Snow, then melt. Freeze, then thaw -- then rain? As winter conditions in Alaska’s largest city become more unpredictable, there’s one place Anchorageites can head for guaranteed fun in the snow: Valdez.
Located on the northeast tip of Prince William Sound, an easy half-day’s drive from Anchorage, Valdez is consistently home to Alaska’s most dramatic snow accumulation, making it an ideal weekend getaway for skiers, snowshoers, fat tire bikers, snowmachiners, climbers, or lovers of the great indoors who just want to curl up by a fire and enjoy a beautiful wintry view.
Woven throughout with a walkable, bikeable and skiable trail system, the town itself makes for a pleasant destination any time of year. But it’s in winter that Valdez really shines, as snow and ice turn the surrounding slopes into a playground for adventurers of all ages.
“There’s kind of an untainted, prehistoric feel up above the alpine,” said Ken Lares, president of the Valdez Snowmachine Club. “I’ve lived in some tropical places (that) had some beautiful coral reefs and blue water, and that’s really cool, but the mountains were always pulling at me.”
All-access ‘pass’ to the great outdoors
Alpine or Nordic, snowshoe or snowboard, if there’s a way to explore Alaska’s outdoors, you can do it from Valdez. Adventure-seekers can get into the backcountry via snowcat or helicopter with local outfitters. A guide service is also an easy way to explore the backcountry by snowmachine -- no need to have or bring your own sleds! If you prefer to explore independently, Thompson Pass and Keystone Canyon are tailor-made for easy access to the outdoors. As the Richardson Highway winds its way toward Valdez, you’ll find plenty of spots where you can simply pull off the road to strap on skis or unload snowmachines.
The variety, accessibility and expanse of the terrain around Valdez makes the area a perfect playground for motorsports, according to Lares, and you can’t drive more than a block or two in town without passing a pickup truck with a snowmachine in the bed, ready for adventure.
“Once winter sets in, you can snake trails through the brush or over it, you can hop benches or run ridges, right up above the alpine,” he said. “You don’t have to just stay in your area and use your trail. You don’t have to use any trail. In a good snow year, you can go just about anywhere. It’s really a sledder’s paradise.”
Along with room to explore, he added, Valdez has a friendly community of outdoors enthusiasts who coexist well.
“Everything’s open for everyone, there’s mutual respect, and we all get along,” Lares said. “I think it’s something that’s kind of special.”
That freedom comes with a caveat:
“It’s a very wild and natural environment, and with that comes some extra responsibility,” Lares said. “There’s no lift tickets -- and there’s no ski patrol out looking for you all the time.”
That’s where that sense of community becomes even more important. Safety is a major focus for the Valdez Snowmachine Club, an all-volunteer group that holds annual maintenance and backcountry safety courses and plays a leading role in supporting search and rescue efforts in the rare cases when someone wanders into trouble in the backcountry.
“If something goes wrong, we’re here for you,” Lares said.
Motorsports are popular all winter long in the Valdez area, but they really shine in the late winter and early spring, when the club hosts its Mayor’s Cup. This winter’s event, scheduled for March 19, 2022, is expected to draw hundreds of visitors who come for the opportunity to see top Iron Dog competitors race up close and personal. Unlike the cross-country Iron Dog trek, the Mayor’s Cup is based only a few miles out of Valdez, with stretches of the course easily accessible by spectators.
“You get to see the fastest guys come down and compete,” Lares said. “It’s really cool because it brings that level of talent out and puts it on display.”
But pros aren’t the only ones who get to shine. The club has also added youth classes for racers as young as 9, and it holds a snocross event the same weekend. Lares said a welcoming environment is important to the organization at all its large events, including its Mountain Man Hill Climbs, which will be held April 15-17 in Thompson Pass.
“It’s definitely a family-friendly event,” Lares said. “In addition to the pro classes, we’ve got races for kids, we’ve got 120 races, we’ve got junior classes for the hill climbs. It’s a very large, very fun extreme event.”
