Anchorage visitors who want to see sights beyond the city’s confines can find a scenic escape via the Seward Highway, a spectacular route with a surprising number of diversions.
This renowned 125-mile roadway runs south from Anchorage, alongside a narrow waterway called Turnagain Arm. The highway is flanked by the dramatic Chugach and Kenai Mountains, where ancient glaciers wink through summertime greenery. Passing small bedroom communities, rustic roadhouses and pristine alpine lakes, the highway terminates in Seward, 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. But overnighting in Seward will offer a more enjoyable and leisurely experience, allowing for lingering stops to appreciate the Alaska scenery and character, history and dining offered by small towns along the way.
About 45 minutes south of Anchorage, Girdwood is a laid-back ski town that relocated inland a few miles from the highway after the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake.
For Alaskans and visitors alike, Girdwood is a recreation mecca, with a charming collection of memorable restaurants, art galleries, ski chalets and condos. Winter slopes and ski lifts transform to host downhill mountain biking come summer. Paved paths thread throughout town, offering an opportunity to take in scenery at a slow pace.
For hikers, the user-friendly Winner Creek Trail begins just behind the picturesque Hotel Alyeska. For a challenge, tackle the south end of the 21-mile Crow Pass Trail, which connects Girdwood to Eagle River’s outskirts north of Anchorage. The first few miles of the Girdwood end of the trail wind upward from Girdwood, with breathtaking views of glaciers, jagged mountaintops and remnants of long-gone gold mining efforts.
Girdwood’s dining options are impressively plentiful. Begin at a local icon, The Bake Shop (194 Olympic Mountain Loop), open as of press time Thursday through Monday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. A morning-time staple for 40-plus years, The Bake Shop features home-style favorites like sourdough pancakes and sweet rolls. For lunch, the shop switches to homemade soups and sandwiches on fresh-baked bread.
For a special dinner experience, try 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 romantic views of the mountainside. Check the restaurant’s website for hours.
Nearby, stalwart Double Musky Inn (Mile 0.3 Crow Creek Road) is a tucked-away steakhouse known for colorful French Quarter decor, a world-class wine cellar and spot-on Creole classics with Alaskan flair. Its lively elegance has delighted locals and tourists alike for decades. There will be a wait many nights, but it’s worth it.
For a fun, laid-back vibe, pop by Girdwood Brewing Co. With indoor tables and outdoor seating around gas-fed fire pits, sip pints or smaller tasters while ordering from one or more local food trucks that rotate on site; the truck schedule is updated on the brewery’s website. They also sell trendy hoodies, hats and stickers to remember your sudsy Girdwood detour.
Like Girdwood, Portage once sat alongside the Seward Highway, but after the ‘64 quake, Portage faded away, with little remaining today but the remains of cabins overtaken by aggressive brush. In Portage’s place, visitors today will find the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Mile 79 Seward Highway), a sprawling sanctuary that provides large-enclosure spaces for orphaned and rehabilitating Alaska animals.
View animals by either driving, walking the 1.5-mile loop encircling the center, or booking a tour with one of the staff naturalists. Hours are 9 a.m.-7 p.m. May through August; 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sept. 1-15; and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sept. 15 to Oct. 31. Check the website for additional hours.
An eastern turn at Portage down Portage Valley Road delivers motorists to the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, and beyond that, the end-of-the-road town of Whittier.
The Begich, Boggs Visitor Center (Portage Lake Loop) opens from late May to early September and sits about 5 miles east of the Seward Highway, a flat, pretty, quick drive. Named in honor of U.S. Reps. Nick Begich and Hale Boggs, whose flight in Alaska disappeared in 1972, the center is built on the edge of a lake on the moraine left by the receding Portage Glacier. 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 toll highway tunnel is the longest in North America, a dark and moody viaduct through the formidable mountains. It was 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 a critical deep-water port. In this unusual community, most residents call one of two large buildings home due to the lack of housing and buildable land. 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), hiking and fishing, plus camping and RV options.
The one-way toll tunnel is strange enough to warrant a one-hour side trip. If you have time, visit the small but surprisingly comprehensive Prince William Sound Museum (743 Whittier St.). An impressive number of exhibits fill its snug space, capturing the story of Whittier’s very original history.
Arriving in Seward is a show-stopper, as the highway ends at last and the view opens up to this special place, surrounded by the dramatic mountains ringing Resurrection Bay. Seward is home to an amiable community with a hodgepodge economy built on fishing outfits, kayak companies, sightseeing excursions, shops, restaurants and bars, plus there’s a beautiful boat harbor where visitors can walk the docks. About 2,800 people live here year-round, and summer cruise ships can deliver thousands of visitors a day.
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 Old West storefronts, historical murals, steepled churches, and commemorative plaques and historical markers. A paved footpath that runs from the SeaLife Center along the waterfront toward the harbor is a pleasant way to enjoy the mountain scenery.
Seward has plenty of hotels and motels, home rentals, hostel beds, camping and RV options for those overnighting it.
Beyond the roadways, day cruises through Kenai Fjords National Park are a popular way to soak up the glorious waters of Resurrection Bay. Otters, seals, puffins, orcas and various migrating whales all may make cameos on these charters, some of which include island stopovers for meals.
To see a glacier by foot, carve out a couple of hours for a stop at Exit Glacier. Located just inside Kenai Fjords National Park, this glacier at the edge of Harding Icefield recedes annually, to the sadness of many fans. But a moderately graded walking path leads to overlooks where the glacier is still easily visible and photographable.
Seward is synonymous with fishing, and there are a bounty of half- or full-day charters that fish for halibut, salmon or both. 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’s worth of fish to commemorate your unique and unforgettable Alaska vacation long after it’s over.