[by Michelle Theall]
Despite an economy driven by oil and commercial fishing, Valdez earns the moniker “Little Switzerland” honestly. The city of around 4,000 people rests in a deep fjord beneath the 5,000-foot peaks of the Chugach Mountains, with waterfalls cascading down lush green hillsides at every turn and calm, clear waters lapping along the small boat harbor of Port Valdez. While you can see the terminus of the trans-Alaska pipeline here as well as the prominence of the Prince William Sound (PWS) fishery, it’s the surrounding glaciers and fjords and marine life that mesmerize visitors and turn the small port city into an adventurous playground.
1. Valdez Museum and Historical Archive: Immerse yourself in the history by visiting exhibits from the earliest days of Valdez, the Copper River Valley, and PWS. Two buildings house artifacts and art exploring everything from Native tribal culture and the gold rush to the building of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill. A 1:20-scale model of Old Town Valdez before the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake provides a precise miniature replica of the city before it was rebuilt. valdezmuseum.org
2. Pangaea Adventures: Take a guided trip to a calm-water paddling zone for kayaking the waters beneath Columbia Glacier. You’ll also walk on the moraine; watch for bald eagles, sea lions, Dall porpoises, and whales; and warm up with hot chocolate and snacks. Beginners are welcome! alaskasummer.com
3. Lu-Lu Belle: Ride in comfort on a luxury yacht crafted with teak and mahogany, and piloted by Capt. Fred Rodolf, a guide with nearly 40 years of experience and an expert on the PWS ecosystem. Plying the PWS, you’ll visit the Columbia Glacier, the second largest tidewater glacier in North America. White thunder erupts as calving ice crashes into the sound scattering sea birds and rocking seals atop floating icebergs. Whales often seen en route include humpback, orca, Minke, and gray. Onboard, enjoy fresh-baked goods and hospitality. lulubelletours.com
4. Alaska Sharks Dive Expeditions: Diving in Alaska might seem heart-stopping crazy, but guests rave about the experience as a unique excursion found no place else. Ravencroft Lodge and Alaska Sharks take divers on an odyssey to swim with massive salmon sharks while discovering jellyfish blooms, octopus, eels, anemones, and sea stars. The stars, however, are the salmon sharks that congregate in a place dubbed Shark Alley and gorge on spawning salmon in early July. After your swim with the fishes, you can warm up inside the remote lodge and explore the 240-acre retreat overlooking PWS. alaskasharks.com
5 The Goat Trail: In the late 1800s, the U.S. Army found a native trail in Keystone Canyon and developed it to provide a glacier-free route for travelers, prospectors, and military personnel from the Port of Valdez to the Interior. Today, visitors can park at Bridal Veil Falls and hike 1.6 miles of the pack-train trail through old-growth rainforests, while enjoying views of the canyon and watching for black and brown bears, moose, and Sitka blacktail deer. valdezalaska.org/place/goat-and-wagon-road-trail.
Prince William Sound
Prince William Sound includes three unique cities (Whittier, Cordova, and Valdez) and the Native village, Tatitlek, along 3,800 miles of coastline and 10,000 square miles of protected marine and mainland regions. Sandwiched between the Kenai Peninsula and the Chugach Mountains, the area teems with life: humpback, sei, fin, minke, and orcas, as well as more than 220 species of birds. On shore, Sitka-spruce forests play host to black and brown bears, moose, and mountain goats. Overall, PWS contains 150 glaciers, including 17 tidewater glaciers, which spill into the sound. And access is easy: Drive one hour from Anchorage to Whittier and catch a ferry or drive 304 miles from Anchorage to Valdez via the Glenn and Richardson highways. Attractions abound in an area famous for its expansive and natural beauty.
Prince William Sound Science Center: Capitalizing on its location in Cordova on PWS, one of the greatest living laboratories, the PWS Science Center leads the way in research on climate change, sustainability, food webs, avian influenza, forage-fish surveys, and sea-bird migration.
Columbia Glacier: As the second largest tidewater glacier in North America, Columbia Glacier dominates PWS. Named by the Harriman Alaska expedition in 1899 for Columbia University, the glacier kicks off two cubic miles of ice into the sound annually. It is the largest contributor to rising sea levels in the country and has receded more than nine miles in the last 37 years. Mount Einstein, an 11,552-foot peak in the Chugach Mountains, feeds the glacier, which is 34 miles long, three miles wide, and more than 3,000-feet thick in some places.
NOAA Recovery Data: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been monitoring the recovery of PWS from the Exxon Valdez spill since 1990. In 1989, on Good Friday, the tanker ruptured its hull on Bligh Reef and dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into the sound. Each year researchers collect data from 20 study sites to measure the numbers and kinds of species of intertidal plants and animals they find in the PWS area. The consensus to date is that the sound has made a remarkable recovery from a severe injury, but it remains an ecosystem in transition.