Fall in Alaska yields some of the best colors and textures you can find anywhere on the planet. In fact, some of the worlds most famous sights/photos include Alaska in the fall.
However, many people find themselves confused about exactly when and where to see these magnificent sights. Some may find the right spots but the colors are already gone, and other times you might catch those perfect yellows and oranges yet you can’t seem to find these amazing locations you’ve seen in other magazines/articles/social media posts.
With all the location you could go to in Alaska, one of the absolute best fall trips is the drive spanning Anchorage to Valdez. This drive beats out so many others because it incorporates wildly varying elevations (many different colors as a result), it has vast mountain passes and forests, and has one of the highest numbers of iconic stops on one stretch of road anywhere in the United States.
In this article let me, Kiana, help you find the exact locations for many of these amazing scenic stops, but know that fall in Alaska comes with a very short window to see the colors at their best.
If you are further North in Alaska (like in Denali) fall comes the first two weeks of September, if you are closer to South-Central Alaska (where this article will take place) the second and third weeks of September are often the best.
The First Stretch: Anchorage To Palmer Alaska
Note From Kiana: Although this trip can certainly be taken in reverse (Valdez to Anchorage) I will be providing directions as if you are beginning in Anchorage, Alaska. Additionally, I will be excluding stops that require more than a few minutes to explore so that your trip can be planned as efficiently as possible. The entire drive should be able to be accomplished leisurely in one long day trip. Lastly, most stops are handicap accessible, but you should use you best judgement at each location.
Before you leave Anchorage itself, know that you can enjoy beautiful Fall colors around town in places like Earthquake Park, the Campbell Creek Trails, and the Flattop Mountain trails. These places can often be more crowded though, and so I recommend getting out of town and heading North toward the City of Palmer, Alaska on the Glenn Highway sooner than later.
The first stop along the way is the aptly named, Reflections Lake, which is off the Knik River access road 32 Miles North of Anchorage (there is good signage).
Here you can find easy walking trails and small foot bridges that overlook a beautiful lake area nestled among many colorful trees. This lake gets its name due to the fact that is so well protected from wind (due to the surrounding mountains) that its waters are often completely still, offering up eye popping reflections.
You can walk the entirety of the lake if you wish (1.1 miles or ~22mins), but I would suggest checking out the main viewing area and heading North yet again.
The Road Towards King Mountain
If you continue heading North on the Glenn Hwy for about 5 minutes you will eventually reach a fork in the road and you will want to take the exit heading right towards Palmer. It is very important that you stop and gas-up here before continuing on, there are only a couple gas stations after this and sometimes they are closed randomly so don’t forget! Once you are gassed up and have some snacks for the road, continue North on the Glenn Hwy.
This is where things start to open up and some truly beautiful sights appear.
You will want to keep your eyes open to the right as you drive North for two main reasons. One is that most of the jaw dropping sights you will see are going to be to your immediate right, the second reason is because that is where the very small green/white mile markers will be located.
Alaskan highways are notorious for marking scenic locations/pullouts where there are none (or they are 50 years overgrown) and this one is no different. The mile markers are largely how you will find all of the stops along the way so keep an eye out!
Don’t Forget The Wildlife
Now that you will be leaving the more inhabited areas, it means the chance for seeing wildlife increases significantly. Wildlife sightings are already a welcomed event, but with the backdrop of fall colors on this Alaskan trip, you can see them in a truly special way.
There will be chances to see Moose, Dall Sheep, Eagles, Owls, Porcupine, Swans and more! I would say that specifically keeping an eye on the lakes as you travel towards Valdez is a must for the Moose and Swans (like the ones above who seem to return every year at mile marker 71 on the left).
When you see rocky cliffs to your left look for small white patches on the mountainsides, if they are moving, that’s a Dall Sheep (sometimes they even come down to the side of the road)! If you own binoculars this is the perfect time to bring them out.
You will continue North East with the mighty Matanuska River winding around majestically to your right.
Your next stops are the two primary King Mountain viewing areas at around mile marker 78-79.
The King For A Reason
Note: Although actually named “Kings Mountain” most Alaskans refer to this mountain as King Mountain (no s) as will I for this portion of the article (but know they are the same).
One of Alaska’s most famous scenes is made all the more incredible with fall colors accompanying it.
Funny enough, this iconic pull over is actually pretty easy to miss for a variety of reasons. The view is behind you as you are driving, the best pull out has zero signage (at mile marker 78), and there are confusing “Scenic View” signs that lead to less than scenic views in the same small area.
So what you will want to do is slow down when you hit mile marker 76-77 and keep an eye out to your right.
As you gradually drive towards the top of the hill the guard railing will end and there is a well worn gravel/dirt side-of-the road pull out (usually there are a couple other people there, but there might not be).
This area is ~before~ the actual labeled and paved pullout area for scenic viewing. They both offer very different things to see and so you won’t want to miss either.
Here you will be able to take in the one of a kind glacial river meandering alongside the twisting roadway next to the towering King Mountain landscape.
In the Fall, this is an incredible scenic view with all of the changing colors of the trees.
