On our first trip to Alaska, we detoured through Valdez in the southeast corner. Then from Anchorage we took day trips to the towns of Whittier and Homer. And on our way back to Lower 48 through British Columbia, we found the small town of Hyder. The following year we went to the towns of Kenai / Soldotna and Seward.
This is the second of two articles on my favorite little towns in Alaska, covering the south. Northern towns were previously listed in 6 Quaint Small Towns to Visit in Northern Alaska.
We finished sailing the famous Alaska Highway in a week. After a night at a campsite in Tok, Alaska, we woke up to a day covered in smog from the forest fires raging all around. Quickly we postponed the visit of my husband’s youngest to Anchorage for a few days and went to Valdez in Southeast Alaska first.
There were a few showers on the way; the air was humid and there was a lot of fog. Soon we lost our cellular signals and our broadband communications. Suddenly, as our RV was negotiating a bend, a large white mountain appeared in front of us: it was Worthington Glacier, and we could walk there from the side of the road! My husband was gone in a jiffy, bringing back a piece of blue ice that I quickly put in our freezer.
Thirty minutes from Worthington is the quaint small fishing town of Valdez (population approx. 4000). Low clouds surrounded the town and the pretty marina. The “world’s longest boat launch” stretched far into the teeming waters of nearby spawning pink salmon. Avid fishermen lined the shores around Allison Park where we camped.
In the hills where the trails wind, we came across a section of the Alaska pipeline. But more remarkable still, we saw three young men in flip flops pulling a canoe, loaded with provisions and equipment, along the steep path to camp in the mountains. And the hiking trails were filled with berry bushes that bears had clearly ravaged earlier.
Anchorage was the beautiful city we expected. From there our extended family group took a trip to Homer, Alaska, “Halibut fishing capital of the world”, at the southwestern tip of the state, with more than 5,000 inhabitants. It has a famous brooch jutting out into the cold blue waters of Kachemak Bay.
There, my husband and his eldest grandson fished to their heart’s content. In the evening, we let a chef serve us a fish feast. The next day we went in search of souvenirs and great meals in the quaint shops and restaurants perched in colorful and lovely huts above the waters along the shore. Afterward, I couldn’t help but have my picture taken with the biggest halibut (almost 200 pounds) caught in a derby that day.
Pro tip: The second night we had a few drinks at the Savory Dawg Saloon at the brooch, famous for its ceiling and walls covered with coins. I posted my 100 Philippine peso bill and my husband and daughter posted a US dollar.
When the grandson left to resume his job in Hawaii, my husband, daughter and I experienced the famous four hour Inland Passage. A number of cruise lines use Whittier, the charming gateway to Prince William Sound nestled between mountains draped in glaciers, as the port of departure for these cruises. Just 60 miles southeast of Anchorage, Whittier is a very pretty town on the western end of south-central Alaska. Its population is around 200 people in low season, which doubles in summer. It is separated from the Alaskan highway system by a 2.5 mile long tunnel that is shared by alternating one-way car and rail traffic. Quite an experience.
Our cruise took us to see 26 glaciers up close, some rising 1,700 feet above sea level. We rode in a high speed catamaran with huge picture windows inside two decks closed (there are also large viewing areas outside). The trip visits Resurrection Bay and the College Fjords. There were lots of sea otters, seals, porpoises, sea lions and whales. We were suitably surprised when we approached Surprise Glacier, a very blue tidal glacier, pieces of which floated on the icy waters around the ship (think of the shades of Titanic). When the crew served ice blue margaritas from ice cream they collected, we had a party!
Going down to Lower 48, we took the Stewart-Cassiar Road across northern British Columbia. I didn’t see a mountain on top of a glacier before the turn to the town of Stewart, BC, to the coast, where there was supposed to be good fishing.
There was nothing commercial in the city of Stewart / hyder. No one wanted to take Bill fishing because it was already a day out of season. I was so disappointed until we found out that just two miles away was the intriguing little town of Hyder. The small town of a hundred inhabitants surprised us with two unforeseen and unforgettable experiences: Salmon Glacier and Fish Creek.
Salmon Glacier is the fifth largest glacier in North America, and as we went up the hill (15 miles) from downtown Hyder and Stewart it slowly made its appearance. The photos I took couldn’t capture the full expanse; they couldn’t do it justice. And the price we paid was high. The road was completely covered with gravel; and as it was raining too, it was muddy dirt / gravel! I can only imagine the brutal punishment we inflicted on our little B-class motorhome. But there was no other way to make it happen.
Fish Creek Bear Viewing Site, on the other hand, just at the foot of the hill, a spectacle awaited us. A good sized black bear showed up and for about 39 minutes chased and devoured any salmon it could find. My husband and I were clicking on our cameras all the time. Sometimes it was only 20 feet away. Fortunately we were hidden; he put on quite a show!
5. Kenai / Soldotna
The following year we returned to Alaska for the wedding of my husband’s daughter! When the couple went on their honeymoon, we tried to replicate with the grandson the fun times we had the year before. We drove to the Twin Cities of Kenai (7,000 inhabitants) and Soldotna (5,000 people) at the mouth of the famous Kenai River on the Kenai Peninsula, just off the same road we took for Homer the year before.
By the end of summer, however, it was already colder, wetter, darker, and windier. There wasn’t much fishing to do in this famous Alaskan fishing area. Even the snow-capped mountains seemed more distant, obscured by the haze, so the photos we took weren’t as bright. In Soldotna the only thing that caught our attention was that the local Fred Meyer, where we camped for the night, had a free landfill and drinking water stations.
But we did discover a fascinating and historic church built at the turn of the 19th century when the country was still under Russian rule. Alaska didn’t become a state until 1959 after Russia sold it to the United States. Holy Assumption Russian Orthodox Church in the old town of Kenai was so endearing. We even found a set of wedding crowns that we could put on for a photo.
Pro tip: On the way to Kenai / Soldotna you can get the best smoked salmon chowder you will ever find at the historic Gwin’s lodge at Cooper Landing.
The next morning, feeling my disappointment with the weather, my husband left for the other side of the peninsula, towards the town of Seward (3,000 inhabitants) at the mouth of the Kenai fjords national park instead of going back to Anchorage. Another charming cruise ship town nestled between mountains and fjords, I felt Whittier was prettier but smaller. It was already out of season, however, so there was hardly anyone on the Seward waterfront. But the boats were still all moored in the marina, and the businesses were still open. And tours of Kenai Fjords were always available.
On leaving town, a sign led us to a certain Glacier exit only eight and a half miles west. Of course, we made the detour. We found out that it was part of the 500 square mile Harding Icefields and is so named because it is slowly retreating from the first recorded terminus in 1815. There have been records all along the way; the latter about two miles from the current one. You could imagine the former size of the glacier from the swamp it created at its feet. And I had a second chance to walk the ice ridge. I finally gathered the courage. But it was so cold; I felt like I was in the freezer. I turned around after the quick photoshoot!
These are the charming discoveries we continue to make throughout beautiful Alaska. It’s a place where disappointments don’t last long!
To learn more about vacationing in Alaska, think