Located at the head of a fjord in Prince William Sound, Valdez is surrounded on three sides by majestic mountains that seem to rise from the shores of Port Valdez. Since this Alaskan port town marks the southern end of the Richardson Highway, it is ‘out of the way’ for many summer visitors--in fact, it wasn’t in our original travel plans.
However, if you have a couple days to spare, it is well worth traveling off the beaten path to Valdez. The road less traveled leads to some pretty epic scenery--mountains, glaciers, iceberg-filled lakes and waterfalls--plus opportunities for viewing wildlife. Valdez is also an ideal destination for adventure-seekers. Choose from year-round activities that range from sea kayaking and glacier hiking in the summer to heliskiing and fat bike riding in the winter.
We hope our guide will give you an idea of what to expect when visiting Valdez and help you plan the perfect trip to Alaska!
VALDEZ, ALASKA HISTORY
For the region’s Native people, the area now known as Valdez was historically a favorite place to hunt, fish and trade. In 1790, Spanish explorers set out into North Pacific waters to investigate the extent of Russian involvement and establish Spanish claims in the area. It was Spanish explorer Don Salvador Fidalgo who named the “Bay of Valdez” in honor of Admiral Antonio Valdes y Basan, a Spanish naval officer.
In the late 1800s, Valdez was established as a port of entry for prospectors who came to the area believing the Valdez Glacier Trail to be a better route to reach the Klondike gold fields. However, the glacier trail was especially dangerous, and many died attempting the crossing.
Once the rush for Klondike gold subsided, copper discoveries near McCarthy in the early 1900s brought more development to Valdez. Valdez had hoped to build a railroad north from the coast to copper country and even laid some preliminary track. However, a feud between rival railroad companies interrupted progress. A half-completed tunnel at the southern entrance of Keystone Canyon marks the end of the “railroad era.”
Despite the completion of the first automobile road from Valdez to Fairbanks in the early 1920s, Valdez was no longer the only entry to the interior and mining in the area ceased to be profitable. The population of Valdez dropped drastically.
While the town of Valdez has an interesting past dating back to the 1700s, it is best known for two catastrophic events, one of which was the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. When the earthquake struck, it triggered an underwater landslide, which created massive waves that engulfed and destroyed the Valdez waterfront. After the quake, it was discovered that the entire town had been built on unstable ground. In 1967, Valdez was relocated to its present site, about 4 miles west of “old’ Valdez.
In the early 1970s, Congress approved plans for the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline to carry oil from Prudhoe Bay in northern Alaska to the marine terminal at Port Valdez. Thousands of people moved to Valdez to be a part of the construction and operation of the pipeline.
In 1989, 25 years after the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, a second catastrophic event thrust Valdez into the national spotlight. The oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, approximately 25 miles from Valdez, and resulted in the largest oil spill in North American history at that time. Although the oil did not reach the Port of Valdez, it devastated the marine life in the surrounding area and covered over 1200 miles of rocky beaches. Even after massive clean-up efforts, long-term effects of the spill are still being felt.
Despite its storied past, the Valdez is one of the most important ports in Alaska today—both as a commercial fishing port and as a freight terminal. With its beautiful scenery, proximity to glaciers and wide offering of recreational opportunities, the tourism industry continues to grow in Valdez.
ACTIVITIES IN VALDEZ, ALASKA
Valdez, Alaska area map, courtesy of valdezalaska.org
Whether you prefer photography and sightseeing or seek adventure, there are plenty of activities from which to choose in Valdez. Although boat cruises and kayak tours tend to be costly and most require reservations, there are also plenty of free things to do in Valdez that can be done at your own pace. The Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau on Fairbanks Drive is a great place to start your trip if you are seeking maps and brochures about the area. You’ll find options for all types of adventurers!
We’ve rounded up this list of some of the best things to do in and around Valdez, Alaska:
- Stroll along the Valdez waterfront. The boardwalk on North Harbor Drive offers great views of the small boat harbor, where you can watch fisherman weigh in and clean their catch. Right across the street, you’ll find storefronts for various adventure outfitters, gift shops and restaurants. Although there are several great places to eat in Valdez, we were so impressed by the amazing wraps and tacos at the Nat Shack that we never ate anywhere else!
- Learn about Valdez history at a local museum. If you want to learn more about the fascinating culture and history of the area, there are three popular museums to check out in town: The Valdez Museum and Historical Archive, The Remembering Old Valdez Exhibit and The Maxine and Jesse Whitney Museum (at Prince William Sound College). Although we didn’t have time to visit, we hear the impressive collection of Alaska Native artifacts and animal mounts at The Maxine and Jesse Whitney Museum is not to be missed!
