Versatile Valdez has something for everyone in summer

SPONSORED: Hook a halibut, spot a bear, catch a show, cruise, paddle, bike, eat, drink, play under the midnight sun and more in one of Alaska’s most accessible port towns.

Presented by City of Valdez

Fishing in the morning. Hiking in the afternoon. Dinner out, drinks at the nearest brewpub, an evening of live theater… and maybe some sea lions thrown in for good measure?

That’s just a normal summer day in the port city of Valdez, Alaska.

Easily accessible by car, plane, or even boat, Valdez is close enough to Anchorage for a weekend away, but with an environment all its own, and abundant opportunities to unwind, whether your version of vacation is high-octane or low-key.

“Valdez just offers something for everybody -- your whole family,” said Valdez Ports and Harbor Director Jeremy Talbott.

Anchors aweigh

Talbott has one important piece of advice for Alaskans visiting Valdez:

“Don’t forget your coolers.”

The fishing calendar in Valdez starts in April with shrimp -- “Those Prince William Sound shrimp are as big as your hand,” Talbott said -- followed by a halibut season known for very large fish. The annual Valdez Halibut Derby, which runs until the beginning of September, regularly sees entries over 200 pounds; in 2017, Frieda Wiley set the derby record when she hauled in a 374-pound catch. Valdez also holds derbies for silver salmon and a special one-day pink salmon event just for kids.

“Bring your kids, coolers and campers and get to Valdez, and we’ll fill up your freezer,” Talbott said.

There are plenty of places in the Valdez area where you can fish from land, but for the big fish, you’ll need to get out on the water. If you don’t have a boat of your own, it’s easy to book a fishing charter with one of the experienced operators in Valdez harbor.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Talbott said. “Everybody’s going to come back with fish -- I’ve never seen somebody not come back with fish.”

Even if your plans don’t involve slinging salmon, the waterfront is the place to be, whether you’re setting off on a glacier cruise, kayaking trip or charter, or just people-watching. In the past five years, the city has invested heavily in revitalizing its harbor area, and locals say if it’s been a while since you visited, you might not recognize the place. New restaurants and breweries dot downtown, and there are spots along the shore perfect for picnicking. Starting around 3 p.m. and running into the evening, the commercial fleet and charter boats return with their catch, and you can watch dock carts loaded with fish headed for weigh-in and cleaning. It’s entertaining enough that the harbor plans to add a livestream on the city’s YouTube channel this year.

“Just the walk and the ambience down on the water is lively,” Talbott said. “There’s always something going on in the harbor.”

Explore like a local

Depending on where you want to go, Valdez is easy to navigate by car or on foot. If you really want to explore, though, the newest and most fun way to go is on a bicycle with a little bit of extra kick.

Magdalena McCay and her husband Jim opened Valdez Stay & Play in 2019, and they have helped launch a bit of a biking revolution in Valdez. In addition to stylish, modern “tiny home” vacation rentals, the couple rents out kayaks and electric bikes, or e-bikes. These upgraded two-wheelers pedal and handle just like regular bicycles, but riders can also opt to engage a small battery-powered motor.

“The electrical component supplements human power,” McCay explained. “You can increase your power and reduce your power. It’s very cool because people that didn’t bike for a long time, or they said biking is not for them anymore, they are biking again.”

E-bikes can cover up to 45 miles on one battery charge, so just about anyone can put in a full day of biking around Valdez and still have energy to get out and try more activities afterward.

“It’s really fun to see people do it,” McCay said. “You can have a grandchild riding with grandparents, and they will be at the same speed.”

Valdez is criss-crossed by a series of city-maintained trails, making it easy to get around by bike or set out on a casual hike. Valdez Stay & Play is located four miles from downtown, but it’s connected to the heart of the city by bike path.

“We jump on the bikes, we ride to town for coffee and pastries,” McCay said. “In the evening, we will do the same -- we will jump on the bikes, ride to town, grab some food, go to a brewery.”

Kayaking is another favorite summer activity, both out on the Sound and at nearby Robe Lake.

“I enjoy kayaking that lake early in the morning,” McCay said. “Great wildlife, dramatic lake views with the fog hanging over the lake -- I can go there every day and it seems different every day.”

Valdez Glacier Lake is another popular spot for kayaking, hiking, biking and ice-spotting (you can often see icebergs from the lakeshore). More ambitious hikers will find challenging routes in nearby Keystone Canyon. And Thompson Pass, just a short drive away, offers limitless opportunities for “free-range hiking,” McCay added.

