There are two expressions to describe the small community of Whittier, Alaska: “it’s prettier in Whittier” or, well, “it’s 💩tier in Whittier.” (Think of what else rhymes with prettier/Whittier!)
The reality is that both are true: on a nice day, Whittier is a beautiful waterfront town, isolated from the hustle and bustle of Anchorage and the traffic on the Seward Highway; it’s isolated where the Chugach Mountains meet the huge waterway of Prince William Sound, and the sun sparkles on the trees, waves, and glacial ice alike. Simultaneously, Whittier on a wet, grey day can be pretty darn miserable – especially when you don’t wear the right gear for that kind of weather.
Luckily, you can have a great time in Whittier no matter the weather; there are loads of interesting things to do in Whittier, ranging from history and local culture to plenty of outdoor adventures. In this Whittier travel guide, I’ll share my favorite things to do in Whittier, plus some tips on visiting. I most recently visited Whittier in September 2021, so I’m confident in sharing this advice to help you decide whether you want to visit Whittier, and the best things to do in Whittier once you get there.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) 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. Travel the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel
If you want to visit Whittier, there’s only one way: through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.
Named for the chief engineer of the Alaska Railroad and former Mayor of Anchorage, the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is a multi-use tunnel that cars and the train pass through to reach Whittier. It was originally opened in 1943, and is still the longest combined vehicle-railroad tunnel in North America.
This means you should not try to hold your breath the entire 2.5 miles of the tunnel – especially as the speed limit is only 25 mph inside the tunnel and takes about 6-8 minutes to traverse.
The Tunnel is only open on the half-hour in each direction, so be sure to check the schedule as you plan and time your trip to Whittier.
2. Take a Glacier Cruise in Prince William Sound
By far the most popular thing to do in Whittier is to take a glacier cruise, specifically the 26 Glacier Cruise offered by Phillips Cruises & Tours. I had the chance to experience this tour first-hand on my September 2021 trip and it is definitely the best way to see a ton of glaciers in a short time during your Alaska trip.
Over the course of about six hours, you’ll see 26+ glaciers – it’s more like three dozen, depending on the weather and visibility. There’s also a chance of spotting wildlife, including seals, sea lions, and sea otters; whales are less commonly spotted this far into Prince William Sound, though it’s a possibility.
3. Visit Prince William Sound Museum
Alaska is a storied place, and Whittier has its own chapter in that book. At the Prince William Sound Museum, you can learn all about it as well as the people who shaped its narrative.
Located in the Anchor Inn (not to be confused with the Inn at Whittier, more on hotels at the end of this post), the Prince William Sound Museum occupies some 1,200 square feet and has 32 exhibits about different eras of Whittier’s past, from its military heritage in World War II and the Cold War to today’s industries including fishing and tourism.
4. Go Hiking
Hiking is one of the best things to do in Whittier – in part because there are several options for al ability levels. In the next few sections, I’ll detail the four main hiking trails in Whittier, so you can decide if any of them make sense when planning your own trip to Whittier.
5. Traverse Portage Pass
Portage Pass is Whittier’s most famous hiking trail, though the whole object of the hike is actually take you out of Passage Canal, the bay/valley where Whittier is located.
If you’re not familiar with the original use of the word “portage,” it means “the carrying of a boat or its cargo between two navigable waters.” This mountain pass was a “portage” pass – a place where boats could be carried up over the Chugach Mountains between Turnagain Arm and Passage Canal. Today, it just makes for a great hiking trail – no need to carry a boat on your back!
As a hiking – not portaging – trail, Portage Pass is a 4.2-mile out-and-back moderate hike. You gain and lose about 750 feet in elevation, twice since the trail takes you up to the top of the pass, down to the shores of Portage Lake, and then on the return you re-gain that elevation before dropping back to sea level on the other site.
I really wanted to do Portage Pass during my last visit to Whittier in September 2021; unfortunately the weather was miserable (classically Whittier weather!) so I decided to forego a long hike in the rain.
6. Take in Horsetail Falls Trail
Photos credits: Alexa Flores (L) and Daniel Mitchell (R) via AllTrails
For an easier hiking option in Whittier, Horsetail Falls Trail is both shorter and has less elevation than Portage Pass. This two-mile out-and-back trail gains about 550 feet in elevation as you climb up from the trailhead on one of the streets in Whittier. You’ll get scenic views of Whittier and Passage Canal, plus enjoy waterfall views too. This is a classic Alaskan trail, featuring everything from dirt to wooden steps to help make the hike a bit easier and less messy on rainy days.
