Do you want to know ‘Why visit Valdez?’ and the top paid and free things to do in Valdez? Coastal beauty is surrounded by some of the tallest mountains in the world in the port town of Valdez Alaska on the Prince William Sound. This remote small Alaskan town offers top Alaska attractions – historical and outdoor adventures. Most tourists don’t make it to Valdez since it is not on the way to anywhere else in Alaska, and it’s far from most of Alaska’s ‘big name’ destinations. With less tourism in this beautiful place, Tom and I were drawn to it.
Often referred to as the ‘Switzerland of Alaska,’ surrounded by scenic mountains that plunge straight into the sea, Valdez is spell-binding. Find out about the experiences that make Valdez worth the visit…
- What makes Valdez famous?
- Things to do in Valdez
- Valdez was the landing port for miner hopefuls heading to Alaska from Seattle for the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s.
- The devastating earthquake and tsunami on Good Friday 1964.
- Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 was one of the worst oil spills in North America.
- Valdez is the southernmost terminus for the Trans-Alaska Oil pipeline.
- Valdez is one of the most important commercial fishing ports in Alaska today.
Just after the depression in the late 1800’s, people flocked to Alaska to participate in the Klondike Gold Rush. Working in and hailing from the ice-free southernmost Alaska port, the Pacific Whaling Company transported hopeful miners from Seattle to Valdez. While advertised as the ‘All-American route’ from Port Valdez to the interior of Alaska and Klondike mine, it was a trail that required glacier crossings and rafting through rapids. Few miners made it; instead, many miners established a tent city in Valdez, making up the majority of Valdez’s population at the time.
The town of Valdez certainly had its share of disasters over the years. Damage from the 1964 earthquake forced the residents to relocate and rebuild the whole town at a more stable location. Then the citizens of Valdez banded together for the massive clean-up of the Prince William Sound after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. In spite of its difficulties, Valdez and its surrounding area are flourishing with many fun and interesting things to do.
Ideally located, Port Valdez provides access to one of the world’s most scenic waterways – Prince William Sound. From cultural and historic activities like 3 museums, wildlife excursions and glacier hikes, activities abound in Valdez and its surrounding area. There are activities for all levels of adventurers.
Various boat cruises and kayaking trips provide opportunities to visit some of the most beautiful wilderness in the world, and close-ups to Pacific coastal wildlife. Otters sunning themselves or diving for food are aplenty, humpback whales can be seen as they surface, and often with their calves. Dall porpoise, Steller sea lions, Harbor seals, bald eagles, puffins, and other water birds can be found here.
Valdez boasts 5 nearby glaciers, and more tidewater glaciers than anywhere on earth. Two of the most visited glaciers in the Valdez area are Meares and Columbia tidewater glaciers. While most tidewater glaciers began their retreat 600 years ago, Columbia glacier is currently in catastrophic retreat. Floating ice from the calving Columbia glacier is seen out in the Sound. Two days prior to our glacier cruise, boats were not allowed to get within 6 miles of the Columbia glacier because of the danger. We are happy that our cruise took us to Meares glacier instead so we could see a glacier safely from close range.
DISCLAIMER: Many thanks to Stan Stephens Cruises for hosting us. While we were hosted at no charge, we received no payment for this post, and this post is Tom’s and my honest opinion.
Valdez Glacier Cruise
Where waters are calmer more consistently than in Seward’s Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords, the Prince William Sound is a majestic place to observe the wonders of the Alaskan seas and coastline.
Having visited the Prince William Sound on both the Whittier and the Valdez sides, we chose and can highly recommend taking a cruise via Valdez boat tours. Apparently there is considerably more wildlife on the Valdez side of the Sound.
Selecting a Valdez Wildlife and Glacier Cruise
We selected the Stan Stephens Cruises, 8.5-hour Meares Glacier Cruise for a few reasons:
- More time on the water increases chances to see whales, and our fantastic whale watching experience was in the last 45 minutes of our trip.
- In 8.5 hours, we went further and saw much more of the sound than the shorter 6-hour cruise.
- The 8.5-hour trip goes to Meares Glacier, which is not in retreat so the boat is able to get closer to it to see the wildlife, the glacier flow, and observe calving without fear of affecting the boat.
- More time on the boat gives the Captain time to share more information about the Sound, its history, and wildlife.
Upon boarding the boat, we chose booth seating for our meals. Since the boat was not too crowded, we made our way outdoors to watch the scenery as we left the harbor.
On the way to the Glacier
As we listened, Captain Alan taught us about:
- Valdez and its history – Miners, commercial fishing, the earthquake, and Exxon Valdez oil spill and the clean-up.
- The wildlife of the Prince William Sound – seabirds like murrelets, bald eagles, pigeon guillemots, puffins and more.
