Happy frozen Monday! AKontheGO is jumping into another week of family travel news, information, and tips for your next 49th state adventure. This week we’re headed to Prince William Sound and AK Fam-favorite community, Valdez. Beautiful, rugged, and full of laid-back charm, Valdez does have a dramatic story as a Gold Rush town, Trans-Alaska pipeline terminus, and scene of marine devastation in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. You might know of Valdez, but perhaps it’s time to dig deeper and learn about Valdez; so let’s go:
The trip: Anchorage to Valdez = 300 driving miles, or about six hours. Fairbanks to Valdez = 366 driving miles, and at least 7-8 hours.
Getting there: Whether driving, flying, or taking advantage of the Alaska Marine Highway System (ferry), your family will see towering mountains and glistening fjords, along with the occasional glacier. From Anchorage, take the Glenn Highway north and follow to the Richardson Highway near Glennallen. From Fairbanks, head south on the Richardson Highway. Both drives take one through pristine Alaska landscape, flush with wildlife, views, and tons of photo ops. Pack all supplies needed for a long road trip, as services are limited, including cell coverage. Do allow ample time to explore Thompson Pass, the snowiest spot in all Alaska. At an elevation of 2,805 feet, the pass offers a number of spots to pull off and take photos of the gap in the Chugach range, where waterfalls and rivers flow, and alpine lakes are nestled in between rocky glens.
Fly to Valdez via Grant Aviation or Era Alaska, both excellent air carriers and both serving Fairbanks and Anchorage. Flights take passengers over the incredible vistas of the Chugach mountains, with glaciers to savor from high above. The Valdez airport is tiny, but rental car service is available on site.
Utilizing the ferry from Whittier to Valdez is an outstanding way to visit Valdez, and with the ferry system celebrating 50 years of service, there’s no better time to hop on board. Kids under 12 are always half price, kids under six are free, and AMHS will be rolling out some specials in 2013 to encourage travel via the only scenic highway on water. Check out specials HERE.
How long should you stay? Unless your family chooses to fly (I highly recommend the ferry/drive loop), getting to and from Valdez takes an entire day. A weekend trip, while feasible, would not allow much time to experience all the necessary (and fun) Valdez-iness. My advice? Spend at least three nights. Four if you want to take a glacier cruise.
Where to stay: Families have solid options for lodging in Valdez, including the Best Western Harbor Inn at the entrance to the small boat harbor. Accessible, friendly, and boasting an on-site restaurant, it’s a nice choice for those who want to spend less time driving and more time catching the downtown scene. 888-222-3440.
Also nice is the recently-renovated Mountain Sky Hotel and Suites on Meals Avenue, just a short walk from the waterfront. Boasting the only hotel swimming pool in town, it’s great for families, and the remodel has progressed to a ski-lodge sort of feel. The 32 Degrees Bar and Grill offers a nice kid menu, but is incredibly noisy, so much so it was difficult to converse, but the same space is also the site of a free breakfast in the morning, an okay trade-off. AK Kid thought the place was “great”, which works for me. 800-478-4445.
If you brought the RV, my most accessible choice for families is the Bear Paw Camper Park, located just across the street from the small boat harbor. Older kids like the location, allowing for wandering of town within eye and earshot of parents, and families with smaller kids will appreciate the easy access to restaurants, lots of boats, and activities. A great walking trail leads around the corner to a local park, the ferry dock, and museums, further proving that one does not necessarily need a car to get around town.
Where to eat: Without a doubt, The Harbor Cafe rates very high on the AKontheGO list of favorite restaurants. Small and simple, but full of fabulous menu items like rockfish tacos, gourmet burgers, and a spicy ginger lemonade, we eat there often while visiting Valdez. Dine indoors, or head out to the covered area, but be aware that neither space is expansive. And yes, the kids can climb on the old floats tied to the front porch. Just ask AK Kid. 907-835-4776.
For a sit-down dining experience, we enjoy the Totem Inn on the corner of Egan Drive, just across the street from Mountain Sky Hotel and Suites. A true outdoorsman’s restaurant, Totem Inn features things like chicken fried steak, pancakes, burgers, and other no-frills menu items that appeal to the whole family. On a rainy, chilly summer day (oh, did we mention the weather is sometimes like that?), there is nothing better than settling in at the Totem with a children’s menu, a cup of hot cocoa, and a full gift shop. Gulp. 907-834-4443.
A Safeway store on Meals Street provides the basic items necessary for a picnic, or to stock up the car before a drive back to Anchorage or Fairbanks.
Fun stuff: A visit to Valdez must, on some level, explore the rich history of this Prince William Sound community. Try the downtown Valdez Museum and the accompanying annex, Old Town Valdez Exhibit. One admission price covers both facilities, and kids will appreciate the interesting dioramas, video footage, and historical photos of Valdez past and present. Best for children five and up.
The Maxine and Jesse Whitney Museum on Lowe Street (on the campus of Prince William Sound Community College) offers a unique look at the whims of this collecting couple. Let the enormous polar bear greet your kids, and check out the furniture and Native Alaskan art. The museum is not large, making it perfect for kids. There is also a small community park just outside, so take advantage of the walk to/from for a little exercise.
The U.S. Forest Service operates a visitor center just as you enter town, in a little chalet. Check out spawning salmon in the summertime, or walk the paved pathways nearby. Sometimes, bears can be spotted out on “Duck Flats”, the muddy area across the highway.
Six miles out of town, along the Richardson Highway, sits the Old Valdez townsite, proper. Be sure and take a few minutes to walk the city streets left deserted by a tsunami generated by the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, and glance back at the current city’s location. Amazing.
No trip to Valdez would be complete without a glacier and wildlife cruise aboard a Stan Stephens Cruises vessel. Why? Calving glaciers, tons of wildlife, and a crew who know how to treat kiddos right; that’s what you’ll get on a 6 or 8-hour cruise. Kids four and up can easily handle a Stan Stephens trip, but remember our words of preparation and bring activities for the trip back to the harbor.
The Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau, located on Fairbanks Drive and Chenega Avenue downtown, offers a wealth of information for families. Hiking, kayaking, camping, berry picking – if you want to try it, they have a way to help. Plus, helpful volunteers can provide ideas for seasonal special events, like July 4th Salmon Festival, or the annual May Day Fly In.