One of the most impressive things about Anchorage is how quickly you can leave the city behind, thanks to the Seward Highway serving up a stunning southbound road trip to the scenic harbor town of Seward.
This fabled 125-mile stretch of road travels along Turnagain Arm, jutting upward into the dramatic Chugach Mountains, where ancient glaciers wink through summertime greenery. The road descends alongside tiny communities, roadhouses and aquamarine alpine lakes before dropping down into Seward, on the edge of Resurrection Bay.
The time-pressed traveler could make it to Seward and back in a long, full day, but this memorable trek is best enjoyed across one or more nights, allowing for immersive stops to enjoy distinctive Alaskan experiences, delicious dining and plenty of time for meandering and picture-taking.
Girdwood, located about 45 minutes south of Anchorage, is a laid-back ski resort town a few miles inland from the highway itself. The town relocated after the 1964 earthquake, and today is a collection of delectable restaurants, charming galleries, ski chalets and condos, parks and a single school.
Girdwood is known for recreation. Winter ski slopes host downhill mountain biking come summer. The less adventurous can pedal paved routes in town. A popular pit stop for hikers, the Winner Creek Trail is accessible just behind the lovely Hotel Alyeska. The 3-mile hike (one way) follows a well-used route through forest, highlighted by a hand-tram creek crossing. The more adventurous might forge along the Crow Pass trail. A staggering 21 miles long, tackling only the first few miles of the trail will yield rewards aplenty, winding upward from Girdwood with breathtaking views of glaciers, mining remnants and mountaintops.
For dining, there are a number of great options. Begin your day here with breakfast. Locals love Silvertip Grill (165 Hightower Road) — not just because it serves amply-portioned breakfast all day, but also for the killer reindeer gravy served over fluffy biscuits or hearty chicken fried steak. At the base of the mountain sits the Bake Shop (194 Olympic Mountain Loop), a morning-time staple for 40-plus years, with homespun favorites like sourdough pancakes and sweet rolls.
If you stay in Girdwood, or swing by on your way back to Anchorage, try dinner at Jack Sprat (165 Olympic Mountain Loop). Its regional cuisine with an Alaska touch is truly special, highlighting seasonal fresh produce and locally sourced food. Nearby, the menu rarely changes at Double Musky Inn (Mile 0.3 Crow Creek Road), but why mess with perfection? The tucked-away steakhouse known for its gaudy French Quarter décor and world-class wine cellar has served Creole classics with Alaskan flare for decades now, delighting locals and tourists alike.
Portage was once a highway-side town at the head of Turnagain Arm, another ’64 earthquake casualty with little remaining today but skeletal uprights of forgotten cabins overtaken by aggressive brush. In its place, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Mile 79 Seward Highway) has sprouted up, sure to please the animal lovers. This nonprofit sanctuary provides large-enclosure spaces for orphaned and rehabilitating Alaska animals such as bears, moose, musk ox and caribou, and is open year-round.
Visitors can view the animals by either driving or walking the 1.5-mile loop that encircles the center. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. May to August, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in September.
The Begich, Boggs Visitor Center (Portage Lake Loop) sits about 5 miles east of the highway and opens from late May to early September. The center is built on the edge of Portage Lake on the moraine left by the receding Portage Glacier. The glacier is visible via daily boat trips to its front. The center itself offers science-geared educational opportunities for adults and kids alike.
Drive farther and travelers will encounter a truly different experience by way of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. The 2.5-mile long, one-way highway toll tunnel is the longest in North America, a dark and moody viaduct slicing through the formidable mountains, originally a train tunnel connecting the western side of Turnagain Arm to the military port town of Whittier. Whittier, a deep-water port, is today a quirky community where most residents call one of two large buildings home; the visible lack of buildable land quickly explains this odd residential reality. For activities, there are glacier-viewing boats that depart daily, regular cruise ship stops, a fine harbor-view hotel called the Inn at Whittier (5A Harbor Loop Road) and also camping and RV options. Frankly, the tunnel experience itself is strange enough to be worth a one-hour side trip.
The Seward Highway ends at a town of about 2,500 year-round residents composed of fishing outfits, kayak companies, sightseeing boating excursions, shops, restaurants and bars. Highlights include the Alaska SeaLife Center (301 Railway Ave.), a dazzling, hands-on aquarium and working science facility, with opportunities to watch diving puffins and sea lions, ogle octopus up close and learn about the special place that is Resurrection Bay.
From the SeaLife Center, a leisurely walk up Fourth Avenue is an easy way to get a sense of Seward’s long-ago frontier culture, with its Old West storefronts, historical murals, commemorative plaques and charming old architecture. Additionally, a paved footpath runs from the SeaLife Center along the waterfront, past RV spots and campgrounds. Seward has plenty of hotel, rental and camping options for those overnighting it.
Day cruises through Kenai Fjords National Park are an incredibly popular way to see the glorious waters just beyond this pretty waterfront town. Otters, seals, puffins, orcas and various migrating whales all may play cameos on these half- or full-day charters, some of which include island stopovers for meals.
The more adventurous may opt for a half- or full-day halibut or salmon fishing charter. Charters typically provide all fishing gear, and in town, there are options for having fish filleted and flash-frozen for shipping once you’re back on the docks. These trips depart early and return late. Play your cards right, and you will enjoy the scenery of a wildlife-viewing trip while returning home with a freezer full of fish to commemorate your unique and unforgettable Alaska experience long after it’s over.