On our first trip to Alaska, we made a detour to Valdez in the southeastern corner. Then from Anchorage, we did day trips to the towns of Whittier and Homer. And on the way back to the Lower 48 through British Columbia, we found the tiny town of Hyder. The next year we went to the towns of Kenai/Soldotna and Seward.
This is the second of two articles on my favorite small towns in Alaska, covering the south. The northern towns were featured previously in 6 Quaint Small Towns To Visit In Northern Alaska.
We completed navigating the famed Alaska Highway in a week. After a night at a campground in Tok, Alaska, we woke up to a day covered with smog from the forest fires that were raging all around. Quickly we postponed seeing my husband’s youngest in Anchorage for a few days and drove to Valdez in southeastern Alaska first.
There were a few showers on the way there; the air was damp and a lot of fog hovered around. Soon we lost our cell signals and broadband communications. Suddenly, as our RV negotiated a bend, a large white mountain appeared before us: It was Worthington Glacier, and one could walk to it from the roadside! My husband was gone in a jiffy, bringing back a chunk of blue ice that I quickly deposited into our freezer.
Thirty minutes from Worthington is the quaint little fishing town of Valdez (population almost 4,000). Low-lying clouds encircled the town and the lovely marina. The “longest boat ramp in the world” reached far out into the waters teeming with pink salmon spawning nearby. Eager fishermen lined the banks around Allison Park where we camped.
Up in the hills where the trails wound, we came across a section of the Alaska gas pipeline. But more remarkably, we saw three young men in flip-flops hauling a canoe, heavy with provisions and equipment, up the steep trail to camp in the mountains. And the hiking trails were filled with berry bushes that the bears had clearly ravaged earlier.
Pro Tip: On the way back, if you have time, visit Wrangell-St Elias National Park, which hosts the Canadian Rockies’ highest point, or, nearer to Anchorage, walk on the 27-mile-long Matanuska Glacier.
Anchorage was the neat city we expected it to be. 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 over 5,000 in population. It has a famous spit jutting out into the cold blue waters of the Kachemak Bay.
There, my husband and his eldest grandson fished to their hearts’ content. At night we let a chef serve us a fish fest. The next day we went hunting for souvenirs and good eats at the quaint shops and restaurants perched in colorful entrancing huts above the waters along the shore. Afterward, I could not resist having my photo taken with the largest halibut (almost 200 pounds) caught in a derby that day.
Pro Tip: On that second night we had a few drinks at the Salty Dawg Saloon on the spit, famous for its ceiling and walls covered with currency. I posted my Philippine peso 100 bill, and my husband and his daughter put up a U.S. dollar.
When the grandson left to go back to his job in Hawaii, my husband, his daughter, and I proceeded to experience the famous four-hour Inland Passage. A number of cruise lines use Whittier, the charming gateway to Prince William Sound nestled between glacier-draped mountains, as a departure port for these cruises. Only about 60 miles southeast of Anchorage, Whittier is a very pretty town on the western edge of south-central Alaska. Its population is about 200 people in the off-season, which doubles during summer. It is separated from Alaska’s road system by a 2.5-mile-long tunnel that is shared by alternating one-way auto and railroad traffic. Quite an experience.
Our cruise took us to see 26 glaciers up close, some rising to 1,700 feet above sea level. We rode in a high-speed catamaran with huge picture windows inside two enclosed decks (there are extensive outside viewing areas, too). The voyage visits Resurrection Bay and the College Fjords. There were lots of sea otters, seals, porpoises, sea lions, and whales. We were fittingly surprised as we approached Surprise Glacier, a very blue tidewater glacier, pieces of which were floating on the icy waters around the vessel (think shades of Titanic). When the crew served glacial blue margaritas from ice they harvested, we had a party!
On the way down to the Lower 48, we took the Stewart-Cassiar Highway through northern British Columbia. I did not see a glacier-topped mountain until the turn to the town of Stewart, British Columbia, toward the coast, where there was supposed to be good fishing.
There was nothing commercial about the town of Stewart/Hyder. No one wanted to take Bill out fishing because it was already a day after season. I was so disappointed until we found out that, only two miles away, was the intriguing tiny town of Hyder. The little town of about a hundred people surprised us with two unplanned 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 pictures I took could not capture the entire extent; they could not do it justice. And the price we paid was high. The road was dirt-gravel all the way; and since it was also raining, it was muddy dirt/gravel! I can only imagine the brutal punishment we gave our small Class B motorhome. But there was no other way to get there.
Fish Creek Bear Viewing Site, on the other hand, right at the foot of the hill, had a sideshow waiting for us. A good-sized black bear showed up, and for about 39 minutes hunted for and devoured all the salmon he could find. My husband and I were clicking our cameras non-stop. At times he was a mere 20 feet away. Good thing we were hidden; he put on quite a show!
The following year, we went back 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 previous year. We drove to the twin towns of Kenai (population 7,000) and Soldotna (population 5,000) on the mouth of the famous Kenai River on the Kenai Peninsula, just slightly off the same road we took to Homer the previous year.
Being late in the summer, however, it was already colder, wetter, darker, and windier. There was not much fishing to do in this renowned fishing area of Alaska. Even the snow-capped mountains seemed farther away, hidden by haze so that the pictures we took were not 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 complimentary dump and potable water stations.
But we discovered an entrancing and historic church built at the turn of the 19th century when the land was still under Russian rule. Alaska only became a state in 1959 after Russia sold it to the U.S. The Holy Assumption Russian Orthodox Church in the Old Town of Kenai was so endearing. We even found a set of wedding crowns we could don for a picture.
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 in Cooper Landing.
The next morning, sensing my disappointment in the weather, my husband headed off to the other side of the peninsula, to the town of Seward (population 3,000) at the mouth of the Kenai Fjords National Park instead of going back to Anchorage. Another lovely cruise ship town nestled between the mountains and the fjords, I felt that Whittier was prettier though smaller. It was already off-season, however, so there was hardly a soul on the Seward waterfront. But the boats were all still moored in the marina, and the shops were still open. And tours to the Kenai Fjords were still available.
Upon leaving town, a sign led us to a certain Exit Glacier only eight and a half miles west. Of course, we took the detour. We found out it’s part of the 500-square-mile Harding Ice Fields and is so named because it has been receding slowly since the earliest recorded terminus in 1815. There were recordings all along the way; the last about two miles from the present one. You could imagine the former size of the glacier from the marshland it was creating at its feet. And I got a second chance to walk on the glacial ridge. I finally summoned the courage. But it was so cold; it felt like I was inside the freezer. I turned back after the quick photo op!
Such are the charming discoveries we continue to make all over beautiful Alaska. It’s a place where disappointments don’t last long!
For more on vacationing in Alaska, consider