Whether visiting in the winter or summer, Valdez is a dream vacation destination and a must-visit town on any Alaska road trip. In fact, the drive from Anchorage to Valdez has been named one of America’s most scenic road trips, and for good reason. No matter what direction visitors are coming from, all will venture through the jaw-dropping Keystone Canyon.
Located just 12 miles outside of Valdez and stretching three miles long, Keystone Canyon is a place of wonder and adventure. It is an impressive, narrow canyon carved by the Lowe River, with walls towering over 600 feet tall, magnificent geological formations, several hiking trails, remnants of history and several of Alaska’s most iconic waterfalls.
A Place of Rich History
Keystone Canyon played an important role in the history and development of Valdez and Alaska. The canyon received its name in 1898 from U.S. Army Captain W.R. Abercrombie after the “Keystone State” of Pennsylvania. That year, Abercrombie and his men began cutting a trail through the canyon and over Thompson Pass. This route, now the Richardson Highway, was a military trail to Eagle and served as the only viable inland route to Fairbanks until the 1920s.
In the early 1900s the canyon was an important copper and gold mining area. Thanks to the gold rush and the development of Fort Liscum, Valdez was a booming town between 1900 and the 1920s. Valdez continued to grow, and there was discussion of building a railroad through Keystone Canyon for better access to Interior Alaska. Preliminary track was laid and a tunnel was made through the canyon wall, but disagreement broke out between two rival railroad companies. The railroad project was abandoned but the tunnel remains.
The abandoned railroad tunnel in Keystone Canyon is one of many historical remnants found throughout the canyon.
Today, Keystone Canyon is the perfect place for adventurers and travelers to enjoy the beauty and natural playground that surrounds Valdez.
Alaska’s Most Iconic Waterfalls
In the summer, melting snow transforms into cascading waterfalls down the canyon walls. Keystone Canyon is home to two of Alaska’s most iconic waterfalls: Bridal Veil Falls and Horsetail Falls. Both can be viewed and admired from pull outs along the highway.
Bridal Veil Falls is a towering 600-foot-tall waterfall, the largest in the canyon and the tallest roadside waterfall in Alaska. Though it might not be the tallest waterfall, Horsetail Falls is always worth a stop because of the unique character to its shape with multiple strands of waterfalls that drop off the canyon’s face. Also in the canyon, near the old railroad tunnel, visitors will find the small but beautiful Rudleston Falls.
Bridal Veil Falls and Horsetail Falls (pictured above) are both located in Keystone Canyon and are easily accessible on an Alaska road trip to Valdez.
For the adventurers and history buffs alike, Keystone Canyon is home to several historic hiking trails.
The Pack Trail of 1899 is a 14-mile point-to-point trail broken into separate sections with four trailheads accessible along the Richardson Highway. This trail follows the route the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built to connect the coast to Interior Alaska. The trail is a well-maintained, hidden gem that takes hikers through a series of different ecosystems. Depending on the section of trail, hikers can find streams, waterfalls, berries, fiddleheads and beautiful scenery of the surrounding canyon and mountains. The history and views easily make this one of the best hiking trails around Valdez.
The most popular section of the trail begins at mile 12 on the highway and extends 2.6 miles. Along this trail, hikers can find signs that help highlight original pieces of trail construction and that share accounts of people’s experiences along the trail in the early 1900s. This section climbs over Horsetail Falls Creek and returns down the Goat Trail to Bridal Veil Falls.
The southern end of the Pack Trail of 1899 is known as the Goat Trail, and is another popular hiking trail in the canyon. The hike is moderate in difficulty and short in length at only 3.2 miles round trip. The trailhead is located at mile 13.5 on the highway, beginning at the Bridal Veil Falls turnout. It follows the Lowe River, twisting and winding with epic views of the scenery.
The northern end of the Pack Trail of 1899 is known as the Wagon Road. The Wagon Road is another historical and well-maintained hiking trail through a forest of spruce and other vegetation. Easy in difficulty and 6.6 miles round trip, the trail offers views of the Lowe River, Dutch Flats and Keystone Canyon. This trail was previously connected to the Goat Trail by a bridge over Snowslide Gulch until the bridge was washed out in 2006.
A historical marker along the Wagon Road trail. Photo by Jiyeon Juno Kim.
While hiking through Keystone Canyon, it is important to stay alert for wildlife. Both moose and bears are known to wander along the trails, and there are a number of plants to avoid including Devil’s Club and wild celery.
Floating Down the River
Keystone Canyon was carved out by the Lowe River, which today runs adjacent to the Richardson Highway. The Lowe River is a popular spot for whitewater rafting and kayaking, and it passes right in front of Bridal Veil Falls. Visitors can experience the thrills of whitewater rafting down Class III rapids surrounded by some of Alaska’s most beautiful scenery. One local operator, Pangaea Adventures, offers whitewater rafting trips seasonally down the Lowe River.
In the winter, Keystone Canyon becomes a mecca for ice climbers. There are few other areas in the world that exist with such high caliber ice. Mild temperatures in conjunction with easily accessible and quality climbs make the canyon the perfect location for ice climbing in Alaska.
The Canyon is home to the annual Valdez Ice Climbing Festival, a popular event that draws both pro and novice climbers from all over. Keystone Greensteps and Bridal Veil Falls are the signature routes for climbing in the canyon, but numerous other routes abound including Horsetail Falls, Glass Onion, POS, Hanging Tree, Hung Jury and Mud Slide.
The festival is organized by the Valdez Adventure Alliance. At the event, world-class instructors teach clinics for all ages and skill levels, including specialty classes for youth climbers, women only and physical adaptations. The next Valdez Ice Climbing Festival is scheduled for Feb. 18-20, 2022.
The 2021 Valdez Ice Climbing Festival. Photo by Stephen Bugno.
Easily accessible from Anchorage, Fairbanks or anywhere in between, the natural beauty of Keystone Canyon and the adventures that await make Valdez a must-visit destination on any Alaska road trip. And, planning the perfect trip is made even easier with our online vacation planner. Wander here for an adventure for everyone.