Ultimate fall colors road trip

Mon Jan 23 2017

I often have people asking me where and when to visit in Alaska for good photo opportunities. My starting point in the calendar if they are completely open is to tell them to visit in the autumn. There is such incredible diversity in landscape and wildlife photo opportunities compared to any other season, plus accessibility through the road system. Compared to any other state, Alaska offers the ultimate fall colors road trip. It also offers something you can't find in New England, now that the nights 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.

It takes about six or seven 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 a few stops, it is about a two or 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. Now that you are heading south, take your time and stop frequently to enjoy the scenery and take advantage of many photo opportunities. 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, which looks like three different mountains when viewed from the south, west and north.

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 or the Arctic Getaway Log Cabin Bed & Breakfast in Wiseman. You should reserve your lodging at either facility no less than six months in advance if you want a guaranteed spot - they fill up early. Other lodging options include several designated camp sites along the way, with the best at Marion Creek just five miles north of Coldfoot. While none of the four designated campsites along the Dalton Highway offer electricity, Marion Creek is the most developed. Another good camp area is at Galbraith Lake, which offers spectacular views of the Brooks Range.

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 just before 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. You can also charter a flight from there for a day trip out to its partner lodging, the Denali Backcountry Lodge.

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. There are some good opportunities for camping along the Denali Highway.

Once in Paxson, head north for a ways to explore the mountains of this portion of the Alaska Range. The views are spectacular and worth taking this extra time to go north. Stop at Delta Junction and maybe base your trip out of there for a couple of days to take advantage of light at different times of the day. When you are done, head back 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 maintained 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. While in the vicinity of the Matanuska Glacier, perhaps plan a stay at the Sheep Mountain Lodge. It will be a great base of operation to explore the valley, both during the day and at night. Continue south on the Glenn Highway toward Palmer.

Before Palmer, you will want to spend a couple of days exploring the Hatcher Pass State Recreation Area. A good base of operations is the Hatcher Pass Lodge. You will want to explore the many photo opportunities along the Little Susitna River, go hiking up around the historic Independence Mine, hike up the road into Archangel Valley (it's a poorly maintained road, so not good for rental vehicles), and explore the area up and over the pass. Watch the rocks for Arctic ground squirrel, rock ptarmigan, and collared pika. Brown bears, red fox and hoary marmot can also be found in the area. At night, if it is clear, watch for aurora borealis. 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 snow geese and 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. During one of your ventures into Turnagain Pass, make sure to take the Hope turnoff and explore this small town.

Once you have finished with the Anchorage area, then continue south on the Seward Highway to Cooper Landing. From Cooper Landing south to the town of Homer offer incredible scenery. In the vicinity of Cooper Landing, the fall colors are incredible, especially when compared to the bright aqua color of Kenai Lake. Make sure to take the drive out to Skilak Lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Once you are out of the forested areas, heading south the views are from the high bluffs of the Kenai Peninsula, looking out over the Cook Inlet to Mt. Redoubt and Mt. Iliamna in the Aleutian Range. Once in Homer, you will be faced with the spectacular views of Kachemak Bay. There are a variety of excellent bed and breakfasts to stay at in Homer, and several fabulous restaurants to enjoy.

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. Otherwise, if you want the full itinerary, give yourself about a month. You will see more scenery and wildlife on this trip than you could in any one month on a road system pretty much anywhere else in the United States.

Contact me if you want to have a local photography guide for any part of this trip by arranging one of my custom photo tours.

cabin, wiseman
trans alaska pipeline
mt. sukakpak
polychrome pass, denali
bull moose, denali
little susitna river
trumpeter swans
turnagain arm
glacial water and trees
august aurora, anchorage