The Nome - Council Road runs east of Nome 72 miles and takes 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 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. Like thousands of past patrons, you’ll want to leave your mark here by signing a dollar bill and sticking it on the ceiling, wall, or doorframe.
One of the most famous sites around these parts, the “Last Train to Nowhere,” comes into view at around 33 miles. This remnant of the Council City and Solomon Railroad is sinking slowly into the water-logged tundra, where it’s been for more than 100 years. Head out to the viewing platform, for a quintessential photo. 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 it…there are trees! Many Nome-ites collect Christmas trees 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 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, although 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.
The city park at the east edge of Nome is a hidden gem of pond and tundra habitat. Birds flock here, especially during the early days of spring-thaw when the pond is an ice-free oasis amidst broad areas of frozen ocean. With the constant arrival and stopover of migrant waterbirds, this revolving door is worth checking frequently during late May and early June, and species associated with beach areas and marine waters are just steps away. At least 40 bird species, including waterfowl, shorebirds, raptors, gulls, terns, swallows, and songbirds (warblers and sparrows), can be seen at this location over time. Muskrat, red fox, mink, lemming, vole, and shrew are also common in meadows.
Beginning in the summer of 1899, thousands of men, women, and children worked shoulder-to-shoulder to glean treasure from these shores after news of Nome’s “Golden Beaches” rocketed around the world. To this day, hearty independent miners continue to work many area beaches with high bankers and sluice boxes. Most find themselves braving the cold waters in wetsuits to operate small, modern, floating suction dredges essentially vacuuming ore-bearing materials off the ocean floor.
This 1940s-era gold dredge is still afloat in its dredging pond but saw little action in its day. By the time the machine arrived, shipped in pieces from Seattle in 1946, World War II had ended and gold prices were falling. The dredge was repossessed by the bank in 1947 and never operated again. Interpretive signs tell the story and a boardwalk across the wetlands provides enhanced bird viewing.
The road junction is marked by ponds and tundra meadows within sight of the coastal beachline. Loons, red-breasted merganser, long-tailed duck, scoters, gulls, and Arctic tern are common on the marine water and sometimes venture inland to ponds or tundra tussocks. Less frequently, Aleutian tern and long-tailed jaeger may be interspersed among perched glaucous and mew gulls near the road.
The bridge marks a mixing zone where fresh river water meets tidal salt water and turns brackish. This creates a blend of water types and habitats and attracts many different birds to areas of open water or the mud-bar edges of islands. Birds forage, loaf, and roost—sometimes in tight clusters of mixed species—making this a good spot for lengthy observations. Wide meadows and broad, lazy bends in the river also attract geese, cranes, shorebirds, and gulls in good numbers, even unusual species like Arctic loon, red knot, black-tailed godwit, red-necked stint, ivory gull, and white wagtail
Beyond the bridge, a long line of small buildings hugs the coast where a U.S. Army post once stood during the early gold rush. Fort Davis was dismantled in 1923 as Nome’s economy declined. The buildings you see today are locally-owned hunting and fishing subsistence camps. The Inupiat used this area well before the soldiers arrived because of diverse and abundant birds, fish, and mammals. Please do not disturb or trespass.
The crossing offers expansive views of a variety of creekside habitats, each with its own distinctive characteristics. In spring the upstream portion of the creek is filled with thick layers of glaciered ice that build up from winter’s continual freezing of the spring waters that flow year-round into the creek. This late flow of melt water attracts waterbird species long after other areas are ice-free. Driftwood collects in the deeper pools around the road crossing. Beaver and river otter are likely to be found here and insects hatch in the racks of logs, attracting many birds.
Cape Nome is a massive granitic outcrop that is much more resistant to weathering than surrounding lands. Local Alaska Native corporations quarry the rock, which is trucked or barged to large-scale construction projects up and down the coast. Nome’s seawall is built from this granite. Amidst considerable construction or quarry activity, birds continue to nest or roost on the rock faces. The thickly-vegetated slopes attract dense numbers of warbler and sparrow species during the spring nesting season.
As you round Cape Nome, the Cape Nome Roadhouse is on the shore-side of the road. Road-houses once flourished along trails around the state, providing food and shelter for winter travelers who often arrived by dog team or horse-drawn sleigh. The Cape Nome Roadhouse also served as an orphanage after the devastating epidemics of the early 1900s and as a World War II communications base. It is now a privately-owned camp.
Leaving Cape Nome, the road passes through the coastal grasslands, dunes, and meadows of a long and narrow barrier island environment. This sandy strip of land divides the protected wetlands and lagoon of Safety Sound from the unprotected marine waters of Norton Sound and the Bering Sea. The close proximity of these waters makes this one of the most dynamic and interesting places for birdlife on the road system.
The Safety Sound roadhouse still opens in summer to offer travelers shelter from the rain or a cool beverage to wash down the dust. It’s closed the rest of the year except for several weeks in March, when it serves as the final checkpoint for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The Safety Bridge is a good vantage point to watch changing tides and the movement of large and small fish and their predators. Scan for the bobbing heads of seals attracted by the summer fish runs.
Safety Lagoon slowly narrows and mixes with wetlands, ponds, and the Bonanza River estuary. Thousands of tundra swan move through this area on their spring migration. Breeding swans move on to upland ponds to nest and raise their young, while non-breeding birds may remain all summer. In the fall, parts of the lagoon and Solomon River wetlands turn white with huge groups of swans preparing for fall migration.
