Keystone Canyon – Valdez Sightseeing

Full Alaska Guide | Alaska Travel Info

Popular For:Sightseeing, hiking, rock and ice climbing, whitewater rafting
Type:Roadside attraction, trailheads
Where:Richardson Highway near Valdez (milepost 13 to 16)

Keystone Canyon

The Richardson Highway is the only road into and out of Valdez, Alaska. About 18 miles outside of town, the highway passes through the 3-mile-long Keystone Canyon, a narrow rocky gorge with towering, majestic waterfalls.

This is why I would think it’s called “Keystone” Canyon. Funny, that’s not it. It’s named after the state of Pennsylvania, the “Keystone State”.

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 when 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!

The view of the 600-foot Bridal Veil Falls from the road | Purchase Print
Horsetail Falls | Purchase Print

For a weekend in February, 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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Trails

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 hiking in the area from the City of Valdez Summer Trail Map Guide.

View along the Wagon Road Trail

Rafting and Kayaking the Lowe River

The Lowe River is popular with whitewater kayakers and pack rafters and is a beautiful location for whitewater rafting. The river levels change frequently and can reach 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).

Avalanches in Keystone Canyon

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, a massive avalanche occurred on the north end of Keystone Canyon. Enough snow was deposited to completely cover the Richardson Highway and dam the Lowe River, forming a lake on the highway.

In July 2014, we visited Valdez, and seven months later, there were still massive remnants of this avalanche over the river.

Massive amount of snow leftover from the January 2014 avalanche in mid-July

Keystone Canyon History

The Pack Trail and Wagon Road trails in Keystone Canyon were originally built by the US Army in 1898-1899 to access the Klondike Goldfields without having to travel through Canada. The trail was constructed to enter the interior of Alaska (Port Valdez to Eagle City).

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 the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad.


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By 1910, the trail had been upgraded to a sled wagon road. In 1913, it was opened to automobiles. Between 1911 and 1916, multiple attempts were made 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.

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