5 Must-Ride Mountain Passes in Alaska
Riding over mountains to lands unexplored in America's Last Frontier.
One of my favorite features of any road system — one that is often overlooked, I might add — is mountain passes. For centuries roads have been built through low points in mountain ranges, connecting regions and facilitating trade, migration and even war. Here in my home state of Alaska, mountain passes serve as transportation corridors between some extremely remote places. They are gateways to lands unexplored, and offer some of the best scenery in the entire state.
After having ridden more than 400,000 miles in the state of Alaska over the course of more than 20 years, I’ve become quite familiar with the road system here and would like to present a few of my favorite Alaskan passes. You’ll notice that none of these passes surpass elevations of 5,000 feet, but you have to remember that this is the extreme northern latitudes of Alaska here.
1. Thompson Pass
Make no mistake, this pass is regarded as one of the best rides in the world. The mountains surrounding Valdez are usually choked with clouds and rain, but if you get lucky enough to experience this paved thoroughfare in clear weather, you will never forget it. As the Richardson Highway approaches the seaside port town of Valdez from the north, you will witness glaciers (you can walk up and touch Worthington Glacier), the steep Keystone canyon, wild rivers, and cascading waterfalls. Then you pop out at the shores of Prince William Sound with sheer mountain slopes erupting straight up from the water to 5,000 feet. By this time you are counting Bald Eagles as if they were seagulls, and if you arrive in mid July through August, all of the streams will be overfull with salmon. Thompson Pass is an all-you-can-eat buffet of scenic extravagance, and despite the relatively low elevation of 2,805 feet offers a remarkably barren landscape void of trees. In the lower 48 you might have to climb to 10,000 feet or more to escape the timberline, but up here in the extreme northern latitudes there are many low elevation areas that are inhospitable to trees. Yes, a day to Valdez through Thompson Pass is a day to remember!
2. Atigun Pass
This remote outpost of a pass is located far north, along the famed Dalton Highway en route to Prudhoe Bay. It is the highest point of the Alaska road system at 4,739 feet. Getting there isn’t easy, but hey, is something easy worth anything!? Atigun Pass is the exuberant highlight of the 414-mile Dalton Highway and well worth the travel time. Once you start up the pass, you will ride by the last tree (most northern) before you enter the North Slope region – the treeless, open country that escorts you to the Arctic Ocean north of the Brooks Range. Keep your eye out for Dall Sheep as you go, and don’t be alarmed that the guardrail on the way up is severely dented by cascading rocks. Not to worry, the pay off is on the way down and the vibrant emerald carpet of tundra that smoothly rolls on toward the horizon. Get ready for awe.
3. MacLaren Summit
Perched at the second highest point of the entire road system of Alaska at 4,086 feet, MacLaren Summit is one of the most breathtaking points from which to drink in Alaska’s raw natural beauty. Located at mile marker 37 of the 123-mile long, mostly dirt Denali Highway, the sweeping view of the MacLaren River Valley, the MacLaren Glacier and surrounding Alaska Range is just hard to describe. It is absolutely pristine wilderness with the backdrop of some of the highest peaks on the continent, including Mt. Hayes at 13,832’ and Mt. Deborah at 12,688’. The Denali Highway here is unpaved and susceptible to washboarding, so you’ll want to plan accordingly and take it slow so you can enjoy the view.
4. Isabel Pass
There are two ways to ride through the Alaska Range on the Alaska Highway system, and this one, in my opinion, is the top one. The Richardson Highway is one of the oldest highways in Alaska, and used to be the road locals would drive to get from Anchorage to Fairbanks. It is also the highway that accompanies the Alyeska pipeline from Valdez to Fairbanks and was the original access point to the Denali Highway and Denali National Park. The stretch of the Richardson that meanders through the Alaska Range is called Isabel Pass, and anyone riding here should prepare for a ride as lovely as the name. Heading north, you climb along the Gulkana River to Summit Lake and ride along the shores of this majestic, above-timberline lake. Isabel Glacier will be in full view after passing the lake, and the road then skirts the Rainbow Mountains before starting down to the Delta River (designated a Wild and Scenic River). Keep your eye out for moose, caribou, roaming bison and of course the pipeline. Indeed, this portion of road is what you expect when you picture riding through Alaska.
5. Hatcher Pass
I have to admit this one is a bit out-of-the-way, but then I’m the type of motorcyclist that likes out-of-the-way. Hatcher Pass is an old gold mining access road that connects the city of Palmer (home of the Alaska State Fair!) with the Glenn Highway near Willow. There are still active mines along this 40-mile stretch of dirt and paved surface, which is only open 3-4 months of the year starting around the first week of July. It’s a great option if you are heading north out of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway, but want to avoid all the stop lights and what we Alaskans refer to as “traffic” through the town of Wasilla. If you have an entire day you can poke around some of the offshoots from the main road, like Archangel. Those who enjoy gold rush history might budget a couple of hours to check out the historic Independence Mine, which is restored and ready to host visitors. Heading north out of Palmer and entering Hatcher Pass at 3,885 feet, the road is still paved for a time as it runs along the Little Susitna River, and has some of the best curves in the entire state. Ride Hatcher Pass and keep that perma-smile going!
There are more passes in Alaska worthy of riding that are absolutely beautiful, but the above are, in my opinion, the Top 5. Whatever you do, the right decision starts with you coming to Alaska and ends with you riding the largest unadulterated wilderness in North America. There is nothing better than riding among the tallest mountains on the continent, and there is no better time to do it than this summer.