- Visit Old Valdez. There isn’t much left of the old townsite (4 miles from downtown) but there are a few informational signs about the original townsite and a memorial for those residents who were killed in the Good Friday earthquake.
- View a salmon run at the Crooked Creek Information Site. Spawning salmon and other wildlife, including black and brown bears, can often be seen in mid-July and August from the outdoor viewing platform at Crooked Creek (about a mile from downtown). When open, a U.S. Forest Service cabin at the Crooked Creek site provides interactive displays about the Chugach National Forest and wildlife. A waterfall is located behind the U.S. Forest Service Cabin. Intertidal wetlands, known as Duck Flats, are located across the highway from Crooked Creek. This is a great spot to watch for migrating and nesting waterfowl.
- Visit the Solomon Gulch Hatchery on Dayville Road. The hatchery helps to ensure enough salmon return each year to spawn to support both sport and commercial fisheries in Valdez. Take a self-guided tour along the hatchery walkway, view the fish ladder, and observe wildlife feeding on returning salmon (June to October). Stellar sea lions, sea otters, bald eagles, and sometimes bears can be seen feasting on an all-you-can-eat salmon buffet! The sea lions put on quite the show as they chase fish and fight over the best fishing spots. The best time to watch the feeding frenzy is just before or at high tide. Just across the street from the parking area for the fish hatchery, a scenic waterfall through Solomon Gulch can be seen. Use caution when crossing the road for photographs. NOTE: Although it is common to see fisherman harvesting salmon on Dayville Road, sport fishing is prohibited within 300 feet of the fish ladder and weir.
Take a hike. If you are looking to explore further on foot, Valdez has several scenic and historic trails.
- Located by the Civic Center, the Overlook Trail is a quick, easy hike (0.4 miles, round-trip) that offers views of the town below and the Port of Valdez. It also as a covered picnic pavilion at the top of the hill. Access to the Overlook Trail: Park in the northern parking lot of the Civic Center. The trail begins in the northwest corner of the lot. Although short, the trail is more of a stair climb than a hike so is not wheelchair accessible or suitable for strollers.
- The Dock Point Trail is another short hike (0.83 miles, round-trip) that follows the peninsula between the Duck Flats and the Valdez harbor. The trail through Dock Point Park offers views of the harbor and surrounding wetlands which are home to shorebirds and bald eagles. Access to the Dock Point Trail: Parking for Dock Point Park is just off Kobuk Drive and across the road from the Small Boat Harbor’s boat launch ramp. The trail begins at the far end of the parking and picnic area.
- Our favorite easy trail was the Homestead Trail (1.2 miles, round-trip). Follow a wide gravel path through a cottonwood forest and along Mineral Creek before reaching the rocky coastline along Port Valdez. Visit at low tide to extend your options for exploring along the rocky beach! Access to the trailhead for the Homestead Trail: Trailhead parking is just off Homestead Road. This trail is family friendly and a popular spot to walk dogs. Bring bear spray--especially in late summer when salmon spawn in the creek.
- The John Hunter Memorial Trail (3.8 miles, round-trip; moderate), formerly known as the Solomon Gulch Trail, provides access to Solomon Lake and Solomon Gulch. The trail climbs steadily uphill through spruce forest before merging with the maintenance road for the Trans Alaska Pipeline. After crossing the creek, the trail departs the service road and continues up to viewpoints at Solomon Lake and its two dams. Access to the trailhead for the John Hunter Memorial Trail: The trailhead is located about a mile past the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery on Dayville Road (just before Allison Point). Parking is on the left. Allow about 2.5 hours to complete the roundtrip hike. Bring bear spray.
- Explore Keystone Canyon on foot and hike through history on a “pack trail” built by the U.S. Army in 1898 to provide a route to the Klondike gold fields. The trail is broken into sections and provides incredible views of the canyon, waterfalls, Lowe River Valley, and surrounding mountains. Hikes include the Keystone Canyon Pack Trail (2.6 miles one-way; moderate), the Goat Trail to the southern Snowslide Gulch Viewing area (3.2 miles round-trip; moderate), the Wagon Road (6.6 miles, round-trip; easy) and Thompson Pass Pack Trail (2.8 miles one-way; moderate).