A Hop, A Skip, & A Jump
Literally a minute or so North East from the gravel/dirt pull out there is a second paved pull out, yet you will notice that here you can barely see King Mountain at all.
However, there are a number of rolling hills and vast mountain views that you can only see here at this one stop. Again, I highly recommend you do both as even though they are close together, the views are worlds apart.
This area also sports some distant views of several glaciers and is worth spending a few minutes trying to really see everything there is. If you are taking photos, it is also a place where almost every angle provides for a totally different look and feel.
The whole area around here as you continue to head North East is referred to as Majestic Valley and Glacier View (for a reason) so keep your eyes open. I am excluding stopping at the face of the impressive Matanuska Glacier for this article because it is at least a half-day activity in and of itself that does not necessarily benefit from all the fall colors (but you can see our winter article on it here if you are interested).
Mount Drum & The Turn Towards Valdez
Continuing on your journey North East/East on the Glenn Hwy you will see a great deal of beautiful higher elevation fall displays. Again be on the look out for wildlife and any sights that appeal to you, but our next big stop is the world famous Mount Drum just outside of the town of Glennallen.
There are a number of spots that make for epic viewing of this massive 12,000+ foot tall stratovolcano, but the best are often right off the road at mile posts 179-180 and then again at around 183.
The fall colors around this area change year to year so it’s my advice to take your time in the area overall.
This is not just an amazing place to take photos/see the mountain, but is also the last place to grab gas and food again before heading towards Valdez. I have seen a number of Moose here by the small airstrip slightly north of Glennallen if you have the time/desire to take a quick look, otherwise it is time to get off the Glenn Hwy and Head South onto the Richardson Hwy.
The Richardson Highway To Valdez
You will now be slowly losing elevation as you head South on the Richardson Highway. This stretch of road is truly unique because there are landscapes that seemingly defy the laws of nature and look to almost sport the colors of every season… all at once!
Here you can look off to the right (and later to the left) and see the modern marvel that is the 800 mile long Trans-Alaska Pipeline surrounded by a kaleidoscope of colors and textures.
The mountain ranges here seem to change their appearance after every corner you make, but I would say the first really incredible landscapes come into view starting at Mile 60 on the Richardson Hwy.
Remember that you are now off the Glenn Hwy, so mile markers will be different than before.
Additionally, there are a lot of Moose in the area so keep your head on a swivel and you might get lucky.
By the time you get to this point in your Fall drive from Anchorage to Valdez, you’ll start to realize how incredibly beautiful this trip is and why it should be taken during Fall.
Just a few miles down the road (around mile markers 65-66) the landscape changes even more and starts to favor more rounded shapes. You will begin to now start rapidly losing elevation and this means that you will start to get some different fall scenes than you have seen the last 200 miles or so.
This time of year traffic is very sparse and so it’s a good place to step outside, take a deep breath, and enjoy the peaceful environment.
Your trip is almost at its end, but there is one more noteworthy place before you reach Valdez that, honestly, if you’ve never seen it before, is mind blowing.
Bridal Veil & Horsetail Falls
Just outside of Valdez itself is the incredible Keystone Canyon which is basically like driving though this enormously high walled geological paradise (there is nothing else like it in all of Alaska).
The bright red/orange fireweed, green lush vegetation, and trees just starting to change colors are fed by the impressive 600 foot tall Bridal Veil and Horsetail Falls.
This part of the drive, at around mile 79 on the Richardson Hwy, is relatively short so don’t drive past it!
There are very nicely paved pullouts on the right hand side of the road at both the falls. As this is one of your last stops before Valdez, I encourage you to spend at least 15 minutes here to soak it all in, it really is special.
It is possible to get right under the Horsetail Falls, but you will only be able to see Bridal Veil Falls from the other side of the roadway as there is a steep drop off.
After you have had your fill it is time to head South for the last leg on the Richardson Hwy. (Check out our short video below of the canyon and the falls, it’s quiet the sight to see!)
The End Of Your Scenic Fall Drive – Reaching Valdez
About 20 minutes South of the falls you will reach Valdez and be at sea level for the first time since leaving Anchorage, Alaska.
In and around Valdez you can look for opportunities to include the changing fall colors with wildlife such as Seals, Sea Otters, and marine birds by the harbor or even Black Bears and Sea Lions out by the Salmon Hatchery.
There are a number of great fall hikes you can do in and around Valdez depending on how long you may have in the City as well.
It may be a long journey to take, across a significant portion of Alaska, but rest assured the fall colors you will see along the way make this trip one of the best in the world.
Not only that, but once you arrive most of the available lodging has reduced pricing, most restaurants are still operating (check out our review of the best places to eat in Valdez), and you will experience a fraction of the craziness from the primary tour season.
You can visit Denali, you can take a late season cruise, but nothing matches the depth and sheer variety of incredible fall scenes available to you during this one of a kind Alaskan Fall drive from Anchorage to Valdez.
Art Credit: All Illustrations & The Alaska Frontier Characters Were Created In Partnership With RussellSprouts Illustration & Animation Services.
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