“There’s a million dollars out there that could be yours,” the guy at the table behind me says.
“I don’t know,” the man says in a doubtful tone, “the season is about half over.”
I continue to eavesdrop as they share numbers back and forth. The strange thing is that the first guy is probably right – there is a million dollars out there in the bottom of the Bering Sea, after all this is Nome, a gold town. And as you would expect in a gold town, it feels like the wild west as the whole cafe is filled with men talking about gold as a disgruntled looking waitress tops off coffee cups around the Polar Cub Café.
When I arrived in Nome, Richard picked me up from the airport and took me to the little visitor center on Front Street across from where the Iditarod ends each year. Within 2 minutes of being in the visitor center I found myself holding a flask of gold flakes that a dredger had ‘scooped’ up. The Italian miner who owned this little flask of gold looked pretty haggard, like he had been out at it for a few days, but he was pretty happy with his bounty. I stared at the flakes and turned the flask to see the light reflecting off the gold flakes and thought- Nome is cool.
I like Nome – this is my kind of town. No, I’m not going to move here, I just like to observe (however there is an abundance of men). It’s gritty, dirty, hard-living, and that holds some weird allure to me.
Nome has a fascinating gold history however I wasn’t there to pan for gold,
I was there to be nowhere.
Nome, population 3,500, is located on the Seward Peninsula, along the shores of the Bering Sea and is completely disconnected from the rest of Alaska. The only way in is via plane, or dogsled in the winter. It has 3 roads, but none of those roads connect Nome to anything but remote communities. I was here to see what life was like in this old gold town and drive the roads to nowhere.
Broadway in Alaska
Richard Beneville of Nome Discovery Tours was my guide for Nome and the roads to nowhere. Richard, an 80-year-old former Broadway actor, is the most entertaining character in town. “Thank God for Alaska – it saved my life,” Richard said with a hearty smile. He weaves his fascinating and theatrical story about his life, alcoholism, living above the Arctic Circle, and how he ended up in Nome as you spend the day with him. And I can’t stress this enough, meeting Richard Beneville is actually reason enough to go to Nome. But if you want more reasons, I have plenty more reasons to go and things to do in Nome.
Things to Do in Nome
Tundra Views and the Roads to Nowhere
Three roads of no more than 300 miles total lead out of Nome like a spoke and connect some remote communities to Nome. The roads are gravel and only maintained June to September – after that, winter takes over and all bets are off. There are no gas stations or facilities on these roads, so leave prepared. Driving the roads is a great way to get a feel for the Arctic tundra landscape, gold history, do some photography, and see how locals live in the cabins that dot the landscape. Richard and I even stopped and talked to reindeer herders along the way.
Last Train to Nowhere
We drove Council Road East out of Nome to view the Last Train to Nowhere (as it’s called today); a rusted out train that is sinking in the tundra about 40 miles out of Nome. I love abandoned photography so I was eager to see this sorry, rusty sight. The engines were originally used on the New York City elevated lines in 1881, then were shipped to Alaska in 1903 to serve the miners along this line to Nome. A huge storm in 1913 took out the tracks and stranded the rolling stock where it is today, literally dissolving under the influence of Bering Sea storms.
Safety Road House
Council Road is also the sight of the Safety Road House, the last stop/checkpoint on the Iditarod. We pulled up and parked in the afternoon, we were the only car around. The outside looked rather rough and tumble and the inside was no different. The walls were plastered with one dollar bills, there were some old bar tables, old sofas that look rather scary in the bright daylight, and an old bartender who looked like he had been a fixture there for a while. Richard told me that not only is this place packed during the Iditarod, but when the bars close in town at 2 AM, many people drive out here as they are open later; basically bar hopping in nowhere.
Pilgrim Hot Springs
Pilgrim Hot Springs is a subarctic oasis full of tundra trees and bubbling hot springs found about 7 miles off of Kougarok Road. From a distance you see pine trees, balsam poplar trees swaying in the wind, and a few old buildings. It was a Catholic mission and orphanage built in 1919 serving children whose parents were wiped out by the 1918 influenza epidemic. You can explore the abandoned buildings that look like a nuclear bomb hit nearby with old rusted bikes out in the grass, or you can try to take a dip in the hot springs…but this is not tourist site – so enter at our own risk.
More on my journey to this tundra tree oasis.
Migrating birds, Tundra Swans, Reindeer, and muskoxen inhabit the tundra around Nome, so a drive out on any of the roads to nowhere will yield some great wildlife sightings – as well as some wild blueberry sightings. Richard was a pro at bird watching as we often screeched to a halt and Richard got out his binoculars to investigate sightings.
Why am I telling you to go visit a cemetery? First, it has nice views of the city and the coast. Second, it is also the only place in Nome city where you’ll find trees. And finally, it has a cookie recipe on one of the gravestones….yes, a cookie recipe. Happy hunting.
Cold War Remnants
During the cold war, Nome was a pretty important place. Being the largest ‘town’ closest to Russia meant that there was a lot of potential for spying to go on. Richard took me to the top of Anvil Mountain, one of the highest points in Nome, not only to show me the view, but to also show me some Cold War relics. You’ll see the abandoned White Alice Site remnants of a communication center used in the Korean War. It used tropospheric scatter for over-the-horizon links and microwave relay for shorter line-of-sight links.
Pho at Twin Dragon
After all of this sight seeing, you are bound to be hungry. Nome has small array of restaurants that are all adequate, but the most surprising one to me was the Twin Dragon. In this remote little town I actually found delicious Pho (Vietnamese soup). Some of the best I’ve had outside of Vietnam! Go in, get a big bowl, and warm up.
Polar Cub Cafe
And if you want to go to the hub of Nome, then you must stop in at the Polar Cub Café. You can eavesdrop on gold dredging conversations, have a giant stack of pancakes, and also have a great view of the crashing waves in the Bering Sea.
Nome isn’t a normal stop on the Alaska tourism route, but in my opinion it should be! It’s full of local culture, history, and will give you a whole different view of the state.
Hire Richard from Nome Discovery Tours
Call: (907) 304-1453 or (907) 443-2814
Learn more at Nome Tourism
Stay: There aren’t many hotel choices in Nome, but I stayed at Aurora Inn Hotel
Stampede Vehicle Rentals – (907) 443-3838 or 800-354-4606.
Dredge No.7 Inn – (907) 304-1270 (For B&B Guests only)
Stosh’s Rental, Inc. – (907) 434-1499
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See all of my Nome photographyNome Photography
I was a guest of Alaska Tourism during my time in Nome, however all opinions in this post are my own.