Travelers to Anchorage can escape the city for a road trip on the scenic Seward Highway, a spectacular experience that offers surprising diversions, culminating in the historic port town of Seward.
This famous 125-mile route runs south from Anchorage, navigating along a thin body of water called the Turnagain Arm. As you ascend the dramatic Chugach and Kenai Mountains, ancient glaciers wink through the summer greenery. Passing dormitories, ramshackle truck stops, and pristine alpine lakes, the highway finally arrives in Seward, on the edge of Resurrection Bay.
The time-pressed traveler could get to and from Seward in a long full day, logging more than five hours of road travel alone. Don’t rush: This memorable trip is best enjoyed over two or more days and nights, allowing for extended stops to appreciate Alaska’s scenery and character, history, and the restaurants offered by small towns along the way .
About 45 minutes south of Anchorage, Girdwood is a laid-back ski resort that moved inland a few miles off the highway after the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.
For Alaskans and visitors, Girdwood is a recreation mecca. The winter slopes and the ski lifts are transformed to accommodate downhill mountain biking in the summer. Paved paths wind through the city, offering the chance to take in the scenery at a slow pace. It’s a charming collection of memorable restaurants, art galleries, ski lodges and condos.
For hikers, the friendly Winner Creek Trail begins just behind the scenic Hotel Alyeska. For a challenge, tackle the southern end of the 21-mile Crow Pass Trail, which connects Girdwood to the outskirts of Eagle River north of Anchorage. The first few miles of the Girdwood end of this historic trail ascend from Girdwood, with stunning views of glaciers, remnants of an old gold mine and jagged peaks.
Girdwood’s dining options are impressive. Start with a local icon, The pastry (194 Olympic Mountain Loop), open at press time Thursday through Monday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. A morning staple for over 40 years, the Bake Shop offers homemade dishes like sourdough pancakes and brioches. For lunch, the shop kicks into high gear to scrape up homemade soups and sandwiches on fresh bread.
For a special dinner, try Jack Sprat (165 Olympic mountain loop). Its regional cuisine with an Alaskan twist is truly special, showcasing fresh seasonal produce and locally sourced proteins like halibut. Its high chalet windows offer a romantic view of the mountainside. Check the website for hours.
Nearby, faithful Double musk inn (Mile 0.3 Crow Creek Road) is a tucked away steakhouse known for its colorful French Quarter decor, world-class wine cellar and Creole classics with Alaskan flair. Its lively elegance has delighted locals and tourists for decades. There will be a wait for several nights, but it’s worth it.
For a fun and laid back vibe, drop by Girdwood Brewery. With tables inside and seating outside around gas-powered fire pits, sip pints or smaller tasters while ordering from one or more local food trucks that rotate on site; the truck schedule is updated on the site. They also sell trendy hoodies, hats and stickers to remember your sudsy Girdwood detour.
Like Girdwood, Portage once lay along the Seward Highway. As Girdwood rebuilt inland, Portage faded, with few remains today but decrepit cabins overtaken by aggressive brush. Today, at Portage, visitors will find the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Mile 79 Seward Highway), a sprawling sanctuary that offers large enclosures for Alaskan orphaned and rehabilitated animals.
View animals while driving, hiking the 1.5-mile loop around the center, or booking a tour with one of the staff naturalists. Hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. May through August; 10am-6pm September and October; 10am-5pm in November; 10am-4pm in December.
A turn east in Portage on Portage Valley Road will lead the curious traveler to two worthy destinations: the Begich Visitor Center, Boggs and, beyond, the town of Whittier.
the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center (Portage Lake Loop) is about 5 miles east of the highway and opens late May through early September. Named for Congressmen Nick Begich and Hale Boggs, whose flight to Alaska disappeared in 1972, the center is built on the edge of a lake on the moraine left by the retreating Portage Glacier. The glacier is visible via boat trips to its front. The center itself provides science-based educational opportunities for adults and children.
Drive further and travelers will have a truly different experience with the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. The 2.5-mile-long one-way highway toll tunnel is the longest in North America, a dark and brooding viaduct through the formidable mountains, originally a railroad tunnel connecting the west side of Turnagain Arm at the military port town of Whittier. Find tunnel timetables online to plan your visit accordingly.
Whittier exists as a critical deep water port. In this unusual community, most residents live in one of two large buildings due to the lack of housing and building land. For activities there are glacier viewing boats, regular cruise ship stops, a beautiful harbor view hotel called The Whittier Inn (5A Harbor Loop Road) as well as camping and RV options.
The one-way toll tunnel is strange enough to warrant an hour-long detour. If you have time, visit the small but surprisingly comprehensive Prince William Sound Museum (743 Whittier Street). An impressive array of exhibits fill its cozy space, capturing the story of Whittier’s highly original history.
Getting to Seward is a show-stopper. About 2,800 people call this quintessential city a year-round home, and in this special place they are surrounded by the dramatic mountains of Resurrection Bay, a beautiful marina where visitors can walk the docks, and a lovable community. with a hodge-podge economy built on fishing outfits, kayaking businesses, sightseeing excursions, shops, restaurants and bars.
Seward’s strengths include the Alaska Marine Life Center (301 Railway Ave.), a hands-on aquarium and science facility that offers the chance to see diving puffins and swimming sea lions, get an up-close look at octopuses, and learn about the special place that is Resurrection Bay.
From the SeaLife Center, a leisurely stroll down Fourth Avenue offers a serene sense of Seward’s old-time frontier culture, with Old West storefronts, historic murals, steeple churches, memorial plaques and markers historical. A paved path from the SeaLife Center along the waterfront towards the harbor is a pleasant way to enjoy the mountain scenery.
Seward offers many hotels and motels, house rentals, hostel beds, and camping and RV options for those staying overnight.
Beyond the roads, day cruises through Kenai Fjords National Park are a popular way to soak up the glorious waters of Resurrection Bay. Otters, seals, puffins, killer whales, and various migrating whales can all make cameos on these charters, some of which include island stops for meals.
[Photos: Orcas are the stars of a Resurrection Bay boat tour prime for wildlife viewing]
To see a glacier on foot, plan a few hours to stop at Exit Glacier. Located just inside Kenai Fjords National Park, this glacier on the edge of the Harding Icefield is receding every year, much to the sadness of many fans. But a moderately level walking path leads to lookouts where the glacier is still easily visible and photographed.
Seward is synonymous with fishing, and there are plenty of half-day or full-day charters that fish for halibut, salmon, or both. Charters usually provide all the fishing gear, and in town there are options to fillet and freeze fish for shipping after your trip ends. These trips depart early and return late and offer a complete Alaskan experience. Play your cards right and you’ll enjoy the scenery of a wildlife-spotting trip while returning home with a freezer full of fish to commemorate your once-in-a-lifetime Alaskan vacation long after it’s over.