Alaska is a stunningly beautiful place. It’s like one giant national park, but, unfortunately, really seeing it needs a car, especially if you’re based out of Anchorage, as I was during my recent trip there. What to do, what to do? No sooner had my buddy Teresa and I started talking about renting a car before I received an enticing offer from Nicki, a Twitter follower of mine who I had never met… “Why don’t I show you around?” A chance to see what a local thinks is best?? Yes please!
Nicki picked us up bright and early at the Hilton Garden Inn, which was kind enough to host my stay in Anchorage. It was dreadfully overcast and rainy day, not the best for sightseeing. But Nicki was determined to get us out-of-town.
Turnagain Arm and the Chugach State Park
And so, we set off! The second we left Anchorage we found ourselves in the massive Chugach State Park, with its towering peaks, reflected beautifully in the waters of the mind numbingly twisty (and aptly named) Turnagain Arm, which opens on one end to the Cook Inlet. But we were going the other way. As we drove along through forests of evergreens, we were treated to gorgeous vistas, even as the clouds lay low, giving a the landscape a strange, mystical quality.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
Nicki had no real destination in mind other that to explore. We saw clouded over ski resorts and even made a little detour into the interesting Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a zoo, of sorts, for creatures native to Alaska. There, moose roam, grazing on tree branches, bears chill out and a cute little porcupine named “Snickers” snacks away. It was a pretty fantastic detour!
Looking up at the clouds, Nicki made a bet. She was going to take us to Whittier, a port city surrounded by enormous mountains that’s famed for its beauty, but also for the fact that it only gets an average of 42 days of sun per year! Would this bet really pay off?
Into the Unknown
Like many cities in Alaska, Whittier is not an easy place to access. You can fly in or take the Alaska Marine Highway (also known as the state-run ferry system). Cruise ships also dock here. Or, you can access the town through a one-way, 2.5 mile (4km) long car and train tunnel.
How does that work, exactly? Well the tunnel was originally built as a railroad tunnel to get supplies around Alaska during World War II. A vehicular road opened over the railroad tracks in 2000, but, given the single tunnel, cars can only go one direction at a time. The direction is changed every half hour. And then sometimes everyone has to wait so a train can pass through! Nicki explained that there were several shelters located inside the tunnel stocked full of supplies, just in case an avalanche or landslide trapped drivers in the tunnel for the time being!
When we emerged from the tunnel, we were greeted with something completely unexpected… a beautiful sunny day! It was a world away from the cloudy day we had left on the other side of the mountain. And as we moved into Whittier, the true beauty of this place dawned on us. And man, oh man, was it unbelievable!
Everywhere you looked in this small town, majestic peaks shot up into the air. It may have been August, but snow dotted the scenery around and glaciers peaked through, occasionally spurring waterfalls from their runoff. Prince William Sound provided the one opening out to the rest of the world.
And up ahead, gleaming in the afternoon sun, lay the harbor, filled with small boats just waiting to be used. As we stopped to take photos and walk along the waterfront, it was hard to keep my jaw from constantly dropping at the picture-perfect scenery in front me. It was just like staring at a glossy National Geographic shot, but the crisp, cold air reminded us that we really were standing in Whittier on one of its ever-so-rare sunny days.
Given the tunnel schedule, you have to plan your exit time from Whittier carefully, so we drove around town to take in the sites. From dry docked boats to a smattering of fresh seafood restaurants (insert any type of Pacific fish with chips and you can probably find it there), this was clearly a sea town. Though one bizarre place stood ominously overlooking the harbor. Two old condominium buildings (now condemned) and an old hospital building looked like they belonged in a horror film, with their glass-less windows and an almost burned look to them.
As we left Whittier, driving once again through the lengthy tunnel, we emerged to discover that the sunny day had now spread back to the Turnagain Arm. Directly outside the tunnel stood Portage Lake, created from runoff from the Portage Glacier, which provided an impressive photo opportunity
Before we knew it, our adventure with Nicki had come to a close as she dropped us back at the Hilton Garden Inn. But that day sticks out in my head as the day that I really fell in love with Alaska. I’m a real sucker for natural scenery and the epic peaks reminded me of the last time mountains amazed me so… the Himalayas, as seen from my journey on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. This day left no doubt in my mind that I simply had to come back to this incredible state, for its sheer scope and beauty is enough to make an outdoor enthusiast like myself very, very happy!
What About You?
Have you been to Whittier before? What did you think?
Though Hilton Garden Inn graciously hosted my stay in Alaska, all opinions expressed here are my own.