After exhausting Anchorage’s excursions, ditch the city for a stunning southbound road trip on the Seward Highway, enjoying side diversions galore, culminating in the scenic harbor town of Seward.
This fabled 125-mile stretch of road runs alongside a slender tendril of water called Turnagain Arm before ascending into the dramatic Chugach and Kenai Mountains, where ancient glaciers wink through summertime greenery. The road slides past tiny communities, roadhouses and aquamarine alpine lakes before dropping down at last into Seward, situated on the edge of Resurrection Bay.
The time-pressed traveler could make it to Seward and back in one long, full day, logging five-plus hours of road travel alone. This memorable trip is better enjoyed across two or more days and nights, allowing for ponderous side stops to take in distinctive Alaskan experiences and surprisingly delicious dining, making plenty of time for meandering, picture-taking, and enjoying Alaska’s unparalleled beauty.
Don’t miss a stop-off in Girdwood, located about 45 minutes south of Anchorage. This laid-back artsy ski resort town sits a few miles inland from the highway. Girdwood relocated inland after the 1964 earthquake, and today is a collection of small but memorable restaurants, charming art galleries, ski chalets and condos, and a single school for the town’s youth.
Girdwood is a recreation mecca. Winter slopes and ski lifts are transformed to host adventurous downhill mountain biking come summer. Play it safer and pedal paved paths across town, enjoying the mild climate and slow pace. A popular pit stop for hikers, the Winner Creek Trail is accessible just behind the lovely Hotel Alyeska.
The more athletic might forge the famous Crow Pass trail, an undertaking 21 miles long. The good news: it can be enjoyed in smaller bites as a scenic day hike. The first few miles of the trail yield rewards aplenty, winding upward from Girdwood with breathtaking views of glaciers, remnants of long-gone gold mining, and jagged mountaintops.
For dining, there are a number of great options. Begin your day with breakfast at a local icon, the Bake Shop (194 Olympic Mountain Loop). A morning-time staple for 40-plus years, the Bake Shop features home-style favorites like sourdough pancakes and sweet rolls. Or, go for lunch and enjoy scratch homemade soups and sandwiches on freshly baked bread.
If you find yourself in Girdwood in the evening, 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 protein such as halibut. Its tall chalet windows offer lovely views of the mountainous landscape.
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 busy French Quarter décor and even busier wait times on weekends combines a world-class wine cellar with spot-on Creole classics enlivened with an Alaskan flair. It has delighted locals and tourists alike for decades.
Portage was once a highway-side town at the head of Turnagain Arm, another ’64 earthquake casualty with little remaining today but decomposing cabins overtaken by aggressive brush. In its place, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Mile 79 Seward Highway) is a sprawling sanctuary teeming with activity, sure to please the animal lovers. This nonprofit complex 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 and venturing along multiple boardwalks and paths. There is a snack bar on site, and a gift shop with charming mementos. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. May to August, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in September.
An eastern turn at Portage down Portage Valley Road will deliver the curious traveler to two worthy destinations: the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, and beyond that, the city of Whittier.
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 in 1914. The glacier is visible via 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. Find tunnel schedules online to time your visit accordingly.
Whittier exists as an important deep-water port, with 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, 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. But if you have time, visit the small but surprisingly comprehensive Prince William Sound Museum (743 Whittier Street). An impressive number of exhibits fill its snug space, capturing the story of Whittier’s very original history, including reflections of its military heritage during World War II and the Cold War.
Finally, the Seward Highway delivers you to scenic Seward, a town of about 2,800 year-round residents surrounded by the magnificent mountains of Resurrection Bay. The town’s economy is a hodgepodge of of fishing outfits, kayak companies, sightseeing excursions, shops, restaurants and bars, the Alaska Vocational Technical Center, and the eerie Spring Creek Correctional Center, a maximum security prison just visible across the bay.
Highlights of Seward include the Alaska SeaLife Center (301 Railway Ave.), a hands-on aquarium and working science facility that boasts opportunities to ogle diving puffins and swimming sea lions, peer at octopus up close, and learn about the special place that is Resurrection Bay.
From the SeaLife Center, a leisurely walk up Fourth Avenue provides a serene sense of Seward’s long-ago frontier culture, with its Old West storefronts, historical murals, steepled churches, 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.
If you would rather see a glacier by foot, carve out a couple of hours for Exit Glacier. Located just inside Kenai Fjords National Park, this glacier at the edge of the Harding Icefield has notably receded in recent years, and signposts mark where the glacier fronted in years past. A moderately graded walking path leads to overlooks where the glacier is easily visible and photographable.
While in Seward, adventurous anglers 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 after your excursion ends. These trips depart early and return late and make for a full Alaskan experience. 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.