How many times in life do I get to say I spent a few days literally chasing rainbows? Not too many, but that’s what I got to do across the tundra surrounding Nome, Alaska. During my first Alaskan summer, I was trying to decide where else I could do some budget exploring in this incredibly vast state, so consulted Google for cheap flights to “Anywhere” out of Anchorage. Nome, Alaska was a top hit for affordable flights ($270), but with high priced hotel rooms ($300’ish/night), decided to find a rental vehicle that would double as lodging. So, for three nights I slept in the backseat of a truck cab and had a special experience exploring this small, grayish, blustery town on the Bering Sea and its three surrounding “roads to nowhere.”
Dark stormy pockets moving across the tundra and mountains meant I got to see dozens of rainbows, creating a sense of wonder while exploring a place new to me. The vast openness also makes you feel so small. The harsh wind attacking the coastline from the Bering Sea makes you feel like you’re on the edge of the world (because you kind of are! Nome can make the claim that they are further west than any other reasonably sized town on the continental North American land mass and only 200 miles below the Arctic circle). The vibrant green hills and wetlands buzzing with so many birds and animals (many that I’ve never spotted anywhere else!) make you feel like this place is so alive. Subsistence camps for hunting, groups of locals out foraging for berries, modern day gold dredging machines on the beaches, and rusted century old trains and gold dredging equipment sinking into the tundra make the area’s rich history of many converging cultures feel very tangible. The herds of musk oxen are simply comical and fearsome at the same time, making you truly appreciate evolution’s sense of humor and practicality.
The Town of Nome: Still a Gold Rush Town
The town of Nome has a tumultuous and rich history (literally … more than a century revolving around gold). The discovery of gold in one of Nome’s rivers by non-native Alaskans (the “Three Lucky Swedes,” one of whom was actually Norwegian) resulted in Nome’s tiny population swelling to nearly 30,000 residents overnight. There are incredible and seemingly implausible stories of miners from the Canadian Klondike rush getting an early start walking and even riding bicycles down the Yukon River during a harsh winter to beat the rush of miners coming in on boats after the ice broke up. Gold stampeders arriving by mid-summer 1899 were finding that this Alaskan city of gold consisted of rows of dirty tents with poor sanitation, makeshift saloons, terrible weather and no mining plots to be found along the rivers and tundra. New arrivals were pushed out to camp on Nome’s harsh, windy beaches … where they actually discovered that the beaches were also laden with gold!
It doesn’t take much to use your imagination to picture a bustling gold-rush town from 100 years ago as you walk the quiet streets of Nome. Today the warming and thawing Bering Sea still continues to lure prospective gold miners, with evidence of both historical and active mining throughout the town. Personally, the town drew me in each day of my trip for a hot meal since the airport had confiscated my planned meals of canned soup from my carry-on!
The Roads to Nowhere
When I started reading about Nome’s roads to nowhere, they immediately became a source of intrigue. Alaska’s road system overall is relatively limited compared to the overall vastness of the state, yet here was an Alaskan community (with rental cars!) where you could enjoy driving several hundred miles with no particular destination. The Nome-Teller Highway is just about as close to Russia’s Siberian regions as you could possibly be while still on the road system; the town of Teller is only about 55 miles from Russia.
The three roads range from 72 miles to 85 miles, which resulted in adding about 470 miles on gravel roads to my poor rental car in three days. Each road was initially built to support gold mining operations, and today connect some of Alaska’s remote Inupiaq communities. I couldn’t help but feel that each of these roads had its own distinct personality as I took in different sights each day.
Musk Oxen of Anvil Mountain
My first stop heading to the northern outskirts of the town of Nome was Anvil Mountain. Musk oxen were an animal I was really hoping to see and was just as surprised as this one that I startled when I came across a herd of them within an hour of fetching my rental car.
Musk oxen are somewhat tolerant of people, but still need a considerable amount of space (it’s recommended to give them a minimum of 150 feet of space). After watching a few running down the road, I would definitely not want to be in front of an aggravated, charging muskoxen. Muskoxen will also create a defensive ring; if they feel threatened by predators such as wolves or grizzlies they will back themselves into a tight circle surrounding their young with formidable horns facing outward. Fortunately this muskox did not see me as threatening enough to charge or alert the troops to make a formation!
Anvil Mountain itself and the larger than life Cold War Era satellites was another exciting trip to another era, complete with another musk oxen herd hanging out in the foreground. My photography brain was having a field day with this one!
Kougarok Road (Nome-Taylor Highway)
What I saw on this 86 mile “highway to nowhere:” moose, rough legged hawks, greater white fronted geese, tundra swans, sandhill cranes, snowshoe hares, a lake hosting the northernmost run of salmon, rainbows over rolling green hills and dark gloomy mountains.