- Trek through scenic Mineral Creek Valley to the old Smith Stamp Mill on the Mineral Creek Trail. On foot, the hike is 12.2. miles round-trip from the Mineral Creek Bridge. A rough gravel road begins at the upper end of Mineral Creek Drive and continues for about 5.5 miles to a gate where a dirt footpath begins. Although motorized traffic is allowed on the gravel road (it is commonly used by locals for 4-wheeling), all traffic beyond Horsetail Creek waterfalls should be on foot due to rockslides. Access to the gravel road that leads to the trailhead for the Mineral Creek Trail: Drive to Mineral Creek Bridge at the upper end of Mineral Creek Drive. Motorized travel beyond the bridge is only recommend for those with high clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicles and ATVs.
- The Shoup Bay Trail isn’t for everyone, but this less maintained trail is sure to fit the bill for those seeking a true Alaskan adventure! The trail is broken into two sections. Shoup Bay Trail A (6.5 miles, round-trip; moderate) is slightly better maintained and leads to Gold Creek Bridge and a remote camping site at Gold Creek. Shoup Bay Trail Section B (12.6 mile, round-trip; difficult), which is only recommended for experienced hikers, runs from the Gold Creek Bridge through overgrown brush to the north end of Shoup Bay. Those that hike the full length of the trail are rewarded with views of Shoup Glacier. Remote state park cabins are also available (by reservation) at the end of Section B. Access to the trailhead for the Shoup Bay Trail: The parking area for the trail is located at the end of West Egan Drive. NOTE: In the summer, the Shoup Bay Trail is notorious for being very overgrown (with Wild Celery, Devil’s Club and stinging nettles!), buggy and muddy. It is also bear country, so be bear aware while hiking and carry bear spray.
For more information about these hikes and others, see City of Valdez's Summer Trails Map Booklet.
- Visit Valdez Glacier Lake. You can nearly drive to the edge of this iceberg-filled lake created by the recession of the Valdez Glacier. Although Valdez Glacier can no longer be seen from the lakeshore, you can explore the lakeshore and possible touch an iceberg that has drifted to the edge. If you are interested in getting closer to the glacier and icebergs, you can book a kayak tour with Anadyr Adventures (their only freshwater kayak tour).
- Go kayaking. There are multiple outfitters in Valdez that offer a variety of guided sea kayaking tours for all age levels and abilities. Both Pangaea Adventures and Anadyr Adventures offer tours in Prince William Sound that range from a half day to a week. Sea kayaking tours generally operate between mid-May and mid-September. Capable paddlers can also rent kayak and gear rentals from some outfitters. Popular spots to kayak include Valdez Glacier Lake, Duck Flats and Robe Lake.
- Go fishing. Fishing is a popular activity in Valdez for locals and tourist alike. Cast year-round from shore at Valdez city dock or Allison Point; or book a fishing charter to reach deeper seas. The waters of Prince William Sound are home to salmon, rockfish, lingcod, and halibut. There are also plenty of options for freshwater fishing in nearby streams, rivers, and lakes (species include rainbow trout, Dolly Varden and grayling). NOTE: A fishing license is required to fish in all public access waters in Alaska. Alaska fishing licenses can be purchased online through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, at most sporting goods stores, and at Fish and Game offices.
- Take a glacier and wildlife cruise. Boat tours from Valdez offer excursions to see impressive glaciers and waters teeming with wildlife! Cruises also offer some amazing views of mountains surrounding the Port of Valdez. Boat tour companies like Lu-Lu Belle and Stan Stephens offer trips to see the Columbia Glacier, the second-largest tidewater glacier in North America, or Meares Glacier. Cruises generally range from 6-8 hours.
- Spot amazing wildlife! Valdez and the surrounding waters of Prince William Sound are home to a variety of wildlife and seabirds—some of which can be viewed right from the shore. Sea otters can be spotted in the small boat harbor and near the Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery when the salmon are running. Stellar sea lions can be seen at high tide feasting on salmon by the fish hatchery as well. Bald eagles can be spotted year-round flying overhead in town or perched in trees or man-made structures near the small boat harbor. They can also be seen at Duck Flats, the fish hatchery, and the mud flats along Dayville Road. Anywhere there are fish or berries, keep an eye out for bears. The Crooked Creek Information Site, Duck Flats and Dayville Road are some of the best places to catch sight of a brown or black bear. Be bear aware and watch them from a safe distance. If you are hoping to see Humpback and Orca whales, Dall porpoises and puffins, your best bet is to go on a boat tour.