The weekend, which features some of the best hill climb racers in the state, also has trophy classes for newer adult racers, he added, so there’s truly something for everyone -- something that can be said for snowmachining in the Valdez area in general.
“There’s big mountains, there’s safer spots you can take the kids, there’s tree riding, there’s rivers and lakes,” Lares said. “There’s always snow somewhere to go ride. It’s a great place to test your limits and be respectful of fellow recreators and the land.”
And, he reiterated, the community can’t be beat. With as much room as there is to play, everyone is able to be courteous to other outdoor enthusiasts, no matter what equipment they use.
“If you encounter a skier in the backcountry here in Valdez, he’s more likely to offer you a beer and ask for a bump up the hill than be mad that someone’s in his territory,” Lares said.
Ice climbing for everyone
You don’t have to be a backwoods wanderer or adrenaline junkie to enjoy Valdez. Along with downhill adventure and vast expanses of crowd-free lands to explore, you’ll find miles of well-trod hiking and biking trails, including many that run throughout town, connecting restaurants, businesses and some of the local lodges, hotels and bed and breakfasts that are open for visitors year-round.
“I would definitely be riding my fat bike all around the trails,” said Michelle LeBlanc, chief financial officer and marketing vice president of the Valdez Adventure Alliance. “Especially the Shoup Bay Trail inside town.”
Valdez is also a prime destination if you want to take your winter activities in a new direction: up. Keystone Canyon offers easy access to ice climbing, and you don’t have to be an expert climber to give it a try.
“All of Alaska is so mountainous, but we’ve got these natural ice falls,” LeBlanc said. “These are just made for this.”
Think of an ice climber and you might conjure an image of a lithe, muscular man with Nordic features. But there’s an effort underway in the climbing community to diversify, and the Valdez Ice Climbing Fest is doing its part to make sure its 2022 event is welcoming and accessible to all kinds of climbers.
“I’m really excited about it,” said LeBlanc, whose organization hosts the annual event, along with April’s Valdez Fat Bike Bash. “We’ve got such a great lineup of instructors. I mean, the resumes on these people are just huge. They’re so inspiring.”
The alliance has been interviewing 2022 festival instructors, along with leadership like chair Marcus Garcia and safety lead Devin Wilson, in its weekly LoTech Tuesdays podcast. Among the faculty for this winter’s fest: Dawn Glanc, a professional climber who produced a short film, “Mixtress,” about women who compete in mixed climbing (on rock, ice and all kinds of terrain); world-champion speed climber Kendra Stritch; and other experienced, award-winning and professional climbers from around the world, as well as Alaska.
While the fest will be led by seasoned professionals, climbers of all levels of experience are encouraged to attend, and there are beginner classes on the schedule (it’s recommended that you reserve your rental gear in advance). Combined with a registration discount for Alaska residents, the fest provides a great opportunity for the climbing-curious to explore the sport, or for more experienced recreational climbers to hone their alpine skills. Early registration is open now; full registration begins Dec. 1, and the event is scheduled for Feb. 18-20, 2022.
Along with an emphasis on respect for the land and creating a welcoming environment, Valdez Adventure Alliance is exploring the possibility of clinics specifically geared toward LGBTQ+ and BIPOC climbers. The festival will also include a specialty program focused on adaptive climbing, designed by Alaska Rock Gym Operations Manager Erick Wickenheiser and Dave Egan, founder of Perpetual Motion NW and a “legend” in the outdoor recreation community, according to LeBlanc.
“We’re trying to provide something for everybody,” LeBlanc said.
And whether your snow day itinerary involves tramping through fresh powder in the mountains or sipping hot cocoa in town, Valdez offers one winter bonus that everyone can enjoy: The Prince William Sound seaside town is small enough to provide plentiful opportunities to spot the northern lights.
“It’s just a really gorgeous spot to ride around,” LeBlanc said.
Presented by the City of Valdez -- wander here to discover the thrills of an Alaska winter! Plan your trip today at ValdezAlaska.org, and find community events, recreation schedules and more at ValdezAK.gov.
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.