Recently, I was featured (May, 2012) in Popular Photography and interviewed about lesser known Alaska locations for photography. Expanding upon that and drawing upon my 25 years of romping around Alaska I am profiling 10 road accessible places that offer excellent landscape photo ops. You can find all of these in the Milepost which is the best road guide for Alaska and northern Canada travel. This list is subjective and there are countless scenic views along the contiguous Alaska road system. If you are new or unfamiliar with this vast area, these locations are a good place to start.
Like all subjects photographic, your lighting is a key element to the success of your images. Skies are generally sunnier in the interior and north than they are on the coast so you have a better chance of capturing Mt. Sukakpak in the Brooks Range in nice light than you would capturing Portage Pass (which experiences some of the worst weather in Southcentral Alaska.) Mt. McKinley is only out on average of 3-4 days a month during the summer and best chances are in the morning. The north side holds the iconic view rising 18,000′ above the tundra from near Wonder Lake. I like the south side better where the mountain rises above dense boreal forest. Remember, good weather doesn’t last long in Alaska so if you happen to be at one of these locations in nice light, jump on it. My guiding principle is shoot what is happening now. There is no time like the present!
This scenic gem of national park quality is in the Municipality of Anchorage. Take the Eagle River exit north of Anchor town (Anchorage) and follow Eagle River Road 12 miles where it ends in the parking lot of the Eagle River Nature Center. The views are incredible here but walk 10 minutes down to a boardwalk and deck overlooking the clear North Fork of Eagle River. Polar Bear and Eagle Peaks rise abruptly 6,000 feet above the valley floor. Around the solstice, the sun sets near the opening of Eagle River Valley and this is a great evening shot. In late June there is usually a great display of geranium and wild rose along the trail.
Sukapak isn’t the tallest mountain in the Brooks, topping out at less than 5,000 feet, but it is an incredible limestone escarpment photogenic from both the south and north sides at several points along the Dalton. My favorite is its morning reflection in one of several un-named ponds visible from the highway. There are good photo ops at both sunrise and sunset (3-4 hours apart in June/July) but I prefer early morning with steam rising off the lakes and sometimes even the Koyokuk River.
This is a developed state park with camping, boat rentals, and a public use cabin. What I like best about Byers Lake is that you can’t see Mt. McKinley from the developed (west) side. Take the trail to the east side or better yet, get in a canoe or touring kayak and paddle to the northeast end for a breathtaking view of McKinley and the Alaska Range. Be there at sunrise which means in July – 5am. More likely than not, you’ll get a great reflection of the range on the lake and if you are lucky one of the nesting trumpeter swans will pay you a visit.
If you don’t have a boat to access Byers Lake then there are great morning views here of Denali on clear days. In fact, Denali views are nice along most of the road with lots of fireweed. Several miles in, there are some nice small ponds that offer a great morning reflection. The approach to the water’s edge is boggy and buggy. Plan on getting your feet wet and bring a bug jacket.
After a decent dinner and a brew you can get a great panoramic view of the Wrangells with the expansive Copper River and Klutina River Valleys below. Stay up late as this is a great spot for a sunset panoramic. Also, nearby Willow Lake a few miles down the road offers some nice views from the parking lot but I like the high view better.
You can see this gem coming at you for many miles as you travel south on the Richardson Highway approaching Thompson Pass towards Valdez. There is a developed State Park parking lot and outhouses with developed trails that take you down to the foot of the glacier. I like the view from further north before you get to the State Park turn off. In late June and July look for fields of lupine in meadows off to the west. Morning light is best here.
Further down the Richardson Highway and south of Thompson Pass, the Lowe River cuts through a steep and verdant green canyon with several really nice roadside waterfalls. My favorite is Bridal Veil Falls. For many years there were great fireweed displays here in late July and August. Road crews mowed it all down a few years ago. Hopefully they will come back. This is a wet area and is one that is most photogenic during cloudy weather and even light.
Portage Glacier Visitor Center is the most heavily visited tourist spot in Southcentral. You can’t see the glacier from the lake anymore as it has receded considerably. Most tourists view the glacier from a boat tour that takes you to the end of the lake. It’s a fine view but with a little effort you can leave the crowds behind. The best view of Portage Glacier is from the pass, a short but steep, 20-minute hike up a very well defined trail. Simply drive through the tunnel to Whittier and take the first right past the restrooms. Follow the signs to the trailhead. The glacier is only nicely lit in the morning. The light tanks about 9AM so be there early. The weather here sucks most of the time so if you are lucky to be there in clear conditions (check the FAA weather cams for Whittier and Portage) jump on it!
Years ago it was risky to stop here on the narrow road with guard rail and no shoulder. Now there are huge pullouts there near Milepost 100 just before the Glenn Highway descends to Hicks Creek. The Matanuska River flows between 2 cliff walls with beautiful rugged peaks in the background. The surrounding birch/aspen/poplar forest is stunning in the fall (mid September). Best time is shortly after sunrise. There are many great places to photograph this incredible mountain, river and forest scenery. The Hick’s Creek view is part of my favorite section that stretches from Chickaloon to Sheep Mountain Lodge. Along this stretch, Long and Wiener Lakes offer great photo ops.
Many people (except salmon anglers) bypass this quaint seaside village off the Sterling Highway on their way to Homer for the classic view of the Homer Spit and Kachemak Bay. I used to really enjoy flyfishing the Ninilchik and just hanging out. The main attraction here and a photographer’s favorite is the Russian Orthodox Church that sits on the bluff on the north side of town. It is a well kept beautiful little church that has a lovely white picket fence and dazzling wildflowers – especially the fireweed and geraniums. There are several good photo ops here. You can line up the church with Mt. Illiamna and the volcanoes across Cook Inlet for a great telephoto shot at sunrise and early morning.