A wide range of trips throughout Southcentral Alaska.
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Valdez is a beautiful little city of unexpected extremes, amazing contrasts and fascinating history. Those factors combine to make it one of Alaska's most interesting communities.
Consider: Valdez sits at sea level on the eastern side of Prince William Sound, a stunning water park of 2,500 square miles dotted with tree-covered islands, small fjords and huge, iceberg-producing glaciers. While the town is at sea level, it is surrounded by 5,000-foot mountain peaks. Its setting has caused some to refer to Valdez as "Little Switzerland," as if you were looking at the Alps.
In the summer, Valdez is lush green. But just a few months earlier, the community is buried in snow. Valdez annually receives about 325 inches of snow; that's about 29 feet. About 20 miles up the Richardson Highway is Thompson Pass, the snowiest place in Alaska. The pass receives more than 600 inches of snow and once recorded more than 62 inches in a 24-hour period. Because Valdez is in a temperate rain forest, all that wintertime snow gives way to rain during the summer. Bring your rain gear - you'll fit in with all the locals.
And when it comes to history, it's hard to beat Valdez. The community has been involved in most of Alaska's major events including the Gold Rush, access to the Interior (the Richardson Highway was the state's first), the 1964 Good Friday earthquake (which killed more than 30 people in Valdez) and oil production (Valdez is the southern terminus of the 800-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the location of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill).
"Not only do we have amazing scenic beauty, but we have something for everyone," said Sharon Crisp, executive director of the Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Whether it's sightseeing, casual walks or more adventurous hiking and rappelling into a glacier crevasse, we've got it. And you've got to get out on the water.
"We're more remote, but we think that can be a benefit. Whether you've flown into Valdez, drove the Richardson Highway or taken the marine highway, you've seen some incredible beauty. Getting here is an adventure itself."
One of the best places to enjoy what Valdez offers is on the water. Companies offer sightseeing cruises, sea kayaking and charter fishing trips.
Stan Stephens Cruises (www.stanstephenscruises.com, 1-866-867-1297) has been serving Valdez visitors since 1971. It offers two cruises, one to Columbia Glacier and the other to Columbia and Meares glaciers. The Columbia cruise is about 6.5 hours and is $95 for adults and $47 for children, while the other cruise is about nine hours and is $130 and $65.
Columbia Glacier is the largest tidewater glacier in Southcentral Alaska and calves about 13 million tons of ice a day into Prince William Sound, said Colleen Stephens, general manager of Stan Stephens Cruises. People visiting the glacier are seeing history in the making. "We are in the middle of a massive retreat that started in the early '80s, and for many years we were not able to get anywhere close to the face of the glacier," she said. "The last two years, we've been anywhere from a half-mile to many miles off. It really depends on the day.
"There are absolutely massive icebergs out there. Once we cross that terminal moraine, we're going into territory where no one has been before. This is basically the first glacier that humans have studied that has gone into such a catastrophic retreat. It's pretty exciting." Stephens said there have been times when tour boat guests were able to watch the entire face of the glacier calve into the ocean. She said scientists have dated some pieces of wood found on the shoreline near the glacier's face to about 1100.
If seeing the huge icebergs and even bigger glacier from a motorboat is too speedy for you, try a more intimate kayak trip to the glacier. Pangaea Adventures (www.alaskasummer.com, 1-800-660-9637) and Anadyr Adventures (www.anadyradventures.com, 1-800-865-2925) offer day and multiday trips to Columbia Glacier. Day trips are about $200. Kenny Blum, owner of Pangaea, said day trips to Columbia are his company's most popular.
"Paddling next to icebergs - huge icebergs - is a spectacular thing," he said. "Paddling in the ice is really intense. Our guides have a different experience every day.
"You're sitting in a kayak all peaceful and quiet, and the next moment the icebergs are all moving. We really watch the power of the icebergs. "
That's not all the water fun; don't forget about fishing.
The community hosts annual halibut and silver salmon derbies. There also is a huge run of pink salmon each summer.
While other communities put special emphasis on their halibut, Valdez doesn't have to settle for second-class status. Last year's derby winner pulled in a 344-pound fish.
"We have some of the most amazing fishing in the state," Crisp said. "We have the biggest run of silver salmon and tremendously large amount of pink salmon. And we've got halibut.
"And salmon shark fishing is really picking up. More operators are involved and it's really growing in excitement."
Fun in and around Valdez isn't limited to water activities.
There are a number of hiking trails in the area, including Mineral Creek Trail (1.75-mile, round-trip), the Goat Trail (4.8 miles), the Keystone Canyon Pack Trail (2.6 miles), the Solomon Gulch Trail (3.8 miles, round-trip) and the Shoup Bay Trail (10 miles), which leads from Valdez to an area with views of Shoup Glacier. Glacier hiking is available at Worthington Glacier outside Valdez near Thompson Pass. Companies also offer white-water rafting on Lowe River.
And for a community of about 4,400 people, Valdez has an unexpected focus on history, with three museums - the Whitney Museum at Prince William Sound Community College, the Valdez Museum and the Remembering Old Valdez Exhibit.
The Whitney has the largest privately owned collection of Alaska Native artifacts. The Valdez Museum offers a chronological tour of Valdez and Prince William Sound, while the Old Valdez Exhibit puts its emphasis on the community just prior to the destructive 1964 earthquake. The heart of the Old Valdez Exhibit is a scale model replica of Valdez that includes more than 400 buildings and 60 city blocks. The tiny buildings include window boxes and signs and were constructed from historic photos.
Special sections editor Steve Edwards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his Alaska travel blog at www.alaska.com/alaskology.
- Get on the water: If you're athletic, kayak among the icebergs at Shoup or Columbia glaciers. If you prefer to watch, take a cruise to see the massive, calving Columbia.
- See the waterfalls: If you drive to Valdez, you can't miss Bridal Veil Falls and Horsetail Falls in Keystone Canyon along the Richardson Highway. Stop for a few minutes or enjoy a hike along the Goat Trail.
- See the history, walk the history: See the model of Valdez before the 1964 earthquake at the Remembering Old Valdez Exhibit. Then head four miles outside of town and see what little remains at the former town site.