Don’t overlook Big Delta State Historical Park along the Richardson Highway. It’s a great option for families looking for a road-system adventure with a dose of cool Alaska history.
A (usually) wonderful occupational hazard of travel writer life is setting out to explore Alaska’s lesser-known sights. I’ve just returned from a four-night journey to do just that, swinging around the loop from Anchorage to Fairbanks and back along the Glenn, Richardson, and Parks Highways, tracing Last Frontier history, culture, and recreation as an eager Alaska roadtripper.
I camped by turn in my favorite backpacking tent and a selection of Alaska State Parks public use cabins, and all were great. But my favorite? Oh yes, my favorite has to be the Big Delta State Historical Park.
Located eight miles north of Delta Junction in Alaska’s Interior region, “Big Delta” is part living museum, part roadhouse, and all hospitality. Once a cornerstone of the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail system, this 10-acre historical site is the perfect place for anyone looking to dive deep into the challenges – and rewards – of Alaska life before modern convenience.
Part of the Alaska State Parks day use and overnight facilities tracing nearly the entire length of the Richardson Highway, Big Delta’s treasured artifacts are managed by the Delta Historical Society, some of which date back to 1900, when the area was a hub for travelers transiting north and south between Fairbanks and Valdez to mine gold. It also provided one of the only telegraph links around the then-territory and the rest of the United States, with the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) headquartered near the roadhouse.
Plan to spend at least a few hours exploring Big Delta, starting at the main parking lot (and campground) and winding your way through the property. Rika Wallen was proprietress of much of this land throughout the early 1900’s, hosting traveler upon traveler at “Rika’s Roadhouse” in between acting as storekeeper, postmistress, and farmer. The Delta Historical Society has done an admirable job of keeping pristine the buildings and items, including equipment used by those settling in the area. Look for blacksmith tools, horse tack, photos, and many pieces of furniture and kitchen supplies from that era. I wandered for hours, taking photos and reading old newspaper clippings and stories penned by those living and working along the Richardson Highway back then.
A standout aspect of Big Delta is also the remodeled cafe, managed by park concessionaires who also take care of reservations for the cozy Ferryman’s Cabin on the property. Inside the cafe, look for homemade soups, reindeer dogs, pies, and fresh coffee and tea in addition to all the other accouterments of a roadside stop, including the welcoming smiles upon arrival. Open daily between 10 a.m.-4 p.m., the cafe is a great place to take a break and share stories from the road.
When the park closes its doors at the end of the day, nearly everyone departs. Everyone, of course, except the lucky few overnighting in the Ferryman’s Cabin. This historic log structure sits along the banks of the Tanana River and was, as its name suggests, the place to secure passage to the other side with the help of a small ferry. Now an Alaska State Park public use cabin, the structure is a charming way to complete your journey into Alaska’s past. The cabin has electricity and heat, but no water (hosts do provide a five-gallon jug of water for guests). Bring your sleeping bag, camp stove, food and some chairs to sit out front and watch the river-borne activity, and pat yourself on the back for being there.
How long does it take to get there? Allow about two hours from Fairbanks, and almost six hours from Anchorage, taking into account summer traffic along the Glenn and Richardson highways. From Valdez, allow about four hours, depending upon traffic and how many times you stop for photos along Thompson Pass.
How much does it cost? Renting the Ferryman’s Cabin is $75/night. It sleeps four on two single bunks and one double bunk. Camping in the lot area is $20/night, and day use is $5 (of course, if you have an Alaska State Parks pass, that’s a fee already paid).
Psst: The park hosts told me that the cabin is hardly ever used, so make tracks, eh? This is a winner.