Until recently, my favorite stretch of American road was in Utah, a state I’ve often forgotten while trying to name the full 50. I-80's abrupt 2,500-foot descent from the border of Wyoming to Salt Lake City has long been a favorite of mine. The sheer variety of the scenery—from striated red rock to the sterile Bonneville Salt Flats—is mesmerizing. Alaska’s Seward Highway makes that poor bit of asphalt look like a superfund site.
I’ve loved other stretches of gravel along the way. Lake Tahoe’s Route 89, with spectacular views of Emerald Bay, New Hampshire’s Route 302 through Crawford Notch, Florida’s Overseas Highway down to the Keys, Interstate 90's crawl through the alienly beautiful Badlands, and Skyline Drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains all hold a special place in my heart.
But there is something to be said about a road where you can, and will, see such an all encompassing level of wilderness that two of the (few) towns along the way are called Moose Pass and Bear Creek.
My first view of the Seward Highway was from the summit of Flattop mountain. I’d been hoping for a glimpse of the majestic 127-mile stretch of road from the air, but August in Alaska is notoriously gray, and my Saturday evening flight touched down amidst a persistent drizzle.
During a brief break in the cloud cover the following morning, I tackled the popular hike just outside of downtown Anchorage, and found myself breathless at the top—from both the last quarter-mile vertical scramble over loose rock, and the panoramic view of the valley and sea before me. More than 3,000 feet below me, a silver seam ran through the quiet suburbs of Anchorage then merged with the coastline of the Turnagain Arm, one of two narrow branches of Cook’s Inlet off the Alaskan Gulf.
The Turnagain Arm is a special body of water. Housed between the Chugach Mountains and the Kenai Mountains, the inlet is home to the rare and ill-named bore tide. This fascinating phenomenon, where the incoming seawater forms a six to ten foot wall as it returns at high tide, only occurs before and after the extreme tidal conditions of the new or full moon. I was lucky enough to witness the incoming wall of water on my return trip, but a dead iPhone prevented me from recording it. Here’s a video of a few brave surfers riding the bore tide on the Turnagain Arm in 2015:
In the wake of the bore tide, the inlet is flooded with marine life. Beluga whales often appear within half an hour of the incoming tide, while fisherman in the flooded creeks and rivers can be seen using dipnets or angling to catch the plentiful array of hooligans, salmon, trout, and sea-char.
For the first 5o miles south of Anchorage, I pulled over at every vista point, of which there are many, because the absolutely awe-inspiring views of the Kenai Mountains are worth every stop you can make. According to a delightful park ranger I spoke with, Lynn, the resemblance between the Lord of the Rings wide-angle shots and the Kenai range are not just my imagination—the mountains traversed by Frodo and Sam and the Kenai fjords were formed by the same process.
At the turn of the arm, some of the ice fields responsible for the region’s many glaciers start to become visible. The road leading to Portage Glacier is accessible directly from the Highway, although due to the glacier’s recession, it is no longer visible from the road. Ranger Lynn, my helpful albeit depressing nature friend, claimed that in her 20 years of service, she had seen the speed of the receding glaciers increase exponentially.
Her claim is supported by a Guardian article that quotes the Journal of Glaciology as saying the accelerating rate of ice loss is “historically unprecedented.” That article came out in 2015. Today, some scientists claim, “Alaska is losing glacial ice at the rate of 75 billion metric tons annually.”
I’m not one to fawn (sorry not sorry) over nature, having been raised in the comforting folds of Vermont’s Green Mountains, but there were multiple points during this trip where I pulled over and cried happy tears that I could bear witness to the majesty of Alaska’s wilderness before it all gets fucking ruined or destroyed soon.
At the bend of the arm, the highway leaves the Chugach range and starts to wind through the Kenai mountains previously seen from the opposite shore of the Turnagain. Both ranges are protected under their designations as a national forest and a national park, respectively. Ostensibly, this explains why there is very little noticeable trash along the highway—signs warning of high littering fines are everywhere.
The Kenai range is green in August, but mostly tree-less at the top due to the alpine line. The road’s initially wide passage begins to narrow as the climb becomes more arduous, and the towering peaks gain altitude and importance as the road cuts through the valleys of a mostly uninhabited region.
Wildflowers crowd the shoulder in a riot of colors, although in August the vegetation is overpowered by purple fireweed and the dangerous, blister-inducing cow parsnip plant, which resembles a Hulk version of Queen Anne’s Lace. (Alaska doesn’t have poison ivy or oak, but I personally experienced the pain of sun-activated cow parsnip burn while hiking Mount Marathon, and that shit SUCKS.)
This area is ripe with flora and fauna. While meandering through the Kenais, I saw:
- several eagles
- a bear
- a moose and calf
- a fox
- so many other fucking animals
- glacial rivers full of all the fish
The road splits 9o miles south of Anchorage, and the Seward Highway continues on Alaska Route 9, while Alaska Route 1 continues west to Homer. Shortly after the split, the road passes through Moose Pass, and views of Kenai Lake begin to filter through the dense tree canopy.
The chalky turquoise of the lake’s surface seems more suited to the Caribbean, but these waters are some of the best pacific salmon fishing in the world.
The last 30 miles of the trip are as lovely as the start, but slightly less intimidating. Bogs, lakes, and old growth trees lend a deep quiet to the journey, while the remaining sound is muffled by the surrounding mountains. Yellow armies of water lilies guard game trails and nests along the roadside.
The highway concludes in Seward, located on Resurrection Bay, which serves as the aquatic entrance to Kenai Fjord National Park. Whales, sea lions, seals, otters, jellyfish, halibut, puffins, and bears call the glacier-dominated park home. I climbed Mount Marathon the day I arrived for a better view, but was only able to take 43 selfies halfway up the trail before my phone died:
The town serves as the summer home for a large number of RV enthusiasts, and the municipal lot was full of license plates from places as far as Nova Scotia, Florida, and Mexico City. People from all over the world pass through Alaska’s most remote reaches in order to be immersed in the absolute wilderness of these natural monuments.
Anyway, go see Alaska and the Seward Highway before we’re blown to smithereens by North Korea or overrun by Nazis. I’ll leave you with one of the last photos I took on my return trip, may it give you hope.
Sultana Khan is a writer, activist, and artist living in Portland, Maine. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @yesasingenghis for more unapologetic selfies and bad opinions.