December/January: A Sound Choice
With breath-taking views, abundant wildlife and a variety of recreational opportunities, Prince William Sound is truly an Alaskan playground
Within a half-hour of reaching our public-use cabins in Shoup Bay State Marine Park, in scenic Prince William Sound, just 11 miles from Valdez, the kids were out building beach-rock forts and the adults were setting up camp chairs around the fire.
Across the beach loomed the impressive Shoup Glacier which, in the past 45 years, has receded more than a mile and a half, making way for the pair of state-owned cabins and uncovering the beach we were now enjoying. This five-day, three-family getaway capped the school year for the children and adults, who looked forward to the relaxed pace that comes with summertime in Alaska.
Locals and visitors alike have reason to choose Prince William Sound as a destination for relaxation. The calm waters and protected bays offer a soothing alternative to busy everyday life, and the scenery is breathtaking. High cliffs, protected inlets, countless glaciers and looming mountains seem to go on forever. Dall sheep, mountain goats, sea lions, seals and otters abound, as well as thousands of shorebird and seabird species and plenty of salmon and halibut.
Our family’s trip focused on kayaking and camping but, for those who’d rather experience Prince William Sound at a more leisurely pace, there are plenty of visiting options.
One of the most popular options is Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises, one of the longest-standing cruise operators in the state, based out of Valdez. Let these real Alaskans show you the area. Explore the calm waters of the sound, including Columbia and Mears Glacier, seals, sea otters, sea lions, whales, porpoise and marine birds. Tours are fully narrated and last between 6.5 and 9 hours. All of the employees are locals from Valdez who are there year-round to protect the pristine environment in which they operate. (866-867-1297, 907-835-4731)
For even longer forays into the sound, Auklet Charters offers custom, multi-day boat charters that specialize in natural history cruises and scientific research. Adventure cruises emphasize wildlife, glaciers, hiking, birds, photography and history. The local owners and operators have more than 30 years experience with Prince William Sound environmental issues and research work permitted with the U.S. Forest Service, Chugach National Forest and Alaska State Marine Parks for guided hiking. Trips provide cooked meals and bunking with bedding for up to six people, and can depart from Valdez or the sound’s two other main communities, Cordova and Whittier. (907-424-3428)
Valdez is perhaps that most-visited community in Prince William Sound due its easy road access and size. It’s a sizeable community, too, with some 4,000 residents. The town survives on tourism, fishing and oil development. Valdez is the southern terminus to the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which feeds crude oil from the North Slope clear to the port for passage south. The community boasts a hospital, several museums and even a community college that draws a healthy population of students from within Alaska and the Lower-48 states.
Prince William Sound Community College is a separately accredited community college, affiliated with University of Alaska Anchorage. It’s a quintessential small-town school, offering friendly student service in the most gorgeous place on earth. Come experience Alaska while earning an affordable education. Scholarships and payment plans are available. (888-478-8800)
Visit Valdez’s Whitney Museum for Alaska Native arts and artifacts, Alaskan animal mounts (including polar bears and moose), ivory carvings, baskets, parkas, mukluks, dolls, a kayak display and much more. It’s a great place to experience a sampling of all that is Alaska, and admission is free. (800-478-8800)
Cordova is just a stone’s throw from Valdez as the crow flies (a hair over 50 miles), perched at the southeast end of the sound and home to about 2,400 year-round residents. The community was built on Orca Inlet, at the base of Eyak Mountain, and hosts some of the best birding in the state. The area is home to one of the largest shorebird migrations in the world and, each spring, bird enthusiasts congregate to watch it all happen.
Today, Cordova supports a large fishing fleet for Prince William Sound and several fish-processing plants. Copper River red salmon, pink salmon, herring, halibut, bottom fish and other species are harvested and sent to fancy restaurants in the Lower 48 to be consumed within 48 hours. Copper River reds have gained a reputation worldwide, and their journey to outside markets often begins in Cordova.
Cordova Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center can help visitors explore their quaint town. Between salmon fishing, hiking, kayaking, rafting, glacier viewing and wildlife watching, the curious visitor can stay busy indefinitely. Cordova is a uniquely Alaskan community, shaped by its dramatic natural setting, rich cultural heritage and colorful residents. (907-424-7260)
The Reluctant Fisherman Inn is the best setting from which to explore. It has been an icon on Cordova’s waterfront, overlooking the harbor for 40 years. The rooms have been updated recently, and the new deck with a beautiful view of the harbor is certainly one of the best in the state. Enjoy the area’s world-famous Copper River salmon while enjoying the beauty of Orca Inlet, the surrounding mountains and the commercial-fishing fleet. (907-424-3272)
Prince William Sound’s third major community (perhaps the term “major” is a stretch, as fewer than 200 people live here year-round) is Whittier, which can be reached by a fun drive through the longest tunnel in North America, and is at the western edge of the sound.
Due to its close proximity to the population center of Alaska, Whittier offers the Anchorage-based visitor the easiest access to Prince William Sound, and thus can sometimes get even more traffic than Valdez.
The town started as an entrance point for U.S. troops during World War II, and the limited buildings there were constructed as purely functional living quarters for troops. The 14-story Hodge Building (now called Begich Towers) had 198 apartments and housed families and bachelors. The nearby Buckner Building, completed in 1953, had 1,000 apartments and was once the largest building in Alaska. It was called the “city under one roof,” and boasted a bowling alley, theater, swimming pool and shops for Army personnel. The hospital also was housed there.
Whittier Manor was built in the early 1950s as rental units for civilians. During this time, there were more than 1,000 people living there, while the facility remained active. But once the Army closed the port in 1960, the population quickly dived, leaving the behemoth buildings behind. Whittier Manor was converted to condominiums in 1964, and Begich Towers now is home to the majority of the residents.
Summer tourism is the primary economic driver in Whittier, and the summer stays busy with boaters and fishermen loading up and heading out to the sound. There are charter tours, glacier sightseeing tours, and other activities available in the area, and the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, completed in 2000, offeres visitors driving access.
Boat tours are one of the best ways to enjoy the sound from Whittier. Major Marine Tours offers a scenic glacier and wildlife cruise into two unique areas; Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords National Park. View towering glaciers, breathtaking scenery, and wildlife such as puffins and whales. Cruises include a park ranger narration and all-you-can-eat Alaska salmon and prime rib meal served onboard. Catamaran sailings are on select departures. Tours depart from Seward and Whittier. (800-764-7300)
For those who want to stay in Whittier for more than a day, The Inn at Whittier is the place to be. Located right on Whittier’s waterfront, it is truly Alaska’s premier deluxe lodging and dining establishment. As you leave the darkness of the tunnel, Whittier’s newest landmark comes into view, and your meals—and stay there—will be memorable. (907-472-3200)
Sam Gimelli with Keller Williams Real Estate is so convinced visitors will fall in love with Whittier that they’ll want to stay beyond a day or two at the Inn. His love for Whittier and its real estate began with the Begich Towers in 1992, and he has been active in the housing community there ever since. Sam and his wife have invested in three condos there, and if Whittier affects visitors the way it does him, he’d love to hear about it. (907-762-3125, email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Whether it’s Whittier, Valdez, Cordova or some unnamed cove, Prince William Sound is a spectacular maritime environment that seems to speak to visitors and residents alike. The 70-mile-wide sound, with its 3,000 miles of shoreline, offers endless possibilities for exploration. Fortunately, there are plenty of Alaskans willing to share their homes with visitors, and they’ll make planning a trip easy.