Home to over half of Alaska’s population, Southcentral is a playground of activities from world-class fishing to hiking and wildlife viewing. With mountains and lakes, Southcentral offers the advantages of remote wilderness, but is linked via roads. World-class rainbow trout and salmon shimmer brilliantly, beckoning to prospective anglers. Southcentral has the amenities travelers seek, while serving as a gateway to the wilderness experience.
Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, lies between the mountains and the sea and yet is no stranger to the wilderness. There is no other urban area like it.
Among the northernmost cities on Earth, Anchorage is a place with big-city amenities: fine restaurants, museums, theaters and an excellent music scene. Creating the backdrop are the salmon-rich waters of Cook Inlet and the 5,000-foot-plus peaks of Chugach State Park. Within a short drive from downtown are dozens of wilderness adventures and a short plane ride opens up the possibility of almost any type adventure. That’s one reason why Anchorage’s Lake Hood is the world’s busiest floatplane base. Anchorage’s 284,994 residents embrace both the urban amenities and the wilderness beyond it.
THINGS TO DO
Anchorage features dozens of parks and 122 miles of paved bike paths. Warmed by a maritime climate, you can spend the day fishing Ship Creek downtown, hiking the nearby mountains, photographing glaciers and dining at a four-star restaurant. Within a 15-minute drive from downtown is the tree-lined trailhead of Anchorage’s most popular hike, Flattop Mountain. In winter, the city transforms into fluffy white playground, with 130 kilometers of maintained Nordic ski trails, dog sledding, ice skating, snowmobiling, ice sculptures and more. Just 45 minutes away is Alaska’s premier alpine ski resort, Alyeska Resort.
GETTING HERE AND AROUND
Anchorage technically stretches across 1,955 square miles, from the Alaska Native village of Eklutna all the way to Portage Glacier south of town. Anchorage’s Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport is the state’s main air hub, and it’s no stretch to say all roads (in Alaska anyway) lead to Anchorage as well. Paved highways accessible from Anchorage connect to places like Fairbanks, Valdez, the Kenai Peninsula, Denali National Park and Preserve and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The Alaska Railroad’s main passenger depot is located in Anchorage and runs from Seward to Fairbanks.
Anchorage wasn’t officially founded until 1915, even though British explorer Captain James Cook sailed past the site in 1779 and gold prospectors discovered the bounty of Ship Creek in the late 1800s. It wasn’t until the Alaska Railroad set up a construction camp in 1915 that Anchorage was established and became a booming tent city of 2,000 people. Anchorage proved to be the ideal center for Alaska's rail, air and highway systems with the military build up of World War II and the discovery of oil in Cook Inlet in the 1950s, adding to its steady growth. After the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, the city was rebuilding itself when another opportunity arose: the discovery of a $10-billion oil reserve in Prudhoe Bay. Though the Trans-Alaska Pipeline doesn't come within 185 miles of Anchorage, the city became the headquarters of various petroleum and service companies.
COPPER RIVER VALLEY
Glennallen provides access to the Wrangell Mountains, a popular destination for backcountry recreation, superb sport fishing, river rafting and Native cultures. Copper Center, which lies a few miles east of Glennallen, is the home of the ranger station for Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, the largest national park in the United States. If you are looking to visit the historic mining towns of McCarthy and Kennicott, take the Edgerton Highway and McCarthy Road for an exciting drive on a 93-mile paved/gravel road.
Located approximately 45 miles north of Anchorage, the Matanuska Valley is fertile farmland that was settled by families who came from the Midwest as part of a New Deal relief program in 1935. Because of the fertile farmland and the immense amount of summer sunlight, vegetables grow to incredible sizes. The Alaska record cabbage is 106 pounds! However, huge vegetables are just one of the attractions at the State Fair held in Palmer each August.
Seward's harbor bustles with cruise ships, fishing charters and sailing opportunities. Wildlife curises leave around the clock for Kenai Fjords National Park to look for whales, seals and sea lions. The Alaska SeaLife Center offers up-close viewing of marine mammals and sea birds. The Harding Icefield on nearby Exit Glacier can be explored. Join in the fun on the Fourth of July when local racers challenge the 3,022-foot Mt. Marathon in a race to the top and back.
PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND
Prince William Sound encompasses 10,000 square miles of protected waterways, islands, fjords, as well as 10,000 glaciers. The region offers habitat for whales, porpoise, sea otters, sea lions and seals. Bear, deer, goats and sheep inhabit the mainland.
Nestled between Hawkins Island and Lake Eyak and overshadowed by Mount Eccles, Cordova is a hardworking fishing community on the east coast of Prince William Sound.
Travelers who visit the quaint coastal town of Cordova — home to 2,121 residents — are rewarded with a dramatic natural setting, intriguing history, great seafood and a wide range of easily accessible outdoor adventures.
THINGS TO DO
The 50-mile Copper River Highway is for the most part a gravel road that serves as the gateway to the Copper River Delta, a wildlife-rich wilderness with numerous opportunities for hiking, fishing and birding. Millions of birds and waterfowl stop and rest along the delta during the spring and fall, including 7 million western sandpipers and the entire population of West Coast dunlins. Birding activity peaks the first weekend of May when the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival is staged and birders from around the world arrive to enjoy the largest migration in the U.S.