- Experience Worthington Glacier. Located about a half hour north of Valdez, the impressive Worthington Glacier can be seen various pullouts along the Richardson Highway. However, for a closer look at this retreating glacier, be sure to stop at the Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site ($5 day use fee/parking fee). Generally open between June and September, the recreation site has restrooms, picnic facilities, and a general store with snacks and souvenirs. Take a short walk along a paved wheelchair-accessible trail to a viewing platform. When conditions allow, there are two different unmaintained trails that can get you closer to the glacier. The easier of the two (but still very rugged!) follows the valley floor to the foot of the glacier. The Ridge Trail (2-miles RT) is a steep, rocky climb and follows the crest of the moraine up to a narrow ridge. NOTE: Be sure to check the Valdez Adventure Alliance website for updates on the status of the Ridge Trail (which was closed due to rockslides during our visit).
- Take in the views at Thompson Pass. At 2,678 feet, Thompson Pass is the highest point along the stretch of Richardson Highway between Glenallen and Valdez. Enjoy panoramic views of snow-capped peaks and hanging glaciers. Although there are no marked trails at Thompson Pass, this area is a popular spot in the summer for hiking, mountain biking and berry picking (late summer). During colder months, it transforms into a premier destination for extreme winter sports. Receiving an average of 500 inches of snow per year, Thompson Pass is known as the snowiest place in Alaska. When visiting in the summer, check out the height of the snow poles along the edge of the highway! These crazy looking poles mark the edge of the road and provide a visual for the snowplow drivers that keep this section of the highway open year-round.
- Enjoy Blueberry Lake State Recreation Site. Situated north of Valdez in Thompson Pass, this recreation site offers picnic sites/shelters, camping, and berry picking (in season). The high alpine lake is also an excellent spot for grayling fishing. Blueberry Lake was one of our favorite stops along the Richardson Highway to take a break and let our oldest son fish. If you don’t need hook-ups or Wi-Fi and are looking for a place to stay the night, this campground location is hard to beat! Be sure to make reservations for Blueberry Lake Campgrounds at least 7 days in advance. Not camping? Pay a small day-use fee to have a picnic by the edge of the lake or go fishing.
- Explore Keystone Canyon. Located just 20 minutes from Valdez, Keystone Canyon offers roadside pull-offs to view a piece of the area’s fascinating history and couple spectacular waterfalls. Stop to see the Old Railroad Tunnel, on the left side of Richardson Highway as you descend from Thompson Pass on the way to Valdez. The tunnel was hand-cut into the walls of Keystone Canyon in 1906 but never finished. About a mile past the railroad tunnel and also on the left side of the road is the first of two roadside waterfalls, Bridal Veil Falls. Use caution when crossing this busy road for photos. The trailhead for the Goat Trail, which also provides access to the north end of the Keystone Canyon Pack Trail (two trails mentioned in the hiking section) can be found at the south end of the paved turnout for Bridal Veil Falls. Horsetail Falls is just around the corner from Bridal Veil Falls. Thrill-seekers will also find plenty to do in Keystone Canyon--including white-water rafting on the Lowe River in the summer and ice climbing in the winter.
- More adventurous options in Valdez. Seeking something more extreme? Helicopter tours are pricey but provide a unique birds-eye view of the Chugach Mountains and Prince William Sound. Or book a helicopter tour that lands you on a glacier! Valdez is also an ideal base for extreme winter sports including ice climbing, heliskiing, snowboarding, backcountry skiing, snowmobiling and fat bike riding.
HOW TO GET TO VALDEZ AND OTHER TRAVEL INFORMATION
Getting to Valdez requires some planning. However, whether you arrive by car, ferry or plane, the sights are sure to be amazing!
By Car: Valdez is a five-hour drive (~300 miles) from Anchorage. The route from Anchorage to Valdez travels the scenic Glenn and Richardson Highways. Valdez is about a six and a half hour-drive (~360 miles) from Fairbanks. The route from Fairbanks to Valdez travels the full length of the Richardson Highway. Either way, there are incredible views almost the entire way—including glaciers, towering snow-capped peaks and waterfalls! TIP: Glenn Highway and Richardson Highway meet at Glenallen—making Glenallen an ideal location to stop for gas and basic grocery needs before continuing on the Richardson Highway.
By Ferry: Valdez is a stop on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system. A ferry ride from Whittier takes approximately six hours. If driving the Richardson Highway to get to Valdez, you can also take the Valdez to Whittier ferry instead of backtracking to return to Anchorage, or head to other destinations like the Kenai Peninsula.
By Plane: The quickest but priciest way to get to Valdez is via a regional flight from Anchorage to Valdez Airport. A 45-minute flight will take you over glacial ice fields and the towering peaks of the Chugach Mountains.