- Ensuring that sea otters numbers increase, their food sources and consumption, mothering behaviors, longevity, fur and more.
- Hanging glaciers not having enough ice to push to the ocean.
- Meares glacier is 200-300 feet high from its base (some is underwater) and it’s 13 miles long.
- Commercial fishing in Prince William Sound.
Early into our cruise, we stopped in at the wheelhouse to meet our friendly captain, Alan. Captain Alan has an open-door policy, allowing passengers to hang out with him as he drives the boat and narrates the trip. He pointed out the ‘Saga,’ a crabbing boat from the ‘Deadliest Catch’ that fishes here in the summer.
On the trip out of Port Valdez, Captain Alan told us about the large fishing industry in Valdez while we observed purse seiner boats fishing for pink salmon. It was interesting to learn about the techniques employed; a smaller boat sets the net for the main boat. Some days the fishermen bring in as much as 20,000 salmon and some days none. Fish are purchased on the water by the tender that takes them back to port for processing.
On the Meares Glacier Cruise, Captain Alan had time to take us to some more remote spots on the sound. We passed Point Bullhead. When we saw Steller sea lions, he told us that this breed of sea lion is 3 times the size of California sea lions. We visited Growler Island, had a slow look around, and watched the water birds. At Glacier Island, we saw tufted puffins, and pigeon guillemots (have red legs and are in the puffin family). We also saw black-legged kittiwakes that migrate to the Equator for winter.
At the Glacier
At Meares glacier, we were treated to lots of calving over the 45 minutes that we spent there. Hearing the loud crack, we quickly scanned the glacier face to see the huge chunks of ice plunging into the sea. Blue is the only color we saw in the glacier because all other colors are reflected out. We could see murrelets nesting by the glacier, harbor seals relaxing on floating ice, and thunderous glacier calving. The crew brought some of the glacier ice on board for us to pass around.
We had the thrill of traveling through the narrow lane between Glacier Island and the mainland looking for bears on shore. Along the way, we were treated to exquisite colors and reflections on the glass-smooth water. Regal-looking Bald eagles were perched in the trees. We passed sea lion haul-outs, where we listened to them roar, saw them hanging out on the buoys and on the beach.
Dall porpoises surfed our bow wave on the return trip. These black and white porpoises have coloring much like killer whales, but Dall porpoises are much smaller than Orcas. We saw harbor porpoises on the return trip too, but they were not interested in our boat or playing in the wake.
As we came upon a huge floating piece of ice, on the opposite side of the boat a humpback whale breeched and we all ran to the other side of the boat. Captain Alan was busy explaining how rare it is to see a humpback breech, and with that it breeched a 2nd time. At this point Captain Alan said that it is extremely rare to see 2 breeches, and the whale breeched for a third time. Captain Alan altered course to stay near the whale and told us that he has never experienced 3 breeches in a row; with that we got a 4th breech. Wow! What a show! If we hadn’t been on the 8.5-hour cruise we would have missed that.
We were pleased to have selected Stan Stephens Cruises; they are the longest operating cruise company in Valdez Harbor – over 40 years. In 1989, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, Stan’s boats carried first responders to the site. At that time, Stan Stephens assisted in the clean-up effort by buying additional boats to support the spill research. From then on, Stephens dedicated his life to working with industry to protect Prince William Sound, according to the Stan Stephens website. I am pleased that our tour operator and crew are so dedicated to protecting the ocean – a cause near and dear to our own hearts.
About Stan Stephen Boat Cruises
Stan Stephens operates 2 cruise boats, both twin-hull catamarans which are more stable than single deep ‘V’ hull, and make for a smoother journey. There are tables indoors on both the first and second floors, plus outdoor seating. The Glacier Spirit boat is very clean and quite comfortable with plenty of room.
Food and drinks are served throughout the day. Complimentary water, tea, coffee, and lemonade are available all day. At lunch, a hot meal is served, and a mid-afternoon snack.
Boats like the Glacier Spirit require 1 captain and 2 crew; Stan Stephens cruises typically have 4-6 staff on board. Stan Stephens believes in employing locals, so most of the crew are local high school kids who often work summers here through college and beyond. Some continue on to become boat captains themselves.
We found the crew regularly on watch for wildlife when not occupied by cruise operations. They were pointing out the animals as they spotted them. They offered to take passenger’s photos. All of the staff are friendly and professional.
Kayaks are available for rental in Valdez, generally in conjunction with a kayaking tour. While you can kayak on your own, I highly recommend taking a guided trip since you’ll safely see much more with an experienced guide.
Tip: Before booking a cruise or kayak, check to see how close the boat will get to a glacier, and check with authorities on recommended safe distances from the glaciers.