After taking a long walk at Anvil Mountain, Kougarok Road was the first “road to nowhere” that I explored out of Nome. This gravel highway starts on the edge of the Bering Sea and cuts north through the Seward Peninsula for 86 miles. The road crosses the beautiful and gloomy looking Kigluaik Range which was hosting a few roaming storm systems and rainbows. It continues into the wetlands and green, rolling lowland hills of the central Seward Peninsula before apparently transitioning into a four-wheeling trail for locals to make it into the small community of Taylor. My energy started dropping long before the late sunset so turned around 15 miles before the road ended to find a campsite on BLM lands.
I saw at least a few different species of birds that were new to me along this road. The Seward Peninsula is a birding hotspot with a huge range of birds migrating from all over the world as soon as the ice starts breaking up. I spotted a trio of rough legged hawks (probably? my bird ID skills are a bit rough!) that appeared to be hunting and then returning to an exposed nesting side on a small ridge near the road. These hawks tend to pick more exposed nesting sites as opposed to finding shelter under cliff overhangs. They also make up less than 2% of hawk sightings in Alaska out of the five hawk species that Alaska hosts, so it was exciting to encounter these stout and fierce looking predators circling the tundra.
What I saw on the 72 mile “highway to nowhere” east of Nome: musk ox herds, brilliant rainbows, red throated loons, old gold dredges, trains sinking into the tundra, subsistence camps, common eiders, Arctic terns, pintail ducks, seals, red foxes, miles of beach, mountains, rivers, spruce forest and more tundra.
On my second day in Nome, I drove the gravel Nome-Council highway east of Nome. This highway should take only 2 hours one way with no stops, but found that the drive was packed with so many fascinating things that I spent well over 10 hours driving and going for short walks. The road follows a stunning coastline along the blustery Bering Sea for 30 miles of grasslands, wetlands and beaches where gold is still found if you look hard enough! Old gold dredges are sunk into the dunes where they were abandoned a century ago and modern day gold dredging contraptions are seen on the beach and offshore still searching for gold today. The dunes near the beach are peppered with subsistence camps supporting indigenous communities that still thrive on harvesting marine creatures from the sea.
I also had a few more “new to me” bird sightings on this route too, including the Common Eider and Red Throated Loon.
The inland stretch of this road winds and climbs through a mountain range, then descends into spruce forest that is uncharacteristic of this area. Then the road just ends! Only locals know the secret to safely navigating and driving their vehicles through the water of the river that lies just beyond the highway’s official end to reach their small community. Talk about a town that does not want to be found!
What I saw on this 72 mile “highway to nowhere:” a rare Alaskan lightning storm, arctic ground squirrels, wimbrels, glacier carved mountains, red throated loons, more of the Bering Sea, gold dredges and an Inupiat village.
The Nome-Teller road cuts 72 miles northwest across the Seward Peninsula to a small Inupiat community called Teller. The first 10 to 20 miles have incredible views of the Bering Sea across the high tundra. As I moved further inland and started to skirt around the glacier-carved Kigluaik Mountains, the wind started getting meaner and the skies more threatening. Dark swirling clouds seemed to be a permanent fixture around a group of formidable mountains dominating the landscape to the north. I stopped to photograph a river in the foreground of Singatuk mountain, otherwise known as the “weather maker.” Lightning storms are unusual in Alaska and have only started occurring here more often in recent years due to climate change, so was surprised to see a few bold flashes of lightening in the dark clouds created by Singatuk. The guidebook I was using seemed to be accurate in forewarning me that I wouldn’t be likely to spot wildlife in this stormy area subjected to constant wind and long winters.
As you get closer to the Bering Sea on the Seward Peninsula’s opposite coast, the tundra starts turning lush and green. The warm looking blanket of green vegetation and berry bushes draped over the hills is only a tease, and abruptly gives way to a blustery world of grey fogginess as you descend downhill towards the Seward Peninsula’s opposite coast on the Bering Sea. The road ends in Teller, a town of about 300 (mostly) Inupiat people. Driving through this town that seems perched on the edge of the world (although only 55 miles from Russia!), you get the sense that people here no doubt have a certain amount of grit to survive here and embrace the harsh beauty of this place.
Trip Bonus: One More Musk Oxen Herd at the Town Landfill
Shortly before turning in for my last night in Nome, I decided to stop at Nome’s town dump. It was actually a listed stop on the local road guide as a place to potentially see wildlife, particularly red foxes and birds scavenging for food. There were no foxes or birds in sight, but I was stoked to see one more crew of musk oxen casually moseying and munching their way through the piles of debris and equipment. Alaska – you never cease to amaze me:)