Connected to the rest of Alaska by road, rail, and the Alaska Marine Highway, Whittier attracts a large numbers of visitors during the summer looking for the wilderness of water, forests, islands, and glaciers that lie beyond its shores in Prince William Sound.
The Army maintained Whittier until 1960, leaving behind the 14-story Begich Towers, where most of Whittier’s 300 residents live today, and the now-abandoned Buckner Building, which was damaged by the 1964 earthquake. Formerly inaccessible by road, the town is now is accessible through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, a 2.7 mile-long road/rail tunnel that connects Whittier to the Portage area and the rest of the Alaska road system. Visitors and locals alike enjoy the scenic drive down Portage Glacier Road from the Seward Highway, the most traveled highway in Alaska, through the tunnel to Whittier - the previously impenetrable fortress by the sea.
ANTON ANDERSON MEMORIAL TUNNEL
The tunnel that connects Whittier to the Seward Highway is a marvel of engineering. In 2000, the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel was overhauled for auto traffic and now is the longest 'railroad-highway' tunnel in North America at 2.7 miles long. You can enjoy it either in your car or onboard the Alaska Railroad. Vehicles travel through the tunnel on a staggered one-way schedule with the direction changing on the half hour, and drivers are asked to arrive at the tunnel to wait in the staging area before the tunnel opening since travel time is limited. Be sure to check the tunnel schedule before planning your trip to Whittier.
Whittier’s history is nothing short of fascinating. Not long after the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands during World War II, the U.S. Army began looking for a spot to build a secret military installation. The proposed base needed to be an ice-free port and as inaccessible as possible. Whittier fit the bill perfectly, thanks to 3,500-foot peaks that surround it and keep it hidden in cloud cover for much of the year. To provide access to the Seward Highway to the north, the Army blasted a supply tunnel through the solid granite of the mountain on the west side of town, and the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel remains one of Alaska's great engineering marvels today. Construction of the tunnel led to construction of what was at the time the largest building in Alaska to house more than 1,000 workers.
Getting to Whittier
Whittier is on the Alaska road system and is accessibly through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, connecting the town to the Portage area and then on to the Seward Highway in Southcentral Alaska. The Alaska Railroad provides daily train service from Anchorage from May through September. Cruise ships that cross the Gulf of Alaska start or end their journeys in Whittier, with many visitors disembarking for post-cruise land-based tours to Denali National Park and Preserve and Fairbanks. The Alaska Marine Highway provides regular ferry service, connecting Whittier to other coastal communities in Prince William Sound.
Things to Do in Whittier
Whittier has excellent hiking and access to water sports, and due to the influx of travelers, a fair number of interesting shops can be found along the harbor. Both cruise ship passengers and independent travelers will find fishing charters, sighting tour operators, and water taxis available to take visitors into the calm, wildlife-rich waters of Prince William Sound.
GLACIER AND WILDLIFE CRUISES
Thanks to its location, day cruises out of Whittier are among the best in Alaska. A variety of boats, large and small, depart from the small boat harbor into the rugged and steep fjords that line Prince William Sound. Visit a kittiwake rookery where you can see hundreds of the black-legged birds nesting on sheer cliffs, then explore further to see Steller sea lion haul outs and migratory birds, whales, and other marine wildlife. The stars of the show in Prince William Sound are the area’s many tidewater and alpine glaciers, including beautiful Blackstone Glacier and Surprise Glacier. Tour boats venture out to visit these glaciers at the ends of beautiful bays and fjords and witness calving, where chunks of ice break off and crash into the water.
Fishing is a popular summer activity in Whittier due to the rich supplies of halibut, salmon, lingcod, and rockfish. Guided charters are ready to take visitors out to fish in the bountiful waters of Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska.
Whittier features views of more than a dozen waterfalls leaping from icefields into Prince William Sound. The most impressive is picturesque Horsetail Falls, formed where Whittier Creek plunges from the ridge of a glacial cirque west of town. The 2 mile-long Horsetail Falls Trail takes you on a gentle climb into the mountains behind town for views of the waterfall and Passage Canal. The Portage Pass Trail starts just east of town and climbs over a low pass to connect to Portage Lake. The trail travels two miles to a wide gravel beach with fantastic views of the mountains and Portage Glacier.
Located in the heart of Prince William Sound and surrounded by glaciated fjords and inlets, Whittier is a popular destination for sea kayakers. The most common overnight trip from Whittier is Blackstone Bay, which contains a pair of glaciers: Blackstone and Beloit. Visitors can rent kayaks in Whittier and arrange water taxi drop-off to other fjords, including Harriman Fjord, College Fjord, and Unakwik Inlet.
A unique and thrilling way to explore Prince William Sound on the water is by jet ski. Local tour operators lead guided jet ski tours from Whittier out to the area’s tidewater glaciers for up-close views of waterfalls, icebergs, and marine wildlife. And don’t worry – they also provide comfortable, insulated drysuits to keep you warm on your glacier adventure.
FOREST SERVICE CABINS
There are six U.S. Forest Service cabins that can be reserved in advance and are accessible by boat from Whittier. Pigot Bay and Paulson Bay are the closest and both offer excellent salmon fishing and good views. Charter boat operators in Whittier can provide water taxi service to any of the cabins.
Whittier is one of Alaska's best places for scuba diving. Charter boat operators can provide transportation to the most popular underwater areas such as the Dutch Group islands, where divers can view Great Pacific octopuses, wolf eels, and giant crabs. Divers can also go to Smitty's Cove, which is east of the ferry terminal, and is accessible by foot. The best time to dive is March through June.
PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND MUSEUM
The Prince William Sound Museum features displays on Whittier's unusual military history, but for many the most striking exhibit is on Anton Anderson, the engineer of the town's tunnel. Anderson was not only an engineer who was able to handle the massive war-time project, he was also a politician who eventually became the mayor of Anchorage.
Lodging in Whittier
Whittier is home to one hotel, the Inn at Whittier, that is perched over the water with stunning views of Passage Canal and the surrounding mountains. The inn has a restaurant and bar, and a few other restaurants and cafes can be found in town. A couple of B&Bs and condos are also available to rent in town.
Looking for more? Read Top 6 Things to Do in Whittier.
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