In the fall, people fish for tomcod from the bridge. Deep diving ducks feed in the channel depths of the Bonanza River. Sandhill crane feed on berries, plant shoots, roots, insects, and even small rodents. Red-throated loon and, less commonly, Pacific loon float the waters.
Just across Bonanza Bridge, three rusty steam locomotives and some rolling stock lie sinking into the water-logged tundra. Dubbed “The Last Train to Nowhere,” they are all that remain of a dream to build the most extensive and prosperous rail system on the Seward Peninsula. In the early 1900s, Chicago investors backed construction of the Council City & Solomon River Railroad in an effort to link the region’s major mining centers by rail.
The town of Solomon has had several names and locations since the Fish River tribe established a fishing and hunting camp called Amutach on a sandbar between the Bonanza and Solomon Rivers. In 1899, when gold was discovered in the gravels of the Solomon River, a mining boomtown sprang up on the site with a post office, several saloons, a railroad terminal, a ferry dock, and over 2,000 residents. Thirteen large dredges worked the Solomon River. In 1913 a ferocious storm destroyed the town and residents relocated upstream to the recently abandoned town of Dickson, which has since been washed away
Shovel Creek passes under the road through a double culvert before it enters the Solomon River. A year-round spring that feeds the creek near the road keeps the water from freezing in winter. This attracts dippers, beaver, mink, and otter and encourages the growth of cottonwoods. The spring-fed creek also offers a moderate amount of spawning habitat for pink, chum, and coho salmon in late July and August. Dolly Varden are present but few Arctic grayling.
Lee’s Dredge, the last dredge to work the Solomon River, was operated by the Lee family until the 1960s. It now provides nesting platforms for raptors and ravens. You may see green-winged teal and phalaropes feeding in the dredge pond and songbirds in the surrounding willows.
An old road bed leading to a Solomon River overlook is a good spot to look for salmon, Dolly Varden, and Arctic grayling in late July and August. Chum salmon rarely spawn beyond here as dredging took out the pools and riffles they seek. Coho salmon spawn a little farther upriver. Say’s phoebe will launch from its nest on a secluded ledge or crevice on the cliff face to catch insects flying above the river. Northern shrike, harlequin duck, spotted sandpiper, and wandering tattler are seen from this vantage point. In some years, the cliff is occupied by common raven, rough-legged hawk, or other raptors so be careful your presence does not disturb nesting birds. The side road reconnects with Council Road at Mile 41.
In 1904 a telephone line ran from Nome to the railroad terminus at Dickson, to the mining camps up Big Hurrah Creek, and on to Council. For one brief summer, parcels could be mailed to any point in the U.S. and money orders sent worldwide. The Council City & Solomon River Railroad also ran past, offering miners a one-hour trip to the coast. Grizzlies, moose, muskox, and reindeer are frequently sighted between the creek and East Fork Bridge.
Approaching the East Fork of Solomon River, a wide pull-off on the left is an excellent place to park and scan the slopes and river valley for wildlife. Northern wheatear and American pipit frequent the rocky slopes nearby. Cliff swallow often build nests on the bridge supports, and ravens and raptors occasionally nest in the area. This elevated view of the river makes it easy to find red-breasted merganser, harlequin duck, tattlers, and gulls.
The rocky outcrop across the Solomon River usually hosts an active golden eagle nest. Look for a huge tower of sticks and splashes of whitewash and orange lichen in the vicinity of the nest and surrounding perching sites. Built by eagles and added onto in successive years, the nest i s distinctive for its large size, construction, and shape. When not occupied by eagles, the large nest may be used by gyrfalcons.
A small parking area at the highest point is an excellent place to pull off the road safely and explore the alpine tundra. On a clear day this high point offers sweeping views of Norton Sound to the southeast and the westernmost boreal forest to the north. The open country can be a good place to spot moose, muskox, or grizzlies. Caribou, normally present in winter, are sometimes seen in summer too. You are more likely to see reindeer, however, which are distinguished by their pinto coloration, short legs, and the occasional ear tag.
Descending into terrain increasingly dominated by trees and willows, you are more likely to see a moose than a muskox. In late summer grizzlies feed on spawning chum salmon below the Fox River bridge. Salmon carcasses also attract red fox, gulls, and common ravens. Both abandoned and active beaver lodges and dams are found along the Fox River drainage. Dolly Varden, Arctic grayling, and chum and pink salmon can be seen from the bridge. Downstream, the narrow, swift-flowing river is hemmed in by dense vegetation. Spotted sandpiper may be seen on a sand bar on the east side of the road and belted kingfisher burrow into the riverbanks to nest.
The final section of the Council Road traverses habitat that is unlike any other along the road system—open parklands dotted with clusters of tall spruce trees. Northern harrier hunt voles, shrews, and lemmings in the meadows. In years of abundance, you may see snowshoe hares licking minerals from the roadbed. Lynx also frequent the area when hares are abundant. Moose feed on aquatic plants in lowland ponds.
River crossing warning! Unlike other braided rivers along the road system, the Niukluk River flows along a single broad channel. A large colony of cliff swallow inhabits the cliff banks downstream while tree swallow nest in aspen cavities and nest boxes put up by Council residents. Osprey, which nest down- stream, may be spotted flying over the river. Bald eagle are also associated with the river and nest at the Fish River confluence