by Theresa Hewston
Valdez is an adventure paradise offering everything from spectacular roadside waterfalls to intense icefield hiking trails. This family-friendly town is full of history, culture, scenic beauty, wildlife, and adventure. It’s also full of opportunity. Take some time to explore Valdez and it will quickly find a place in your soul forever.
The beauty of Valdez begins long before you arrive in the city limits. The drive to Valdez is extremely beautiful, with views of glaciers, mountains, and waterfalls. The Richardson Highway is one of the most scenic highways in Alaska. It was the first interior road in the state, originally a five-foot-wide pack trail leading prospectors to the Klondike goldfields. From the small town of Glennallen drivers headed south towards Valdez will be rewarded with views of the Wrangell Mountains with a dozen peaks that soar to heights of over 10,000 feet, the Copper River where you can see native fish wheels in operation during the annual salmon runs, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline that runs all the way from Prudhoe Bay to the north to its terminus at Valdez, Worthington Glacier which is the most easily accessible glacier with a road leading right up to it, and the incredible scenery of Thompson Pass that overlooks thousands of acres of alpine tundra.
Just before arriving in Valdez are two incredible waterfalls in Keystone Canyon, Bridal Veil Falls and Horsetail Falls, easily accessible from roadside pullouts.
This small fishing town has been through a lot in its history. In 1964, a 9.2 earthquake resulted in severe damage to the town and forced it to be rebuilt four miles closer to the water, with access to water resources and making for one of the most scenic port skylines in Alaska. The Old Valdez Town Site can easily be visited just four miles outside of town along the Richardson Highway at Alaska Avenue. There isn’t much left, but there are several informational signs that document the former locations of important city buildings, home and business foundations, the street grid, and machinery.
In 1989, the town was again challenged with adversity when it made worldwide headlines after the massive Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound after crashing against Bligh Reef. Even today, the environment and native wildlife have still not fully recovered from this devastating spill. Although the Valdez Terminal is not open to the public, it can easily be seen from town by looking across the bay. This is the terminus of the Alyeska Pipeline that transports oil from Prudhoe Bay, chosen due to the ability of the Port of Valdez to remain ice-free year-round.
The town itself offers a quaint feel with cute rabbits hopping across the streets. Whether you want to take a wildlife cruise, go on a fishing charter, or watch the salmon run, there is something for everyone year-round in Valdez. Several museums in town – The Valdez Museum and the Maxine & Jesse Whitney Museum – showcase the history and culture of Valdez. In the afternoon, go check out the day’s catch at the harbor. Then grab a bite to eat. Whether you’re craving Chinese or seafood, you’ll find your fill at one of the local restaurants. If you prefer to stay in a luxury resort or camp in a tent, Valdez has accommodations for all visitors.
There are many places in Valdez to witness weeks of salmon runs during the summer. The Crooked Creek Information Site operated by the U.S. Forest Service, about a half-mile outside of town, offers a spectacular boardwalk and viewing platform that overlooks a shallow creek where salmon can easily be observed spawning. Inside the visitor center, there is plenty of information on the salmon life-cycle, rangers that can answer any questions, and an underwater viewing screen of the salmon spawning grounds.
Another great area to see the salmon is at the Solomon Gulch Hatchery. When the hatchery has the gate to the creek closed, the salmon are denied access to their migratory run, which is programmed into their DNA, so they crowd the mouth of the creek. At peak times, thousands of salmon can be seen at the mouth of the creek, just waiting for access to be granted. Seals and brown bears can sometimes be seen taking advantage of an easy meal here. (Insert photo 9)
For a completely natural and wild view of the salmon run, just stop at any of the creeks to see salmon making their way upstream. Beware of bears at all times, and it is a good idea to carry bear spray.
Adventures continue outside of town and in the surrounding mountains with plenty of hiking and biking trails. Wildlife abounds in the water and on land, so be sure to explore both and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to spot a bear, a bald eagle, salmon, or a sea otter. Explore a glacier up close and personal just outside of town. Easily accessible by road, Valdez Glacier terminates at Valdez Glacier Lake. Often, chunks of the crystal clear ice are floating in the lake and may even be close enough to shore to touch. (Insert photo 10)
A notable hiking trail near the Solomon Gulch Hatchery is the John Hunter Memorial Trail. This 1.3 mile long trail was featured by world-famous outdoor survival expert Bear Grylls as one of the “World’s Best Hikes”. The trail is well maintained and traverses coastal spruce before ending at Solomon Lake. Be on the lookout for bears, eagles, and other wildlife. (Insert photo 11)
Several other hiking trails can be found HERE.
Theresa Hewston is the author of the blog Life Riding Shotgun. Since 2014, the family has been traveling the USA, even some foreign countries, in their 5th wheel RV with no end in sight.