Most people who visit Alaska follow a similar path through the state: they visit the big cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks, and stop off in Denali. They might even explore the Kenai Peninsula, staying in towns like Seward, Whittier, or Homer for a night or two. But there is so much more to explore in Alaska – and some travelers want to get off that “beaten path” to discover the other parts of the state for themselves.
Valdez is one such destination that’s perfect for those who want to escape the crowds in more touristy parts of Alaska, especially during the summer months. Located at the southern end of the Richardson Highway, there are only a few ways to reach Valdez – and most independent travelers, tours, and even cruises skip over this town.
I had the chance to visit Valdez for the first time in the summer of 2021 during a guided tour with John Hall’s Alaska. My group made a short stop to sample what Valdez has to offer, and inspired by that trip I’ve put together this list of things to do in Valdez. I had the chance to try almost all of these activities myself during my one-night/two-day stay – and everything else is still on my ‘to-do’ list. (I always have one of those after every Alaska trip!)
If you’re planning to visit Alaska and curious what to do in Valdez, read on. I’ll cover the most popular activities in this off-beat Alaska destination, as well as some lesser-known and definitely un-crowded options too.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is traditional lands of the Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) and Ahtna Nenn’ peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
1. Take a Cruise into Prince William Sound
The main attraction in Valdez is its proximity to Prince William Sound, the large body of water along Alaska’s southcentral coast. Prince William Sound is home to dozens of glaciers, whales, wildlife, and other sights too; most people choose to explore it either on a glacier cruise or a fishing charter (#5).
On my recent trip, I explored Prince William Sound with Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises who operate out of Valdez. Their boats can handle the occasionally tumultuous waterways of Prince William Sound to seek out the best glacier views and spot other wildlife along the way.
2. Visit Columbia Glacier
One highlight of any glacier cruise from Valdez is Columbia Glacier. This huge glacier is a short boat ride from Valdez, and is usually the main attraction of a day cruise. No matter which cruise company you choose, they’ll navigate the waterways from Port Valdez to Columbia Bay to give you a panoramic view of the face of this tidewater glacier.
Columbia is one of the fastest-shrinking glaciers in Alaska, at the rate of about 30 meters per day. It has lost 50% of its mass since 1982 and retreated over 10 miles up the valley. Glaciologists expect it may no longer be a tidewater glacier within the next 10-15 years – so if you want to see where the glacier meets the saltwater of Prince William Sound, this is one of the time-sensitive things to do in Valdez.
3. Go Whale Watching
While you’re out looking for glaciers in Prince William Sound, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the biggest animals in the water: whales! While whale watching is a less-common activity in Prince William Sound compared to Kenai Fjords, it’s still very possible to spot whales in the waterways here. On my cruise, we saw one humpback whale as the day went on.
To spot whales, keep your eyes peeled for the tell-tale spout of misty air as they exhale just before surfacing to take another breath.
4. Spot other Sea Life & Birds
There are other animals in Prince William Sound too, including sea lions, seals (often spotted on the glacial ice chunks near the face of a glacier), sea otters, and loads of sea birds including puffins.
Sea otters are especially delightful to see, as the population was deeply affected by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill here in Prince William Sound. While some beaches in the Sound are still not completely cleaned up, the majority of the ecosystem has recovered enough that you can now see these adorable weasels floating all over.
5. Book a Fishing Charter
As I mentioned, if you’re not big on hanging out on boats for the sights alone, the other main way to explore Prince William Sound is on a fishing charter. Like most of Alaska’s waterways, Valdez is popular as a base for booking a charter out to try and catch fish, ranging from salmon and rockfish to lingcod and halibut. In fact, because of the depth of Prince William Sound and the ease of reaching those deep waters from Valdez, it’s one of the best places for halibut fishing.
Be sure to book a fishing charter in advance if you have your heart set on it; there are plenty of operators but spots can fill up during peak summer months even in a lesser-visited Alaskan destination like Valdez.
6. Chase Waterfalls in Keystone Canyon
The one road in (and out) of Valdez passes through an area known as Keystone Canyon, which was carved by glaciers thousands of years ago. Today, the slate sides of the gorge rise almost vertically from sea level to several hundred feet in elevation.
The primary attraction in Keystone Canyon (other than getting to or leaving Valdez) is the waterfalls. There are several smaller falls, but the highlights are:
- Horsetail Falls, a 328-foot fall with a large roadside pull-out on the same side as the falls.