WHERE TO STAY IN VALDEZ, ALASKA
There are a several lodging options in Valdez, Alaska including hotels, motels, cabins and Airbnbs. However, we found our room in the main building at Totem Hotel and Suites to be clean, comfortable, and modern. It is walking distance to the waterfront with some great places to eat. We were also able to do our laundry in a neighboring building run by the hotel.
CAMPING IN VALDEZ, ALASKA
Camping in this part of Alaska really is an amazing experience. There are free camping options around (if you are up for being self-sufficient for a day or more), and there are plenty of private campground that have full amenities to keep even the most discriminating camper happy.
Valdez is an excellent place to camp or bring your RV. Although most camping grounds in the area do not have electricity or running water, some have basic facilities such as showers and restrooms. Some of the most popular campgrounds include the Blueberry campground located on the Thomson Pass and Glacier camping ground near Valdez Glacier & Glacier Lake.
There are a few options that are out of the middle of the city that will provide you with an amazing camping experience if you are willing to drive a few miles into town. They are also less packed in that the in-town RV parks. Here are some worth checking out:
Valdez Glacier Campground:
- Location: The Valdez Glacier Campground is located on Airport Road just about 6 miles outside of the center of Valdez, AK. Directions from Valdez, AK to the Valdez Glacier Campground.
- Accessible via: Vehicle.
- Reservations: Offered from late-May through early September. Reservations are only by calling, 907-873-4795. Non-electric campsites are first-come, first-served.
- Capacity: 107 sites (plus 4 dry cabins).
- Electricity / Water Hookups / Dump Station: Yes / No / Yes.
- Toilets / Showers: Flush toilets and showers (available for a fee).
- Additional details: The Valdez Glacier Campground is run by the Greely Army Morale, Welfare and Recreation Office. Prices are very reasonable, and they do offer military (and veteran) rates. Click here for more information on the Valdez Glacier Campground.
Blueberry Lake State Recreation Site:
- Location: The Blueberry Lake State Recreation Site is located on the Richardson Highway, about 30 miles outside of the center of Valdez, AK. Directions from Valdez, AK to the Blueberry Lake State Recreation Site.
- Accessible via: Vehicle.
- Reservations: Offered from mid-June through early September. Reservations for the Blueberry Lake State Recreation Site.
- Capacity: 25 sites.
- Electricity / Water Hookups / Dump Station: No / No / No.
- Toilets / Showers: Vault toilets and no showers.
- Additional details: This is an amazing spot, but it is remote. You’ll be surrounded by mountains and on a lake with great fishing. Click here for more information on the Blueberry Lake State Recreation Site Campground.
For RVing and staying inside town, there are two main campgrounds:
You can also check out the Valdez KOA, located about 7 miles outside of town.
BEST TIME TO VISIT VALDEZ, ALASKA
The best time to visit Valdez, Alaska is between July and August when temperatures are at their highest, (around 60 degrees) and days are long. You can take part in a variety of outdoor activities only offered in the summer. Since the salmon are running in the summer, it is also the best time for fishing and spotting the wildlife that love to feast on salmon! If you are planning to book a glacier cruise, those usually run from mid-May to early September.
You should always be prepared for cool, wet weather in Valdez, and rain jackets are essential. If you are planning to hit the trails, we also recommend bringing a pair of waterproof hiking boots.
Winters in Valdez bring LOTS of snow, which is ideal if you are a winter sports enthusiast! They receive the most snow between November and March.
Be sure to check Valdez weather before your visit!
HELPFUL HINTS AND TIPS FOR VISITING VALDEZ
- If driving, fuel up in Glenallen before driving to Valdez. Gas stations are few and far between in some areas of Alaska!
- There’s little to no cell service between Tonsina and Valdez.
- Be bear aware and carry bear spray when hiking any area trails.
- Know how to recognize stinging nettle, wild celery and Devil’s club and avoid skin contact with these plants common in Alaska’s coastal areas.
RELATED INFORMATION ON OTHER ALASKA DESTINATIONS FROM JUST GO TRAVEL STUDIOS
- Ahead of your trip to Valdez, be sure to check out our other extensive blogs on Alaska, including What to See and Do in Kenai Fjords National Park, Independence Mine State Historical Park and What to See and Do in Eagle River Nature Center. We also have an extensive blog on What to See and Do in Whittier, Alaska.
- Just to the north (by a few hours) is one of our favorite parks which you can read about in our blog, What to See and Do in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.
- When you get back from your visit, let us make a custom, vintage-style travel poster for you! We promise you’ll love it.