Valdez Trail – Richardson Highway
Since it was founded, Valdez has been the supply and service point for construction and maintenance crews, a staging area for travelers, and the political strength behind movements to upgrade the road.
The ups and downs of Valdez’s economy and population have often been tied to the demand for and use of the Richardson Highway.
Prospectors had flocked to Valdez in 1898 to travel a route to the Interior of Alaska in search of gold. The route over Valdez Glacier, however, was treacherous, long, and ended in a land where gold was not easily discovered. The U.S. Army began seeking an alternative route that would provide better access into the heart of Alaska’s mining districts. Valdez, with its prime location at the head of the northernmost fjord in Prince William Sound, was a natural starting point for this route. By 1901, a 5-foot wide horse pack trail had been built to Eagle City on the Yukon. Named for Major Wilds Preston Richardson, the “Richardson Trail” immediately made it easier to transport supplies, mail, and people between Valdez and the Interior. As hoped, Valdez became firmly established as the “Gateway to the Interior”.
In 1916, the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) surfaced the road with gravel and regraded. This improved access for vehicles and made maintenance by tractor possible, but still not suitable for private drivers. By the late 1920s, however, improvements in transportation gave rise to a nascent tourism industry, spurned by the advent of affordable automobiles. The ARC has since improved the Richardson Highway by widening, grading, and straightening it in several places.
Today, the Richardson Highway snakes 371 miles from Valdez to Fairbanks. It is a two-lane highway its entire length. Small communities still dot the highway and homegrown businesses, such as gas stations and roadhouses are strung along it at irregular intervals. Summer traffic is steady with RV’s and cars carrying site-seers and residents, and trucks and semis carrying freight, fuel, and all kinds of supplies. Winter traffic slows, but continues even in the worst weather.