The 364-mile drive from Fairbanks to Valdez unfolds as a grand cross section of Alaska. It begins in the broad Interior valleys at the north, rises to the tundra and lakes of the Alaska Range, descends back down to the Copper River Country, and finally climbs over the steep coastal mountains into the Prince William Sound fjord where Valdez resides. This was the first route into Alaska, but today it is little traveled and mostly free of development, an opportunity to see real wilderness by car on paved road.
The intersection with the Denali Highway comes 81 miles south of there. This section has the most extraordinary scenery -- broad vistas, the Delta River, amazing alpine lakes (including long Summit Lake), and many views of the trans-Alaska pipeline. About 40 miles south of Delta Junction, a family has built an extraordinary 10-room wilderness lodge with post-and-beam construction and a copper roof. The Lodge at Black Rapids (www.lodgeatblackrapids.com; tel. 877/825-9413), overlooking the Black Rapids Glacier, is a luxurious outpost in the middle of nowhere. Rates are $175 to $190 double. There are just a few other widely scattered campgrounds and seasonal businesses on this stretch of highway. Eighty miles from Delta Junction, the spot on the map known as Paxson, the intersection with the Denali Highway has a business called the Paxson Inn. You can fill your tanks there, but I wouldn't recommend the restaurant or the rooms.
The next town on the Richardson is Glennallen. Fourteen miles south of Glennallen, Copper Center is a tiny Athabascan community on the old Richardson Highway near many major rivers, around which people here orient their lives in the summertime. To get out on the water, for fishing or just floating, contact Alaska River Wrangellers (tel. 888/822-3967 or 907/822-3967; www.riverwrangellers.com), based at the landing strip, a rafting firm owned by pioneers of the industry in Alaska, Nova Raft and Adventure Tours. They offer half-day floats for as little as $99, with a schedule that allows clients to choose the level of risk, adventure, and remoteness they are comfortable with, or to combine white-water rafting with salmon fishing. Those trips allow access to areas on the Tonsina River most anglers don't brave, for $299 full day.
The town's historic roadhouse, the Copper Center Lodge (www.coppercenterlodge.com; tel. 866/330-3245 or 907/822-3245), has long been worthy of a stop for a meal or even overnight. The history of the lodge dates from the bizarre gold-rush origins of Copper Center and Valdez, when about 4,000 stampeders to the Klondike tried a virtually impossible all-American route from Valdez over the glaciers of the Wrangell-St. Elias region. Few made it, and hundreds who died are buried in Copper Center. The original lodge was built of the stuff they left behind. The existing building dates from 1932, and the site also has a museum and quilt store. Rooms for up to four are $130 to $165, and they're open year-round.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.