Equally impressive are the twin wonders at the end of the highway: breathtaking Childs Glacier and the Million Dollar Bridge. A bridge on the highway is currently washed out at Mile 36, which means the only way to reach the bridge and Childs Glacier is by taking a boat tour up the Copper River. At least two local tour companies were offering this service as of the summer of 2013; more information is available from the local chamber of commerce. Childs Glacier is one of the most active glaciers in Alaska, advancing some 500 feet a year, dumping icebergs into the Copper River with thunderous calving just 1,200 feet away from an observation deck. Just beyond the glacier is the Million Dollar Bridge, a four-span trestle completed in 1910 and put out of commission by the 1964 earthquake. The bridge has since been rehabilitated and you can now walk out to the middle to see Childs Glacier downstream and Miles Glacier upstream.
To appreciate Cordova’s long and colorful history, a visit to the Cordova Historical Museum is a must. The Ilanka Cultural Center Museum preserves and exhibits a collection of prehistoric, historic and contemporary tribal artifacts from Prince William Sound and the Copper River Delta. A complete orca whale skeleton hangs in the lobby.
The area was first settled by nomadic Eyak Indians and served as a trade center for the various tribes occupying the vast region. Commercial fisherman built the first cannery here in 1889, but modern-day Cordova was born when the sleepy seaside village was chosen as the terminus for a railway line from the Kennecott copper mines near McCarthy, to the north. One of the most impressive engineering feats of the time, the $23-million Copper River & Northwest Railway was completed in 1911. Within five years, Cordova was a boomtown, with more than $32 million worth of copper ore passing through its docks on the way to the smelters in Tacoma. After the mines closed in 1938, Cordova turned to fishing, its main economic base today.
Deep in the heart of Prince William Sound and surrounded by some of the world’s tallest coastal mountains is Valdez, a city of 4,498 residents in a remarkably picturesque setting.
Though most well known as the southern terminus for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, Valdez is also a prime destination for travelers. Valdez is located on a wedge of flat land on the north shore of Port Valdez, a deep-water fjord, and is a 305-mile road trip east of Anchorage and 364-mile drive south of Fairbanks.
The heart of Valdez, like so many other coastal towns in Alaska, is its small boat harbor clustered along its waterfront. From there, the town stretches about a dozen walkable blocks back toward the mountains and Mineral Creek Canyon while nearby Egan Drive, Valdez’s equivalent to Main Street, turns into the Richardson Highway and heads north for Thompson Pass. Scattered through the downtown area is a wide range of restaurants, accommodations, museums and Prince William Sound Community College. Visible across the inlet from town is the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline Terminal with its massive storage tanks each holding nine million barrels of oil.
THINGS TO DO
Valdez’s location in Prince William Sound makes it an outdoor paradise. It lies less than 25 miles east of Columbia Glacier, a popular day-cruise destination, and all around are glaciers galore, stunning mountain scenery, an abundance of marine wildlife and opportunities for outdoor adventure, from catching giant halibut and salmon to kayaking among icebergs and seals.
Within a few blocks of the downtown area Mineral Creek Trail heads to mining ruins in the mountains and Shoup Bay Trail skirts Port Valdez to views of glaciers. Kayaks can be rented in town and drop-off services can be arranged for overnight paddles in calm inlets and fjords nearby. Anglers arrange charter fishing trips in the Small Boat Harbor while others book tour boat cruises to see Meares Glacier and Columbia Glacier, the second-largest tidewater glacier in North America with a face as high as a football field. Thanks to those steep coastal mountains, daredevil enthusiasts can go whitewater rafting on the Lowe River through the impressive Keystone Canyon in the summer and heli-skiing and ice climbing in the winter.
Valdez’s darkest moment was the Good Friday Earthquake in 1964. The tsunami that followed the earthquake destroyed the entire historic town site of Valdez. The community was rebuilt on more stable bedrock four miles to the west and flourished during the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Terminal in the 1970s.
Connected to the rest of Alaska by road, rail and the Alaska Marine Highway, Whittier attracts a large numbers of visitors during the summer looking for the unspoiled wilderness of water, ice and granite that lies beyond its shores.
Whittier’s history is nothing short of fascinating. Not long after the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands during World War II, the U.S. Army began looking for a spot to build a secret military installation. The proposed base needed to be an ice-free port and as inaccessible as possible. Whittier fit the bill perfectly, thanks to 3,500-foot peaks that surround it and keep it hidden in cloud cover for much of the year. To provide access to the Seward Highway to the north, the Army blasted a supply tunnel out of solid granite, and the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel remains one of Alaska's great engineering marvels. Construction of the tunnel led to construction of what at the time was the largest building in Alaska to house more than 1,000 workers.
The Army maintained Whittier until 1960, leaving behind the 14-story Begich Towers, where most of Whittier’s 190 residents live today. In 2000, the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel was overhauled to accommodate auto traffic as well as the Alaska Railroad. You can now drive the 11 miles from the Seward Highway, the most traveled highway in Alaska, to what was once an impenetrable fortress by the sea.
THINGS TO DO
Whittier has excellent hiking, and due to the influx of travelers, a fair number of interesting shops are scattered about. Kayaking and scuba diving are superb, and the docks are packed with cruise ships and water taxis waiting to take visitors into the wildlife-rich waters of Prince William Sound.
Thanks to its location, day cruises out of Whittier are among the best in Alaska. A variety of boats, large and small, depart from the small-boat harbor into the rugged and steep fjords that line the sound, many of them featuring glaciers deep inside. Most sail so close to a kittiwake rookery you can see the eggs in the nests of the black-legged birds.
Fishing is a popular summer activity in Whittier due to the rich supplies of halibut, salmon, lingcod and rockfish found in the area's nearby waters. Guided charters are ready to take visitors out to fish in the bountiful waters of Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska.
In early June, the town hosts the Walk In Whittier, a geo-caching event and treasure hunt in the harbor. The Fourth of July celebration includes fire works, a parade, kids games and entertainment and a free barbeque for all.