Arriving at the end-of-the-road town of Valdez, visitors will be delighted to learn their Alaska adventure is just beginning.
Located at the head of a fjord in eastern Prince William Sound, getting there is half the fun: From Anchorage, the 300-mile drive meanders past glaciers and striking mountains, edging along Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. But it is the Richardson Highway’s last stretch past Worthington Glacier, scaling dramatic Thompson Pass in the Chugach Range, and slicing through Keystone Canyon and its plummeting waterfalls where tourists must make use of photo-stop pullouts. In the canyon, watch for a half-built, hand-dug railroad tunnel whose completion was thwarted by an early-1900s shootout that also effectively crushed the future of the railway itself.
While the Richardson route is stunning, travelers can mix it up by alternatively venturing to Valdez via Whittier aboard an Alaska Marine Highway System ferry, enjoying its unparalleled front-row views of beautiful Prince William Sound. Utilizing this option means that rather than drive in and out the same way, one can make a loop using the land and water routes.
In many ways, Valdez is a delightfully small town. There is one post office, and many residents work for or in connection to the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, visible across Port Valdez. But Valdez abounds in a surprising surplus of recreational options. It’s simple and fun to navigate, featuring a walkable downtown with long open roads, frequent and sweeping views of the surrounding incisor mountains that beckon to daring backcountry adventurers, and easy access to a glittering port that fills with fishermen, shrimpers, kayakers and sightseers. A number of hotels, camping and RV options promise choices when booking overnight accommodations.
To delve into the town’s unique history, start with a visit to the original Valdez town site. In the early 1900s, like so many blooming Alaska locales, Valdez was a gold rush town. But its landscape changed forever when the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake triggered a tsunami that caused the deaths of 32 residents and the demise of the town as they knew it.
The old site — just a few miles east of Valdez today — is now a quiet natural place of remembrance, marked with signage and a seaside pioneer cemetery. Salvageable buildings were moved to the town’s location today. Curious visitors can download a self-guided walking tour to view those buildings that survived the quake.
The Valdez Museum and Historical Archive is another must-see for history buffs, full of relics and stories showcasing the town’s colorful history, from its earliest Alaska Native settlers to its modern form. The museum recommends visitors first stop by its location on Egan Drive — a main Valdez thoroughfare named for one of its more Alaska-famous citizens, Gov. William “Bill” Egan (1914-1984), whose birth home is nearby. For more on the earthquake, visit the museum site nearby on Hazelet Avenue.
Valdez boasts a surprising assortment of satisfying restaurants for a town of just 4,000 people. Topping the list is creative pizza joint The Fat Mermaid on North Harbor Drive, with a full bar and comprehensive menu, occasional live music and an outdoor dining area that offers sensational harbor mountain views. A cluster of food trucks also on North Harbor Drive offer delicious variety, among them local favorites Nat Shack, with artisan tacos and Cal-Mex fare; and Aunty Yum Yum’s, boasting bountiful Thai food options.
Further east on North Harbor is The Roadside Potatohead, a corner-spot restaurant with the best beer and wine options in town, not to mention fantastic outdoor dining with dramatic views of the docks as fishermen haul in their catches of the day, and experts swiftly fillet impressive salmon and halibut. Magpie’s, a bakery and restaurant on the corner of Hazelet and Galena Drive, offers delectable pastries and mimosas, a weekly farmers market, and a “Far North Follies” Valdez-themed variety show, with beer and wine available.
For fine dining, and some of the best bar views in Alaska, don’t miss the nearby Wheelhouse at the Best Western Hotel. The menu boasts locally sourced seafood dishes and the bar affords unassailable views of the picturesque Port Valdez, especially on those long-lit summer nights.
Valdez visitors will face endless opportunities to hike, bike, boat, kayak, fish and more. Valdez Stay and Play offers guided adventures like glacier tours and also electric bikes for rent. Anadyr Adventures and Pangea are the two main kayak outfits in town known for delivering safe and unforgettable, fully outfitted experiences.
If paddling or fishing isn’t your thing, sit back and relax on a sightseeing charter; Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises is the most venerable and established, with smooth and far-reaching catamarans. Or stay on land entirely and hike up the short hill that hosts the Valdez Civic Center for sweeping views of Port Valdez; lounge in Adirondack chairs at the ferry dock to observe boats taxiing to and fro; or hang out at Ruth Pond to fish for trout and nibble a picnic lunch.
For an added bonus, visit the first weekend in August during Valdez Gold Rush Days, when the town is transformed by its annual festival, adding events and street vendors to an already enticing mix.
The Valdez vicinity serves as a jumping-off point for countless remarkable hikes and trails, including the Dock Point Trail, Gold Creek Trail, the Valdez Glacier area for hikes and kayaking, and Mineral Creek, which cuts deep into the folds of the surrounding mountains toward old mining territory.
Wildlife lovers should keep eyes on the harbor waters for lolling otters or the occasional orca, and look skyward for bald eagles. In summertime, it’s worth a drive around the bay to Allison Point for a chance to see black bears pawing waters near the hatchery for pink salmon.
For visitors seeking souvenirs to cement those Valdez memories, multiple local companies cater to the discerning shopper. The Prospector remains the go-to spot for outdoor gear. The Salty Lupine is a new shop featuring trendy Valdez-branded clothing and gifts. The Valdez Art Co-Op sells adorable wares by local artists. And on the waterfront, The Painted Moose is an excellent spot for gifts and trinkets.