Sightseeing, hiking, rock and ice climbing, whitewater rafting
Roadside attraction, trailheads
Richardson Highway near Valdez (milepost 13 to 16)
The Richardson Highway is the one way in and out of Valdez, Alaska by road. About 18 miles outside of town, the highway passes through the 3-mile long Keystone Canyon, a narrow rocky gorge with towering, majestic waterfalls.
Certainly, the most popular attractions are the two largest waterfalls, Bridal Veil Falls and Horsetail Falls. Both falls can be seen along the road and have ample room to pull over your vehicle. The northernmost waterfall, Bridal Veil, is on the opposite side of the road and river. Be cautious crossing the road, or even standing on the other side where there isn’t much room between traffic and the guardrail. Cars and trucks move fast through here. Horsetail Falls is right at the pull-off and you can easily walk up to it, just watch your footing on the wet rock!
In February for a weekend, these waterfalls are one of the climbing venues for the Valdez Ice Festival, hosted by the Valdez Adventure Alliance. This event is popular for climbers internationally and draws pro and novice climbers from all over. Typically pro instructors set up top ropes and are available to help beginning ice climbers.
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There are a few beautiful hiking trails in the canyon that strangely don’t see a lot of traffic. I’ve hiked most of the trails here, but haven’t yet mapped them, so I don’t have a detailed guide. The Pack Trail of 1899 is an up to 14-mile point-to-point with multiple trailheads along the highway. The most popular section of this trail is 2.6 miles beginning at mile-12 on the Richardson at the Old Richardson Highway Loop. The hike climbs high up over Horsetail Falls Creek and returns down the Goat Trail to Bridal Veil Falls. Check out more information on the hiking in the area from the City of Valdez Summer Trail Map Guide.
Rafting and Kayaking the Lowe River
The Lowe River is popular with white water kayakers, pack rafters, and it’s a beautiful location for white water rafting. The river levels change frequently and are often up to Class III whitewater, so it’s good to check with local guides before attempting. A local guide company, Pangea Adventures offers rafting tours through Keystone Canyon (no trips available in summer 2020).
Driving this section of the Richardson can be hazardous in winter. The road is plowed and open year-round, but before making a trip check the DOT for updates. There are occasional closures due to snowstorms and avalanches.
In 2014 there was a massive avalanche on the north end of Keystone Canyon. There was enough snow deposited to completely cover the Richardson Highway and dam the Lowe River forming a lake on the highway.
In July of 2014 we visited Valdez and there were still massive remnants of this avalanche over the river, 7 months later.
Keystone Canyon History
The Pack Trail and Wagon Road trails in Keystone Canyon were originally built by the US Army in 1898-1899 as a route to enter the interior of Alaska (Port Valdez to Eagle City). It was constructed as a route to access the Klondike Goldfields without having to travel through Canada.
The original route to the interior required travel over the Valdez Glacier, which was not possible or safe year-round. In 1898 William R. Abercrombie set out with a party to find a glacier-free route through the Chugach. In one season, they managed to find and blaze the original, primitive trail and finished the “road” (5 foot wide pack trail) to Eagle City the following year. It was initially named the Trans-Alaska Military Trail. Abercrombie named Keystone Canyon after the Keystone State of Pennsylvania. He also named Thompson Pass, just north of the canyon after Frank Thomson who was a president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
By 1910 the trail had been upgraded to a sled wagon road. In 1913 it was open to automobiles. Between 1911 and 1916 there were multiple attempts to build a railroad, but all attempts failed. There is still an almost finished railroad tunnel on the north end of Keystone Canyon that you can see from the Richardson Highway.