The southern coast of Alaska is characterized by a collection of inlets, fjords and archipelagos with hundreds of small islands not far from the mainland. One of the most fascinating areas of the coast is the Prince William Sound: the innermost part of the Gulf of Alaska. 50km deep and 112km wide, so jagged as to have 2414km of coastline, this branch of the gulf is enclosed between the Chugach Mountains and the Kenai Peninsula and is famous for cetaceans who regularly go there to feed in its rich waters.
Unfortunately, the strait is also remembered for negative reasons. In 1964 it had its epicenter here the most violent earthquake ever recorded in North America. The violent shock resulted in very high waves that devastated the coasts. The city of Valdez was razed to the ground by one of these tsunamis. In 1989 another disaster struck the gulf: the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and it poured millions of liters of oil into the sea. Today that accident is just a memory and the damage is no longer visible, but the ecosystem of the gulf suffered a severe blow.
If you take a look at the itineraries by car starting from Anchorage, you will find interesting solutions that include the Prince William Sound.
- How to reach us
- Climate and temperatures
- The cities of Prince William Sound
- The natural attractions of Prince William Sound
- Columbia Glacier
- Copper Delta
- Where to sleep in Prince William Sound
How to reach us
Prince William Sound is one of the most easily accessible Alaskan regions. However, depending on the locations in the gulf that you intend to reach, the ideal means of transport could be different.
- Plane. Valdez and Córdoba each have a small airport. Especially for Cordoba, the air connection is the ideal solution, as the city is isolated in terms of land transport and ferries are not very frequent.
- Ship. There are 3 ports overlooking the Prince William Sound: Cordova, Valdez and Whittier. Whittier Airport is well connected by land with Anchorage, including by public transportation. From here ferries depart for both Valdez and Cordoba. The three ports are part of the wider Alaska Marine Highway System maritime circuit: it is therefore possible to reach the gulf by sea from other coastal locations, as well as from the Canadian ports of British Columbia and the port of Bellingham, just north of Seattle.
- Car. Valdez is easily accessible by car. From Anchorage, for example, it takes 5-6 hours of driving. The port of Whittier, from which you can embark for Valdez and Cordova, is also well connected to Anchorage (and from there to the rest of the Alaskan road network), being 1h30m away.
Climate and temperatures
The Prince William Strait does not have a too rigid climate, as happens for the whole southern coast compared to the inland and mountainous areas of Alaska. As already specified in the article on when to go to Alaska, in the gulf the sea mitigates the climate a lot, also thanks to a hot current coming from the south that even in winter keeps the water around 6 °, thus preventing it from freezing. Unlike other coastal areas, where extreme cold freezes sea water near the coasts, navigation is possible here throughout the year.
Cordoba is a city with a mild climate, never too hot in summer nor too cold in winter. The hottest months, July and August, have an average day high of 16 ° and nocturnal lows of 10 °. January is the coldest month, with a maximum averaging around 2 ° and a minimum around -4 °. Valdez is colder, also affected by the proximity of the great Columbia glacier. Here the summer is very similar to Cordoba (maximums always around 16 ° and minimums a little lower, around 8 °), but in winter the cold is felt more: in January the average of the maximum is -3 ° and minimums of -8 °.
Precipitation they are much more abundant in Cordoba: 4.000mm per year against Valdez's 1.700mm per year. The wettest months for both cities are autumn, from September to December. A lot of snow also falls in Valdez, so much so that throughout the year it reaches an average of 7 meters.
The cities of Prince William Sound
Valdez and Cordoba are the only two cities in the strait. Perhaps calling them cities is a gamble, given that they add up to 7000 inhabitants, but if you have already read other articles on Alaska you will have realized that excluding Anchorage there are no large population centers in the whole state. However, there is a third location, truly unique of its kind: Whittier. Let's find out why each of these places is worth a visit.
Valdez is the main settlement on Prince William Sound. Born in 1790 and named after the Spanish explorer Salvador Fidalgo in honor of the officer Antonio Valdés y Fernàndez Bazàn, she saw her first development in 1897, the year in which 7.000 gold diggers landed here and then headed for the Klondike. In fact, over time, copper was the metal that enriched the inhabitants of this area. Razed to the ground by the 1964 earthquake, it was rebuilt 6,4km further west, on higher and more stable ground than the previous one. The second development of the city it arrived in the 70s, with the oil industry, thanks to the transalaskan oil pipeline which still today carries the black gold from Prudhoe Bay to the port of Valdez.
The village of Valdez can be easily visited and my advice is to start from the port, where the bulk of city life takes place. The Dock Point Trail it is a path of just over 1km that starts from the end of the marina and allows you to see the oil tankers docked on the other side of the bay: willy-nilly today the city exists above all for this reason. Upon entering the country, there are three places to visit to learn about the history of this place.