- Bridal Veil Falls, a 600+ foot fall with a roadside pull-out opposite the falls.
Both of these falls are perfect photo spots, though you might discover (as I did) that the names seem to be switched. I’ll let you decide which name suits which fall best once you see them in person.
The waterfalls in Keystone Canyon are also popular for ice climbing during the winter months, if that’s when you’re visiting and you love that type of adventure.
7. Explore Thompson Pass
Follow Keystone Canyon further out of Valdez and you’ll enter Thompson Pass. This wide mountain pass peaks at 2,678-foot and has served many important functions throughout Valdez and Alaska history.
Historically, the pass was used by gold miners making their way to the Klondike gold fields in the late 19th century; it was then used by the military to access Interior Alaska (which is also why Alaska Highway 4, the Richardson Highway, traverses this part of the state). Today, the Trans-Alaska pipeline passes through Thompson Pass as it makes its way to the Port Valdez Terminal.
For some fun trivia, Thompson Pass is reportedly the snowiest place in Alaska, receiving an average 500 inches per year!
8. Hike to Worthington Glacier
A little further up Thompson Pass will take you to Worthington Glacier. While this is quite a ways out of Valdez (29 miles), this alpine glacier is worth a visit as it’s very reminiscent of Exit Glacier near Seward. Worthington Glacier descends from the same ice field in the Chugach Mountains as Columbia Glacier.
A short one-mile out-and-back hike from the parking area gives you panoramic views of the glacier – though you can also spot it from the Richardson Highway when driving past if you don’t want to stop.
9. Take an “Urban” Hike
I’m using the term “urban” loosely here, because Valdez is a small town – but there are a few hiking trails right in town that are worth exploring if you like to stretch your legs.
First up, the Overlook Trail, which starts and ends near the Civic Center on Clifton Court. This short trail is just 0.4 miles round-trip but has some pretty decent climbing for its short distance. At the top of the hill, you’ll have 360-degree views of the town of Valdez, toward Keystone Canyon, and across Port Valdez. There are a few benches and a covered area where you can relax before descending back down to town.
Dock Point Trail is another great trail right in the heart of Valdez. The trailhead is right where Kobuk Drive becomes South Harbor Road, and loops out onto the peninsula of land there. This trail is also pretty short at just 0.83 miles total, but includes a steep ascent (or descent, depending on your direction) during one part of the loop – and a gentle slope through most of the rest of the hike. There are several overlooks (though some are becoming overgrown) and it’s a nice area for a longer walk without heading out of town.
10. Discover Old Valdez
Did you know that present-day Valdez is not the original city site?
Native Alaskans who lived in the area when white settlers arrived warned them: the place they built the first town of Valdez was not a safe location due to earthquakes and their subsequent tsunamis. Those settlers didn’t listen and built Valdez on low, flat land near the mouth of Valdez Glacier Stream. Then, 1964 Good Friday Earthquake happened, and a 220-foot tsunami roared up Port Valdez, wiping out most of the town and killing 122 people.
Luckily, the citizens of Valdez learned from this and rebuilt the town in its present location, protected from tsunamis by natural hills. (My geology might be off but I remember learning these hills are the terminal moraines of long-retreated glaciers – but don’t quote me on that.)
However, many of the original buildings that survived the earthquake and tsunami remain standing in Old Valdez, and you can take a self-guided walking tour of the area. There are interpretive signs throughout the area, as well as a brochure to keep you oriented and educated about the area.
11. Meet the Whispering Giant
Here’s one of the quickest things to do in Valdez! When I learned that a Whispering Giant statue is located in Valdez, I knew I had to visit.
The Whispering Giants are a series of wood carvings by artist Peter Wolf Toth; there are at least 74 statues around the world, including one in every U.S. state. Funnily enough, the one in Alaska is in Valdez! It is located in front of Prince William Sound College on Pioneer Street; since its installment, large evergreen trees now flank the statue from several sides.
It’s a nice spot for a unique photo – and an easy walk to show you more of Valdez while you’re visiting.
12. Visit the Valdez Museum & Historical Archive
Curious about Valdez’s history and role in Alaskan history? There’s no better place to learn about it than at the Valdez Museum and Historical Archive. These two buildings cover it all! The Valdez Museum has exhibits about Alaskan Native Culture, early explorers, the 1898 Gold Rush, and the oil industry, while the Historical Archive teaches about the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake and “Old Town” Valdez. (This makes the Historical Archive a great compliment if you also plan to visit and do that walking tour in Old Valdez.