7. Seek Blackstone Bay Vista
If doing killer hikes is your thing (like it is for my blogger friend Nicole who I went hiking with in Central Asia…), Blackstone Bay Vista is the best hike in Whittier for you. This is a hard 6.4-mile combo loop and out-and-back trail. It starts from the same trailhead as Horsetail Falls Trail and follows that trail for the first mile but continues on and gains some 2,759 feet – meaning you literally climb to the top of the mountains against which Whittier is nestled.
That intense climb is worth it; once you reach the top, you’ll have 360-degree views of the whole area, including Blackstone Bay and its glaciers. Blackstone Bay is one of the areas many people visit by boat on the 26 Glacier Cruise, so you might even spot one of those boats floating around in the water during your day-long hike.
8. Stroll to Emerald Cove
Photo credits: Justin Fravel (L), Michael Lawrence (M), Christine b (R) via AllTrails
Emerald Cove is the final official hiking trail in the Whittier area – though like much of Alaska, you can strike out on your own and go backcountry hiking if you have the gear and feel safe doing so.
Emerald Cove starts at the end of Shotgun Cove “Trail,” which is a dirt road that runs out of Whittier. Once the road becomes impassable, you can set out on the truer hiking trail to Emerald Cove, where the road was originally supposed to go. In the end, Emerald Cove Trail is a 3.3-mile out-and-back with relatively little overall elevation change – though plenty of small hills as you hike along the coastline. This is the easiest hike in Whittier, despite its longer distance than other hikes on the list.
9. Visit Lu Young Public Beach
While Mr. V and I originally intended to reach Emerald Cove Trail on our soggy morning in Whittier, we stopped off at Lu Young Public Beach instead. If you’re imagining the sandy beaches of SoCal, let’s correct that impression now: this Alaskan beach is more like the Pacific Northwest and is made of rocks and gravel rather than soft sand.
The beach is also located where Cove Creek runs into Prince William Sound, so you hike down onto the islands in the creek and have to make your way across braids of running water to reach the beach. This means you should definitely wear waterproof boots if you plan to visit – but in often-wet Whittier, waterproof shoes or boots are always a good idea.
Cove Creek is also an active salmon run, so at certain parts of the year, you can go fishing here (with the proper license and gear) or just see the salmon working their way up from the water to spawn and die. (Late in the season, the smell can be quite strong, so be prepared for that!)
10. Book a Kayak Excursion
One of my earliest memories of outdoor adventure in Alaska was kayaking in Whittier, and getting seasick and very tired. Okay, maybe I’m not selling it – let me try again!
If you love the idea of getting out on the water while visiting Whittier but think a boat sounds blasé, you have options! Kayaking is one of the most popular adventure activities in Whittier, and there a number of outfitters that run (almost-)daily kayaking tours during the summer months.
11. Go Jet-Skiing (in Alaska!)
For another watersports option, how about jet-skiing? Whittier is the only place in Alaska (currently) where you can book a jet-ski tour – which is a very unique way to get out and enjoy the wilds of Prince William Sound. Both Alaska Wild Guides and Glacier Jetski Adventures offer guided jet-ski tours that take you to see some of the area glaciers in a safe but very intimate way. They provide everything you need: dry suits, warm helmets, gloves and boots, plus instruction and guidance on the jet-skis themselves.
This is definitely one on my bucket list for my next Alaska trip!
12. Stroll & Shop Along Whittier’s Small Harbor
While it isn’t large, there are a number of small shops and a nice little boardwalk to stroll along while enjoying a view of the harbor in Whittier. Some spots to stop include:
- Prince William Sound Salt – Their small retail and production facility on Harbor View Drive sells fresh Alaskan sea salt, a perfect gift for the food-lovers in your life. You can also buy their salt online.
- Sound Ideas Whittier Fudge – A perfect sweet treat on a grey day.
- Log Cabin Gifts – A quirky gift store packed to the gills with souvenirs, including many that looked to be Native Alaskan-made.
There are also some viewfinders, viewing decks, and a little gazebo out at one end of the marina where you can enjoy your surroundings… Don’t forget to pause a moment in gratitude for your Alaskan adventure!