“You make your own trails,” she said. “You can be there for a few hours, you can be there for a day, you can be there overnight. You can camp.” (You can also pick mushrooms, although McCay said she can’t give up her secret spot.)

Like anywhere in Alaska, you’ll want to be bear aware on your off-road outings. Locals report bear sightings in real time on the Valdez Neighborhood Bear Watch Facebook page so you can avoid them (or seek them out, if that’s your preference).

“When I have tourists visiting, I always know where the bears are,” McCay said. “We always get bear alerts.”

One of the best spots in town for wildlife spotting, according to both McCay and Talbott, is the Solomon Gulch Hatchery, located an easy e-bike ride from downtown. Now in its 40th year of operation, the hatchery releases about 250 million pink salmon fry and 1.8 million coho smolt each year.

The hatchery is one of the reasons the fishing in Valdez is so good -- for humans and for animals. Open daily during the summer, the hatchery has a free unguided walking tour and a live floor show provided by Mother Nature.

“I call it the Valdez Zoo,” McCay said. “When you get to the hatchery in the summertime and the pinks are coming in, this place is crazy. You sit there and you have huge sea lions just a few feet away from you. You have seals. You have sea otters.”

Eagles and bears are frequent visitors, and even the seagulls are entertaining to watch as they ride the fish ladder like a roller coaster.

“You could walk across the bay on (salmon), there are so many of them,” Talbott said. “You’ll spend a couple of hours there just watching the wildlife.”

Experience the past (and present)

Outdoor adventure isn’t all Valdez has to offer. Summer provides opportunities to explore the local arts, culture and history, too -- including the moment in time that changed Valdez forever.

When Alaska was hit by a magnitude 9.2 earthquake on March 27, 1964, it triggered an underwater landslide and a tsunami that wiped out the Valdez waterfront, claimed 32 lives, and left much of the town uninhabitable. Over the next three years, Valdez was moved several miles away, to its current (and much safer) location.

The old townsite has been preserved as a memorial, but you can also take a walk through Valdez as it was in 1964 at the Valdez Museum on Hazelet, which will be open for guided tours from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The exhibition’s centerpiece is an incredibly detailed scale model of Old Town as it looked nearly 60 years ago.

Four blocks away, at the Valdez Museum on Egan, visitors explore even more local history and culture, including restored turn-of-the-century fire engines, a recreation of a prospector’s cabin, stories of mining, aviation and the pipeline, local art, and artifacts from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

This summer, you can wrap up a long day of exploring with a different kind of trip through history. Local theater company Far North Follies presents an original Vaudeville-style revue, “That’s Valdez!”, on Friday and Saturday nights during July and August.

Summer also marks the return of some of Valdez’s favorite festivals. The season officially kicks off over Memorial Day weekend with the annual Valdez Fly-In and Airshow, along with Military Appreciation Weekend. Later in the summer, plans are already underway for the annual Last Frontier Theatre Conference, Fourth of July Celebration and Gold Rush Days. Talbott said it would be exciting to welcome parade floats and contest entries from other parts of the state for the city’s annual Independence Day celebration.

“We’d be happy to see some new communities come down and participate -- bands, whatever,” Talbott said. “We’d love to see some competition from outside the area for canoe jousting on the Fourth of July.”

(Yes, that’s right. He said “canoe jousting.” And you’ve got to see it to believe it.)

Valdez is unique in that it’s more or less equally convenient to both Anchorage and Fairbanks. The Richardson Highway runs directly from Valdez to the Interior, meeting up with the Glenn Highway to the Mat-Su and Anchorage at Glennallen. The drive is spectacular at any time of year, but particularly in summer -- and once you get to Valdez, it’s hard to beat the scenery or the availability of every kind of adventure.

“The mountains are majestic, the waterfalls are huge, the Prince William Sound is so impressive,” McCay said. “We have amazing rivers everywhere you look. We have standing glaciers, and they are easy to access. It’s pretty cool.”

With the 2021 cruise season canceled, Alaskans will have Valdez largely to themselves this summer, making it a great time to experience all the adventure, culture and charm without the crowds.

“Valdez is where Alaskans come for vacation,” Talbott said.

Get a jump start on planning your Valdez getaway with a FREE $50 voucher, redeemable for food, lodging or entertainment at one of more than 30 local businesses! Learn more and sign up at DiscoverValdezVoucher.com.

Presented by the City of Valdez. Learn more about visiting Valdez and find special offers at ValdezAlaska.org.

This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the Sponsor. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.