While Anchorage is a great town, there are great things to see outside of it too. A fantastic day trip can be had by visiting Whittier, a very unique town about 45 minutes south. First, I have to give a little history lesson. When WW II broke out, America was very worried that Alaska offered an easy route for the Japanese to invade the North American continent and then work their way south. As a result of a massive campaign, the U.S. built the first road to Alaska (the Al-Can hwy.), but the also needed an all-weather port to get supplies into the territory. Anchorage was the main city, but its port was too shallow for heavy draft and iced over in the winter. Surveyors as far back as 1914 had identified a possible solution – build a port on the east side of the Chugach mountain range and then tunnel through the range to reach Anchorage. Thus, the town of Whittier was born in 1941. Its deep water port never froze over and a tunnel was drilled for over 4 kilometers through the rock to reach the other side of the mountain range. Drilling the tunnel was so hard, they only made it big enough for a single train, so no auto traffic. Therefore, there was only train traffic into the town until 200 when they paved the tunnel and made it usable by vehicles as well as the train. This really opened up Whittier as a prime tourism spot.
But, I am getting ahead of myself. To start your trip, take the Seward Hwy. south from Anchorage. We have only one highway going south so this should be fairly easy to find. First, you will pass through Potter’s Marsh which is a great site to visit if you want to go out on a boardwalk and learn the ecology of the area as well as observe a lot of birds. Continuing on for about 45 minutes, you will wind along a beautiful highway with the sea on one side and soaring mountains on the other. Your destination is the old town of Portage. Portage used to be a town along the highway, but sunk beneath the high water mark during the 1964 earthquake. On its site, is our first stop the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This pay-to-enter private facility is a home for rescued animals of all types. It is a fantastic place for you to see Alaskan wildlife up close and personal such as bears, caribou, and moose.
From there leave the Seward Highway and travel east. After passing a number of campgrounds, you will reach the Portage Glacier Visitors Center. This facility, built on Portage Lake, is dedicated to education and research of glaciers. One of the jokes in Alaska is that his center was built in the ’90s right in front of Portage Glacier, but by the time they finished it, the glacier had retreated out of sight. No worries as you can take an hour long boat tour to visit the glacier up close and even sample the ice.
Right around the corner from Portage Lake is the Whittier Tunnel. It is a $12 fee for a car to pass and you need to get there ahead of the release time for passing into Whittier which occurs at the bottom of each hour. Everyone stages according to type of vehicle and then you are released to travel through over two miles of semi-solid rock.
Emerging on the other side is the small port of Whittier. For this trip, went drove up to an access road over the town that offered great views.
Although we did not do it this day, I highly recommend the 26 Glacier Cruise if you want to spend the day around Prince William Sound and see whales, otters and big glaciers calving into the water. You can get discounted tickets for this at the Elmendorf AFB Tours & Travel Office.
A great little spot to eat is the Inn at Whittier. One of the newer, more beautiful structures in town. It probably has the best view of the harbor and surroundings while you have a drink or get a meal.
There are other locales to eat at also, and we went to my wife’s favorite, the Swiftwater Café. Lots of character in this place as the walls are covered with Alaskan items and news. I had the halibut and she got clam chowder. The seafood was so incredibly fresh! My favorite is a corner which has articles on every shipwreck in Southeastern Alaska. For most of its history, this was the only way to reach Alaska and most of the wrecks leave you scratching your head on how did they get so far out of water. Don’t forget that 23 foot tide I mentioned in yesterday’s post!
Whittier is also a stop in the Marine Highway System. This is the ferry system that connect most of the southern part of Alaska and even reaches Prince Rupert, Canada. This is a great way to travel with your car and my wife and I took the ferry from Prince Rupert to Haines in 2006. The ferry is like a very basic cruise line and typically even has a U.S. Park Ranger aboard to explain the flora and fauna.
I mentioned how Whittier could only be reached by train until 2000 and it still can be today. The Alaska Railroad runs a short train from Anchorage to here for a little over $100 each. If you are not renting a car, this is a great way to see Whittier and parts in between in the observation car.
This is getting pretty long, let me break it here and continue tomorrow.