Whittier, Alaska. The self-proclaimed “Western Gateway to the Prince William Sound,” which it is. I would also consider it our first stop on the Kenai Peninsula, but I’m not sure if it quite counts as part of the peninsula.
We left Anchorage, driving the Seward Highway Scenic Byway (literally the only way to go!) around Turnagain Arm and past the town of Girdwood to Portage Valley via the Portage Highway. (Remember, in Alaska, most “highways” are two-lane roads, sometimes dirt/gravel, sometimes rough, sometimes narrow). Along Portage Highway—a paved two-lane road—are nature trails, campgrounds, pullouts to view or fish on Portage Creek, views of Explorer, Middle, and Byron glaciers, and Portage Lake (formed by Portage Glacier, viewable from a boat or kayak) – all before arriving at the Whittier Tunnel.
We dry camped (no electric/water/sewer hookups) at Williwaw Campground. We walked and rode our bikes on the Trail of Blue Ice and hiked the trail to the Byron Glacier. We also did a boat tour on Portage Lake over to Portage Glacier. It was a breezy, cold, beautiful day with deceptive views. Even though the lake didn’t seem large, it was about a mile wide and, when we were “near” the glacier, we were a few hundred yards away! We saw a professional photographer on top of a large boulder at the bottom of the glacier, and he looked like a little ant! Alaska is full of these optical illusions.
As much as we enjoyed our stay, visiting pullouts and walking the trails in Portage Valley, we were really in that area to drive into Whittier. The ONLY way to get into Whittier by vehicle on land is through the 2.5 mile-long tunnel that is shared with trains. Not side-by-side, mind you, but by driving over the actual railroad tracks. It is the longest road and rail tunnel in North America, although there are much longer road and rail tunnels around the world. There is a timed system of traffic moving through the tunnel one way, with traffic moving through in the opposite direction 30 minutes later, and all traffic is stopped when a train is scheduled to go through in either direction. There is a fee to go through the tunnel. We did not take the Airstream, so we paid a regular vehicle fee of about $13.00 roundtrip.
There is not much to Whittier. Nestled among the Chugach mountains and easy access to Prince William Sound, it was deemed a good location for a secret military installation during World War II. The digging and construction of the tunnel began in 1941. Buildings were built, and a town was created. The Army pulled out in 1966, but by then the Port of Whittier had become a part of Alaska’s commercial fishing and tourist industries.
There are NO houses, except for maybe one or two “newish” log cabins set up on the outskirts of town along the water, most likely for the tourist season. The year-round residents (about 300) live in a small apartment complex on the edge of town near the shipping container yard or in a renovated condo building in the center of town. The condo building used to be housing for military personnel during the installation.
There is an area for container ships. There is a dock for cruise ships, but they only arrive during the summer and not daily. There is an active ferry between Whittier and Valdez that takes about 6 hours in one direction. It can take vehicles up to 25 feet, but any pets are required to stay in vehicles the entire time. So, those travelling with pets may choose to drive instead. And, of course, there is a huge train yard for cargo trains and passenger trains coming and going.
We walked through a pedestrian tunnel underneath the train tracks and train yard to walk around the town. We visited a small museum that is housed in the same building as the one and only grocery store in Whittier. The museum was well put-together with photos and artifacts from the creation of the tunnel to the development of the town and the army installation.
Although there are a few restaurants and gift shops along the harbor, they are closed during the winter months. We approached a young lady walking with her toddler son and asked if she lived in Whittier year round. The answer was yes! Her husband was originally from Girdwood (outside of Portage Valley on the Seward Highway), and he works with the Whittier/Valdez ferry. She used to live in North Carolina (what are the chances?) and continues to do remote work for a dance studio in Chapel Hill. They recently bought a condo in the condo building and are hoping the renovations are done by October so they can move in before winter hits.
Whittier is small, so we walked the entire town and along the Whittier Creek Trail (the back, mountain side of the town). Before leaving, we drove by the Buckner Building, part of the U.S. Army’s initial installation which is now in ruins, and we also drove down a gravel road for some beautiful mountain/glacier/water views.
The trip through the tunnel was worth the day trip into Whittier. Spending time on the other side in Portage Valley was equally, if not more, rewarding. Enjoy the video (above or at https://youtu.be/o06LGk3hZb8?si=MHVKwWYjgjz9rR5H) of our excursion!