13. Visit the Maxine & Jesse Whitney Museum
Photos © Prince William Sound College
Who doesn’t love a good free museum? The Maxine & Jesse Whitney Museum is located near the Whispering Giant and Prince William Sound College, and focuses exclusively on Alaskan Native art and culture. In fact, it’s one of the largest collections of Native art and artifacts in the world, accumulated over decades by Maxine Whitney between 1947 and 1998. She originally bought items from Alaska Native craftspeople to sell in a gift shop, but eventually ended up amassing a huge collection that you can now explore in the climate-controlled museum.
The museum is only open during the summer, so keep that in mind depending on your planned season to visit.
14. Attend a Far North Follies Show
For one last slice of life (and history) in Valdez, book tickets to a Far North Follies show during your visit. This Vaudeville dinner and drinks show gives you colorful insights into Valdez and Alaskan history presented by local residents and artists.
The show has morphed somewhat and I wasn’t able to attend in person on my last visit to verify how it’s changed, but you can check out showtimes (usually weekends in the summer) and book tickets to pass an evening of your visit with laughter and local color.
15. Snap a Photo with the Valdez Arch
Last but not least, be sure to stop at the Valdez Arch on your way in or out of town. This iconic arch stands at the southern terminus of the Richardson Highway and welcomes visitors to the literal end-of-the-road town. As it is an active highway, you do need to be careful about taking photos, but it’s worth it for a shot to remind you always of the funky, far-flung destination.
Where to Dine & Drink Locally
For a small town of just 3,800 people, Valdez has a great variety of options for places to eat and drink. Here are some of my favorites as well as locally-recommended spots.
- The Fat Mermaid – There is good competition, but everyone generally agrees that The Fat Mermaid serves the best pizza in town. Right near the marina, it’s a popular spot for locals and visitors – leading to decent wait times on summer nights, so be prepared for that.
- The Roadside Potato – Another silly name, but spot on for what they serve: everything is built on a bed of curly potato fries. Add gravy or seasoning to a side of them, or stick ’em in a burrito, whatever you prefer!
- Northern Treats – You see that line round the random gravel lot? That’s for Northern Treats, the local “Dairy Queen” equivalent. Swing by for a shake or sundae and you won’t be disappointed.
- Latte Dah Espresso – Need a pick-me-up before heading out on a day of adventure? There are a few spots in town, but Latte Dah was recommended to me as the best spot for coffee in town. (I didn’t make a personal trip here due to heading out on a run at Dock Point Trail instead!)
- Valdez Brewing – You know I love a good craft beer, especially in Alaska. That makes Valdez Brewing a must-visit; their taproom is open 12-8pm daily with firepits outside to keep away the chill.
- Growler Bay Brewing Company – For another craft beer option, tuck into a pint or tasting flight at this Old Valdez building. They have limited hours but are typically open Saturday afternoons during the summer.
- Trada’s Breakfast Diner – If you’re staying somewhere without breakfast options, Trada’s Breakfast Diner on Pioneer Drive is a good back-up plan.
- Valdez Bistro – Need to celebrate a special occasion or just want a more upscale meal? Valdez Bistro touts itself as an international kitchen and Google says they’re a Korean restaurant. Sounds… intruiging!
Where to Stay in Valdez
Valdez has limited accommodation options, as you might expect from a town its size. Be prepared that all hotels in town are 2-star and 3-star; there’s nothing super luxe to choose from, even in the vacation rental market. Here are some choices, including the place I stayed:
- Totem Hotel & Suites – Where I stayed during my Valdez visit, this property has a lovely new building with huge rooms and good location to explore Valdez on foot. From $151/night; book Hotels.com or directly on their website.
- Best Western Valdez Harbor Inn – The only national brand hotel in town, the Best Western is ideally located and very traditional in everything from room decor to on-site amenities. From $120/night; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
- Keyston Hotel – For a rustic option, consider this property closer to downtown Valdez. It’s close to the museum and some rooms have nice views – though it’s definitely nothing fancy. Book on Booking.com or Hotels.com.
There you have it – everything you need to plan your time in Valdez, including the top things to do in Valdez, where to stay, and where to eat. Have any other questions about visiting Valdez? Let me know in the comments!
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