What travels at about six miles per hour, crosses over 800 rivers and streams as well as three mountain passes, and takes six days to reach its destination?
You’ve got it! Oil!
Every day, about 1.8 million barrels of oil travel down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline from the Prudhoe Bay oil fields in North Alaska to the port of Valdez in Prince William Sound.
Slightly less than half of the $8 billion pipeline built in the mid 70s is buried. The remaining pipeline is on 78,000 aboveground supports, located 60 feet apart following a zigzag pattern to relieve stress from the traveling hot oil.
Winding from the Arctic region of Prudhoe Bay to the ice-free port of Valdez, the pipeline is visible near Fairbanks, Glennallen, Delta Junction, Valdez and along the Dalton and Richardson Highways.
It is little wonder that the 800 miles of this 48-inch pipe has become one of Alaska’s “must see” attractions. But interestingly enough – it is not just the humans who flock to be near it.
Apparently, and despite conservationists’ fears that the pipeline would disrupt the animals’ migration routes, it appears that the caribou are unexpectedly attracted to the warmth of the pipeline. The oil in the pipeline is warmed to ease its flow through the pipe, and caribou have been spotted near the pipeline in winter supposedly drawing comfort and support from the heat. There are even some reports of caribou giving birth next to it. In the summer, the caribou are known to congregate under the pipeline in order to get away from the mosquitos.
For humans, those wanting to see this man-made wonder for themselves, Fairbanks is a good place to start.
The Alyeska Pipeline Visitor Center, less than 10 miles from downtown Fairbanks, attracts thousands of visitors each year. From early May through mid-September this is the ideal place to view the pipeline and learn about its history and how it is operated.
If you want to see more of the pipeline than this, Fairbanks is also the ideal launch pad for bus tours and flight tours to Prudhoe Bay, but you need to be aware that valid picture identification like a passport or driver’s license is necessary in order to take part in the tour of the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, and entrance to the oil fields is only available through commercial tour operators.
If that doesn’t matter to you, you could always drive yourself to Prudhoe Bay, but be warned that most rental companies will not allow you to drive their cars on the Dalton Highway – which really should tell you enough not to take your own car along this route. But this is Alaska, and this is an adventure after all….
The Dalton Highway, Alaska’s life line to the Arctic, directly parallels the pipeline and was in fact built during construction of the line to provide access to remote construction camps. Today, the 420-mile highway begins just north of Fairbanks and leads north across the Arctic Circle to Coldfoot, the first stopover for bus tours to the oil fields. Coldfoot is also a jumping off point to the Gates of the Arctic National Park. The 240 miles from there to journey’s end at Deadhorse offer no services for travelers. Permits are no longer required to drive the gravel highway, but travelers should be prepared to drive slowly as the gravel road is very rough. In the other direction, and a less rugged alternative perhaps, the Richardson Highway from Fairbanks to Valdez also offers good views of the Trans-Alaska pipeline.
And finally the port of Valdez, the northernmost ice-free port in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most important ports in Alaska. A trip to Valdez allows the best views of the pipeline as it snakes its way down to the marine terminal at tidewater and unloads its liquid cargo into waiting tankers. And what more splendid location to end the journey of 800 miles than this beautiful fishing port – also known as “the Switzerland of Alaska”.