13. Take a Fishing Expedition
While fishing excursions are more common in Seward and Homer, you can absolutely book a fishing charter in Whittier if this is the small Kenai peninsula community you decide to visit. Most charters focus on fishing for halibut, which thrive in the deep waterways of Prince William Sound; you might also hook salmon, rockfish, lingcod, and cod.
There are lots of charter companies to choose from. As I haven’t done any personally, I wanted to include a list of all of them:
- Alaska Good Time Charters
- Alaskan 4 Star Charters
- Babkin Charters
- Epic Charters
- Hemlock Ridge Charters of Alaska (no website; call (907)360-7975)
- Honey Charters (no website or phone 🤷🏻♀️)
- Saltwater Excursions
- Whittier Marine Charters
All this to say you have plenty of options if you want to book a fishing expedition in Whittier.
Bonus: Visit Portage Glacier
While Portage Glacier isn’t technically in Whittier, it felt odd to leave out this particular Alaskan activity, since it’s so close to Whittier that you’ll literally pass it going to/from town. Portage Glacier is located on the Turnagain Arm side of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, and is visible from Portage Pass Trail, so it’s really close to Whittier – but a mountain stands between the two.
I actually worked for part of a summer at the Portage Glacier Visitor Center, selling boat tours to the glacier. Today, you can book those same tours daily between late May and early September. In addition to seeing the glacier from a boat tour, there are also a few hiking trails in the Portage Valley, like the easy Byron Glacier Trail and longer Trail of Blue Ice along Portage Creek. You can even spot the Portage Ghost Town on your way into Portage Valley, a remnant of the town that stood here before the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake tsunami washed most of the town away.
Where to Dine & Drink Locally
Despite its small size – home to just about 320 people – Whittier has a decent variety of dining options for a short 1-2 day stay.
- Anchor Inn Restaurant – Located in the Anchor Inn, this local spot has no frills but good, homey food. (975 Whittier St)
- China Sea Restaurant – It might be surprising, but there’s a great spot for Chinese food right near the Whittier harbor. (Lot 6 & 7 Triangle Area)
- Inn at Whittier – Located in Whittier’s waterfront hotel, The Inn at Whittier has both a restaurant and tavern to choose from for casual, good food and water views from many tables. (Lot 5A Harbor Loop Rd)
- Oceanfront Cafe – Owned by some family friends, the Oceanfront Cafe is a great
- Varly’s Ice Cream Parlor – Did you know Alaskans eat more ice cream per capita than any other state? It’s no surprise there’s a place dedicated solely to ice cream in Whittier! (Harbor Triangle)
- Swiftwater Seafood Cafe – For another good sit-down option, this casual spot offers tons of delicious, fresh seafood like calamari, crab cakes, and fish and chips. (Lot 8 Triangle Area)
- Wild Catch Cafe – For a quick bite or drink, this small cafe offers sandwiches and burgers, plus great Alaskan coffee, beer, and wine. (Harbor Loop Rd & Harbor View Dr)
Lazy Otter Charters also runs a little coffee and cocoa cafe out of their office on Harbor View Dr., if you need a quick drink to warm you up on a drizzly day.
Where to Stay in Whittier
For one final tip in this Whittier travel guide, you might wonder where to stay the night in between days of adventure. There are limited options in Whittier, but a few to choose from:
- Anchor Inn – Located in a more industrial part of town, the Anchor Inn is a long-standing, rustic and family-run hotel that’s great if you’re on a budget. From $75/night; book on their website.
- The Inn at Whittier – Right on the waterfront, this is my top recommendation for where to stay in Whittier. They offer a variety of room styles, and many have great water views. Rates for 2022 have not been released yet; check availability on Hotels.com or directly on their website.
- Presidential Suite (Airbnb) – There aren’t many vacation rental options in Whittier, but this one is pretty good. It’s located in the Begich Towers, the main residential building for Whittier locals, but is up on the 15th floor with lovely views. From $220/night; book on Airbnb.com.
As you can tell, Whittier offers equally quirky accommodation options to match the unique things to do in Whittier. No matter where you stay or what you choose to do while visiting Whittier, it’s sure to be an unforgettable part of your Alaska trip.
Have any questions about the best things to do in Whittier or other parts of visiting Whittier? Let me know in the comments!
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