleading.  It is a wayside, with an interagency visitor center (Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, and National Park Service) that is worth visiting, the only Alaska State Trooper station for hundreds of miles, a café, a gas station, and a “motel” which consists of converted cargo trailers.  But for a place to stay, I would recommend the Boreal Lodge in Wiseman.  If they are booked, then I suggest the Arctic Gateway Log Cabin Bed & Breakfast.

But refueling in Coldfoot may not be enough.  Coldfoot is 239 miles from Deadhorse – that’s a 478-mile round trip.  Coldfoot is also 259 miles from Fairbanks, making that leg of the route a 518-mile round trip.  You cannot rely on being able to refuel in Deadhorse.  The fuel of choice in Deadhorse is diesel, as every vehicle in operation there runs on that select fuel, which is more suitable for the harsh winter climates.  The one station you can rely on is the NANA Chevron station, but they only accept cash.  The most common way to ensure you have enough fuel for travel on the Dalton Highway is to bring your own backup: fill up two 5-gallon fuel cans in Fairbanks and use them as needed until you can refuel in Coldfoot on your trip up and down the Dalton.

Once back in Fairbanks, take a break after your long drive up and down the Dalton Highway.  Stay a night at the Westmark Hotel downtown, booking your stay on Orbitz – the rate is only about $89 a night and it is an excellent buy with great rooms and a full breakfast.  After resting a night, it is time to head down to Denali National Park & Preserve.  You want to time your trip on the Dalton so that you are through Fairbanks and arriving at Denali National Park on Labor Day weekend.

While the road into Denali National Park is over 90 miles long, only the first 13 miles are accessible by private vehicle (unless you camp for three nights at the Teklanika Campground).  So, the best way to experience the park is to stay at lodging within a few miles near the entrance, then take the green buses into the park.  The green buses are for general visitor use and run rather regularly, starting at the backcountry visitor center near the park entrance from the Parks Highway.  You can also step off anytime you want from the green buses and hail one when it is time to head back out of the park.  For lodging, I would recommend the Denali Cabins, which offer two twin beds and private bathroom per cabin, as well as a nice hot tub out in the center of the compound amidst the cabins.

The two premiere locations in Denali National Park for landscape photography are Polychrome Pass and Wonder Lake.  Both offer wildlife opportunities as well, with Dall sheep at Polychrome and moose and caribou at Wonder Lake.  But, any good bus driver will stop frequently along the way to allow you to photograph and view wildlife as well as spectacular vistas.  Just be prepared to shoot out the window of a school bus to do it, with the occasional stops to get out with a tripod.

Once done in Denali National Park, head south to Cantwell on the Parks Highway and take the Denali Highway to the east toward Paxon.  The Denali Highway is an approximately 130-mile unpaved road through the heart of Alaska.  It takes you through wide open mountain landscapes, cross raging streams, and within great views of the Susitna River.  It is a common caribou corridor, especially in the autumn, providing excellent landscape and wildlife photos.

Once in Paxon, head south on the Richardson Highway toward Glennallen.  Pass through Glennallen, and keep going toward Chitina (pronounced “Chitna”).  Take the Chitina exit to the Edgerton Highway and head east to McCarthy.  The Edgerton Highway is paved, but the McCarthy Road is not.  The McCarthy Road is, without a doubt, the most treacherous road in Alaska.  It runs along an old rail line, and some debris from that old rail line remains within the road.  The State of Alaska grades the road only twice a year, and each time it does so, it kicks up old railroad spikes and other debris that are detrimental to tires.  The scenic and photographic highlights of this part of the trip include sweeping views of the Chitina River, fish wheels on the Chitina River, an old railroad tressel at the Kuskulana River, the classic town of McCarthy, and the old Kennicott Copper Mine.  You want to time your visit to McCarthy so that you do not arrive any sooner than about the second week of September.

As September heads into its third week, it is time to head back up to Glennallen and follow the Glenn Highway, a National Scenic Byway, down to the Matanuska Valley.  Starting near Gunsight Mountain and going down through Palmer, the Manatuska Valley offers incredible, sweeping views of golden aspens mixed with the flaming red caused by blueberry and bearberry bushes on the alpine tundra of the mountains above.  For a bonus, you can also capture the Matanuska Glacier and the winding Matanuska River.

From Palmer, follow the Old Glenn Highway across the Knik River and stop to spend time with the old railroad bridge, then turn north and follow the road on the east side of the Knik River to explore along this meandering, braided river.  Once done exploring, turn around and follow the Old Glenn Highway down to the Glenn Highway and take the exit toward Anchorage.

You will want to give yourself several days to explore Anchorage and the Turnagain Arm along the Seward Highway to the south.  Highlights in Anchorage include Kincaid Park and the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, Far North Bicentennial Park and Campbell Creek, Flattop Mountain, the Powerline Pass Trail and Willawaw Lakes Trail from the Glen Alps parking lot (primarily for photographing moose in the rut) and Potter Marsh on the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge (for migrating fowl, namely trumpeter swans).   For the Turnagain Arm, make sure to spend time near Windy Point looking for Dall Sheep, hike up the Falls Creek Trail for spectacular boreal forest and alpine autumn colors, and keep an eye out along the highway for views of the Kenai Mountains across the Arm.  Then, take time to visit up into the Portage Valley in the Chugach National Forest.  After Portage Valley, keep driving until you are up into Turnagain Pass, where you will see a mixture of both boreal and alpine autumn colors and winding streams.

Of course, the quality and timing of fall colors varies from year to year.  But, following a route that covers this much territory will guarantee great scenery and wildlife opportunities at one point or another.  For a shorter route, simply start in Anchorage, go up the Parks Highway to Denali National Park, then cut across on the Denali Highway and follow the rest of the itinerary.  Leaving the Dalton Highway out of the road trip essentially removes about ten days of the trip.

One other thing to consider for this trip is that it is late enough in the year where Alaska’s skies are getting dark.  With anywhere from three to five weeks as part of your trip, that means the skies – weather permitting – will afford you the opportunity to view and photograph the aurora borealis.  For tips on photographing the aurora, visit my prior instructional blog on the topic.

The view and purchase these and many other fall colors photos, visit my Autumn gallery.






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