For under $10 per adult, see the entire history of Valdez from the initial miners’ settlements to the current day at the Valdez Museum and Annex. There are antique vehicles that served the community, typical furnishings from the early days in an old Valdez exhibit, photos from the Valdez Alaska earthquake, exhibits on the Trans-Alaska pipeline, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
The Annex is dedicated to the 1964 earthquake. To get a feeling for earthquake and its effects, see the film here called, Between the Glacier and the Sea, included in your museum entry fee. It’s a short, yet moving and worthwhile film. Artifacts of pioneer daily life are also on display at the Annex.
Both museum buildings provide an informative look at the life and times in Valdez. With a NARM (National Association of Reciprocal Museums) membership both museums are free.
There is lots to do for free in Valdez. We spent 3½ days in Valdez, and in addition to the Stan Stephens Cruise and the Valdez and Annex Museums, we had time to do 3 of these 6 free activities in Valdez.
The bullet immediately below, is easy to do if you are driving into Valdez since you’ll pass all 3 on the Richardson Highway, the only road into and out of Valdez, or if you cruise in and continue on land, plan these for your drive out of Valdez. You’ll need a half-day to experience all 3.
- To do the free things below, take a short drive on the First Alaska Road, also called Richardson Highway, through the Thompson Pass to see this spectacular scenery and wildlife. This road, just north of Valdez, was used by miners to reach the interior of Alaska from their point of entry at Port Valdez.
- The glacier near Valdez – a hike to Worthington glacier Valdez. It is 28 miles north of Valdez. This Valdez glacier hike offers a short walk to a viewing platform, an easy hike from the lower entrance, or a 2-mile more difficult hike up to and along a narrow ridge.
- Thompson Pass is a beautiful place to see the alpine tundra. There are stops along Richardson Highway to photograph the views and falls, and paths for walking or hiking. The moderate hike is a 2.4-mile loop.
- Keystone Canyon near Valdez along the Richardson Highway, find this spectacular 300’ Canyon, and its two photo-worthy major waterfalls 1) Bridal Veil Falls with access to the 2-mile Valdez goat hiking trail, and 2) the dramatic Horsetail Falls just 12 miles from Valdez.
- Visit Solomon Gulch Hatchery – It is so much fun to watch the sea lions’ antics at the fish ladder as they chase fish and fight over territory – we visited a few times. The best time to see the sea lions and bears feeding on salmon is at high tide. Although there is no fish farming in Alaska, there are plenty of salmon hatcheries. Valdez Fisheries Development Association runs the hatchery where they collect the male and female salmon to harvest eggs and milt, fertilize the eggs, and grow fish to a size ready to release into the ocean. See the outdoor exhibits, fish ladder, and wildlife feeding on returning salmon in summer.
- Fish in Valdez – Provided you have a license, roadside, freshwater, and saltwater fishing are free. You can rent a boat or go with a charter, which has a cost. A variety of fish types can be caught in Valdez, and different limits apply to different varieties. Check the limits when and where you fish. Varieties include trout, Dolly Varden, grayling in freshwater, and salmon in some areas. In saltwater are salmon and Dolly Varden along the shore, and king salmon, rockfish, and halibut in the sound.
- Visit Old Town Site – Valdez was located on the waterfront until the 1964 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the town, killing some of its inhabitants. The whole town was relocated to a more stable location 4 miles down the road. Take a self-guided tour of the site. There are posts with pictures of establishments that were there before the earthquake. The trail is 1.7 miles and will take 1 hour.
- Visit Maxine & Jesse Whitney Museum – This is the opportunity to see one of the largest collections of Native Alaskan art and artifacts in the world. Maxine Whitney traveled to native villages purchasing and collecting items for her gift shop. Her collection was donated and is now housed in the downtown Valdez state-of-the-art museum.
- Spend time at Crooked Creek – Just ½ mile outside of Valdez on the Richardson Highway, in mid-July through August you can view salmon returning to their home stream to spawn. At times black or brown bears can be seen feasting on the salmon.
Valdez has all the things tourists visit Alaska to see and do. From fishing to glacier viewing, hiking and kayaking, to history and native culture, there’s a lot to experience in Valdez.
The Stan Stephens Meares Glacier Cruise is longer than other glacier and wildlife tours offered in the exquisite Prince William Sound. The price is comparable with other similar cruises. This longer tour offers more opportunities for animal sightings. When I asked guests what they thought of the Stan Stephens cruise, I heard “Real, real good day!” and “Great trip!” Both Tom and I have to agree!
With less tourism in this beautiful place, Tom and I were drawn to Valdez. In July, we found that it was not as crowded as other areas on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Visiting Valdez is a highlight of a trip to Alaska. Put it on your bucket list!
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