- Valdez Museum: it speaks of the indigenous people but also and above all of the period of the gold rush. (Address: 217 Egan Drive. Admission $ 9, reduced $ 7 up to 17 years, free up to 13 years. On the official website updated timetables and prices).
- Maxine and Jesse Whitney Museum: is the largest private collection of indigenous art and artifacts in Alaska. Compared to all the other Alaskan museums that exhibit native objects, this one has a peculiarity. There are many walrus ivory figurines representing whales, birds, boats, dolls and many other figures. A truly unusual collection and difficult to find elsewhere. (Address: 303 Lowe Street. Free admission. Updated timetables on the official website).
- Remembering Old Valdez: as already mentioned, the current Valdez was rebuilt from scratch after the earthquake. Although many years have passed, the memory of the disastrous event is still kept alive by the citizens. In this museum you can see a model of the city as it once was, detailed in the smallest details, and a video about the earthquake. (Address: 436, Hazelet Street).
Almost nothing remains of the old Valdez, but some foundations are still visible and the area where the town once stood is clearly identifiable. If you want to trace the mining history of the city, wear comfortable shoes and embark on the Mineral Creek Trail: it's only 1,4km of trail, but it enters the canyon leading up to an abandoned gold processing station. However, do not go there on foggy evenings, it could be spooky.
Longer it is instead Shoup Bay Trail: about 14km of which the last 9 on a fairly bumpy path. It is tiring, but it is worth getting to the bay overrun by kittiwakes, from where you have a great view of the Shoup Glacier. Not far from the city do not miss the Valdez Glacier Lake: the lake that is formed by the melting of the homonymous glacier. It is quite common to see large blocks of ice detach from the glacier and end up in the water.
- Valdez Glacier tour in canoe
- Meares Glacier Cruise from Valdez
Cordoba is one of the most isolated cities of southern Alaska. No road connects it to the rest of the world, trapped on the coast at the foot of the mountains, closed between the Chugach Forest and the Copper River Delta. Despite this, the population of less than 2500 inhabitants doubles in spring and summer due to the numerous fishermen who come to plunder the salmon that go up the river delta.
The port overlooks the Orca Inlet and already from the name of the inlet it should be understood that the fearful white and black cetaceans are quite common in these waters. Not surprisingly, in the city we find the Killer Whale Café, the Orca Book and Sound Company and other businesses that are inspired by the killer whales. The center is small but pleasant, all concentrated on First Street and the streets perpendicular to it. With a short walk you can discover the authentic life of this fishing village, stopping for a drink or eat the typical ones fish tacos. From a museum perspective, the city offers inferior alternatives to other Alaskan locations, but here too there are a few places to visit.
- Ilanka Cultural Center: small museum on native cultures, interesting above all because it preserves one of the few complete skeletons of killer whales in the world. There are also other very special objects, such as a bag made of swan legs. (Address: 110 Nicholoff Way).
- Cordova Historical Museum: here we basically talk about the history of Cordoba and its city life, as well as the 315km long railway that was built at the beginning of the twentieth century by copper miners to connect the port of Cordoba with the Wrangell-St Elias mountains. (Address: 601 First Street).
- Prince William Sound Science Center: on the quay of the port, where city life is concentrated, this center offers information on the flora, fauna and geology of the area. There isn't much to see in itself, but it's the best place to get information about this area. (Address: 300 Breakwater Avenue).
The main reason why it is worth going to Cordoba is the Copper delta, of which the town is the only gateway. The ideal month to travel here is May, when the annual wading festival is celebrated Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival. Throughout the year, the marshes of the delta are the habitat of hundreds of thousands of water birds, but in spring and autumn this area is literally invaded by millions of migratory waders who stop there for a long time to feed and rest. On this occasion, excursions and lessons are organized, but also dinners and parades that animate the city.
Numerous paths also depart from Cordoba, which allow you to enter the particular ecosystem where sea and mountains come together in a mix of forest and swamp. The most famous route is theHeney Ridge Trail, less than 5km long (about 9km round trip) that from the end of Whitshed Road climbs up the hill offering a magnificent view.
It can exist a city made up of a single building? In Alaska, yes: the entire population of Whittier lives in one large condominium and this singular feature has made it famous all over the world. What is currently one of the noteworthy seaports of Prince William Sound was born in 1941 as a military base and still today the main tourist attraction of the "city" are precisely the symbols of that period, first of all the Buckner Building. This dilapidated building, a reminder of the Cold War, is almost disturbing in the evenings when the fog rises from the gulf to cover the streets.
