No other place in Bush Alaska has a road system like Nome. Three gravel highways, each around 75 miles long, wind through a wilderness of tundra, mountains, coastline, rivers, and valleys littered with abandoned gold dredges (44 in all) and railroads. This is an area that’s truly one of Alaska’s least-known treasures.
In half the time it would take you to drive from Anchorage to Denali, you can fly by jet to Nome, rent a car, and journey deep into a wilderness all your own.
What you’ll find is some of Alaska’s most captivating landscapes—a wilderness that draws you in quickly and holds your attention. Up here, less than 150 miles from the Arctic Circle, there are no trees, so you can see forever. The rivers are sparkling clear, not gray with glacial silt. And it’s not brushy, so you can hike almost anywhere. It’s a perfect place to fish, view wildlife, mountain bike, camp, or look for historical artifacts.
The sense of history on Nome’s roads is inescapable—and awesome. Thousands of years ago, of course, this was the Bering land bridge that served as the conduit from one continent to another. More recently was the last great Gold Rush in the American West, and you’ll see evidence all around: wooden railroad trestles, collapsing dredges, railroad cars, and other iron-cast mining relics.
The wilderness is some of Alaska’s most beautiful, with some 200 species of Arctic wildflowers, including hillsides endlessly carpeted with rare flowers like Kamchatka Rhododendron, Lapland Rosebay, and Siberian Iris. Get out, put your nose right down into the tundra and you’ll smell the rich, organic scent. Come in mid-August, and you can fill your car with berries—the berry-picking is some of Alaska’s best.
Wildlife, too, is a big part of any drive around Nome. The birding is world-famous: there are more than 180 species here, including Asiatic birds rarely seen in North America. And birds are everywhere—you don’t even have to get out of your car. But they’re not the only species in love with this area: also be on the lookout for bear, moose, reindeer, and musk oxen.
73 miles (West) / 2 hours one-way without stops
Less than 300 people live in tiny Teller, and 85 percent of them are Eskimo living a subsistence lifestyle, making it a truly authentic Eskimo village. The small size is even more striking when you know that Teller was once a gold rush boomtown filled with 5,000 people. But don’t ignore the scenery along the way, which is spectacular. You’ll likely see a herd of reindeer grazing in the tundra along the way—it’s owned by a family in Teller and is part of the 25,000 reindeer that roam the Seward Peninsula. When you arrive in town, you’ll find one small local store and gift shop. And Native crafts are often available from the local people.
(Also called Beam Rd. or Kougarok Rd.) - 85 miles (North) / 2 hours one-way without stops
For a journey back through the era of the gold rush, this is the perfect drive, as it winds past many of the old mining claims. In the distance, along the side of the hills, look for straight horizontal lines: These are ditches that were dug, by hand, to transport water to the claims years ago. You’ll also be able to see some old railroad bridges and tracks.
After about 10 miles you’ll come to the Dexter Roadhouse, rumored to have once been owned by Wyatt Earp. If it’s open, stop in for a cup of coffee or a cold drink.
At mile 38 is expansive Salmon Lake and Salmon Lake Campground; with picnic tables, outhouses, and grills, it’s the perfect place for to have lunch or camp overnight. As you gain elevation, the road is intersected by rivers and creeks used for transportation during the Gold Rush. Many still bear the names given to them by early prospectors from other parts of the country, such as the “Grand Central River.”
About 65 miles from Nome, there’s a worthwhile but very rocky detour: an 8-mile turnoff to Pilgrim Hot Springs, which some locals consider one of the most stunning spots on the Nome road system. Once you have returned to the Nome-Taylor Road, you will find the road ends at the Kougarok River Bridge—it’s not possible to drive into Taylor.
72 miles (East) / 2 hours one-way without stops
For the most variety and plenty of Alaskan character, take this road to the community of Council. You’ll head east out of town along coastal flats, grasslands, and wide, sandy beaches, following the coast of the Bering Sea northeast for about 30 miles before turning inland. Get out and beachcomb for old artifacts and beach glass washed ashore by storms. Stop at Safety Sound, a prime area for birdwatching, and enjoy refreshments at Safety Roadhouse, the last checkpoint on the Iditarod. Meet the proprietor, Jimmy, then sign a dollar bill and stuff it into the ceiling.
At 33 miles, you’ll want to spend at least 15 minutes photographing the "Last Train to Nowhere," a remnant of the Council City and Solomon River Railroad. Steam engines and other rolling stock lie where they were abandoned on the tundra in 1907 when railroad construction suddenly halted. Continuing on, you’ll see that many rivers cross the road. Even if you’re not fishing, stop and enjoy the crystal-clear view to the shallow river bottoms. Another thing to watch for in summer: dried fish hanging from driftwood racks at many of the camps along the way.
As you approach Council, you may notice one of the things Nome residents like best about Council…there are trees! Many Nomeites collect their Christmas tree from this area before the road closes in the fall. At the end of the road, you’ll find that a river crosses the entrance to Council. Nome residents cross this river in their cars regularly, but it is important to know the routing to avoid large holes. It is not recommended that visitors attempt this crossing without assistance. Instead, turn to the right and you’ll come to an area from which local residents cross in boats. You may be able to catch a ride from someone going across by boat or car.
You won’t find many people in Council: very few families live here year-round, though 30-40 more families reside here during the summer months. It’s quite a change from gold rush days, when some 15,000 people lived here while chasing their dreams. Still, some of the old log cabins still stand, making it a fun little town to explore.
4.5 miles one way / 15 minutes one-way
For a drive with a view, take this quick route to the top of Anvil Mountain. Here you’ll find the abandoned White Alice Site, an early distant warning site left after WWII. But even better, on a clear day you’ll have an expansive view of the city of Nome, the Bering Sea, Sledge Island, and the surrounding tundra.
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