With a few exceptions, almost all of the approximately 200 inhabitants live in one single condominium, il Begich Towers. Built in 1956, this palace is not only the home of most of Whittier's citizens, but it is also the nerve center of daily life. In fact, there are all the main services: post office, hospital, school, supermarket and even a Methodist church. In short, if you live in Whittier, on cold winter days you can do everything without ever going through the door of the condominium.
You can imagine there aren't any great things to see in town, but Whittier is there gateway to the beauties of Prince William Sound and is an excellent starting point for many excursions. There is no shortage of possibilities to rent a kayak to paddle in the beautiful Blackstone Bay, or to embark on a trek on some of the most interesting trails in the region, such as the Portage Pass Trail, which leads to spectacular views of Portage Glacier.
Prince William Sound Cruise
The natural attractions of Prince William Sound
All of Alaska is more famous for its natural beauty than its cities, and Prince William Sound is no exception. Although the small villages mentioned above are interesting to visit, the real treasures of the region they are hidden in the wilderness. Excluding the western end of the gulf, where the suggestive region of the Kenai fjords opens up (of which I speak in a dedicated article), the two main attractions are the Columbia Glacier, overlooking the northern coast of the gulf between Valdez and Whittier, and the Copper River Delta, the undisputed protagonist of the south-east, a few steps from Cordoba.
Prince William Sound helicopter tour
Nearly 50km long and over 600m thick, Columbia Glacier is one of the largest and most active glaciers in the northern hemisphere. It seems incredible, but every day 13 million tons of ice break off the glacier and end up in the sea. This phenomenon, dramatically increased by climate change, however, makes Columbia one of the most suggestive glaciers from visit by boat.
Tours depart from Valdez and usually last all day. Embarking on the glacier you will find yourself navigating between blocks of ice of all sizes, including icebergs the size of a house and large white slabs on which the seals rest. The boat stops 800m from the front of the glacier, to allow a safe view of the ice blocks that come off and end up in the sea, with a sometimes deafening noise.
Navigating to the glacier also allows you to explore a stretch of sea populated by many animal species. The noisy sea lions and cute puffins are always ready to welcome tourists, but it is not difficult to see killer whales and humpback whales emerging from the water not far from the boat.
Columbia Glacier Cruise from Valdez
About 100km wide, the vast delta of Copper is a tangle of 283.300 hectares of marshes, marshes, streams that intertwine with each other. It is a paradise for waterfowl, which share their habitat with moose, bears, otters and other animals. The possibilities for visiting the delta are varied. An expensive but very suggestive solution is to get on a small plane for one scenic flight, which allows you to admire this complex ecosystem in all its grandeur. A valid alternative are i Boat tours, to fully enter this world where water is an essential element.
If you want to be independent, you can drive and drive there Copper River Highway: a 78,5km long road that starts from the port of Córdoba and goes into the delta until it reaches the Million Dollar Bridge. This 472m bridge was built in 1910 for the railway that connected the city to the copper mines and cost 1,4 million dollars. The 1964 earthquake (the same one that razed Valdez) caused it to collapse. It has now been rebuilt, but it leads nowhere.
The Copper River Highway initially passes through a swampy area where it is easy to spot moose, beaver, bear and various species of waterfowl, including the peculiar trumpet swans. After about twenty kilometers you reach the deviation that leads to Sheridan Glacier and to the trail (quite challenging) Sheridan Mountain Trail. Shortly after another detour allows you to reach theAlganik Slough: one of the most interesting stretches of the delta in summer, when it is filled with bears and eagles hunting for salmon.
At the thirtieth kilometer, theHaystack Trail: a 1,3km walkway that crosses the forest with excellent observation points. From km43 onwards, they begin numerous bridges on the various branches of the delta, up to the last, famous, Million Dollar Bridge. After this last bridge the road ends, but here there is a campsite where it is possible to stay overnight near the river. On the opposite bank, dal Childs Glacier blocks of ice frequently break off and generate large waves that frequently overflow from the banks.
Where to sleepl Prince William Sound
The towns overlooking the gulf are not huge, but they offer enough alternatives for sleeping. TO Valdez I suggest you the Best Western Valdez Harbor Inn for maximum comfort, or theHouse on the Rock if you prefer a quiet bed & breakfast atmosphere.
A Cordova instead particular accommodations are the Cordova Rose Lodge, built on a structure that resembles an old moored barge, around which birds and otters nest, and theOrca Adventure Lodge, ideal stay for those who want to be immersed in nature and leave every day for a different adventure.
A Whittier I advise you The Inn At Whittier: a hotel located in a beautiful building by the sea. If, on the other hand, you want to experience the thrill of sleeping in the condominium that makes up almost the entire city, you can stay at Glacier View Condo Suites, even if the reviews of the property are not great.
- All accommodations in Valdez
- All accommodations in Whittier