Valdez is located in the heart of Prince William Sound, and Columbia Glacier is the Sound's crown jewel. The Glacier has been retreating fast in the last decade, filling miles of ocean with calved ice. It's no longer easily visible from ferry or cruise ships. Even the smallest motorboats or kayaks cannot get you a close-up view. But you can leave your kayak on moraine island and take a hike. Enlarge the photo and you can see the face of Columbia Glacier at the far side which is about 3 miles wide.
Prince William Sound is abundant in marine life, and kayaking is the best way to enjoy them. Kayak is small, quiet, and non-intrusive. You get to see marine life at sea level.
While kayaking in Prince William Sound, we were followed by a few sea otters. These cute little guys were highly curious, a sign of intelligence. They sneaked out of water to peak at us, nibbled at our rudder, then submerged quickly (see sea otter in travelogue).
Valdez's small boat harbor is the center of activities in town. There are all kinds of fun you can choose: ocean kayaking, glacier sightseeing, charter fishing, etc. It's also a busy harbor for commercial fishing.
Or just take a stroll along the boardwalk and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. As seen in photo, mountains around Valdez are snow capped even in summer. Behind the harbor there's a small hill where you can walk up and get a bird's eye view towards the harbor and town.
Columbia Glacier is the 2nd largest tide-water glacier in north America. After years of rapid retreat, it deposited a large amount of rocks and earth (moraine) on the ocean bed in front of it, miles wide and miles long. At low tide the moraine exposes and becomes islands covered with chunks of icebergs.
You may leave your kayak on the island beach and hike a little. But watch out for the tide. Alaska has one of the highest tide ranges in the world. Within a short hour, you may have to drag your kayak a few hundred yards back into the ocean, or the tide has come up taking away your kayaks.
Valdez is the southern terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline that extends 800 miles into the Arctic Circle. Oil is pumped from Prudhoe Bay deep in the Arctic Circle and shipped out from here. Valdez is chosen because it's the most northerly ice-free port in the Western Hemisphere.
The Pipeline Terminal used to provide tours for visitors to see its huge oil tanks and pipes. When I visited Valdez in 2002, the tour was cancelled due to the security concern after the 911 event. Not sure about now. Without the tour, you can still see the terminus from Valdez small boat harbor across the narrow. The photo was taken at about 4 am, when my AMH (Alaska Marine Highway) ferry was approaching Valdez.
After dropping off our group and the kayaks near Columbia Glacier, the captain took the boat out for halibut fishing while we went paddling. He caught a couple in no time (Alaska permits 2 per day) and each of us got a piece in the end of day. My piece was big enough for me and my hostel mate.
Halibut is easy to process. Once the rubber-like skin is removed there's no bone so it's easy to cook. I fried it with a little salt and cheese (couldn't find butter), and dined with cocktail made from a small iceberg brought back from the Glacier. Best meal I'd ever had! Life is good in Valdez.
During our kayaking trip, we parked on one of the large moraine islands and walked around the amazing icebergs. Some of icebergs were the size of a car or house, as seen in photo. Occasionally a huge chunk of ice cracked and fell, making loud noise.
The color of the icebergs indicates the tightness and freshness of the ice structure. When an iceberg first calves off it is blue. It gradually changes to white as infiltrated by air bubbles. So stay away from white icebergs because they may crack.
The highlight of kayaking in Columbia Glacier is to paddle among the icebergs. Columbia Glacier has been retreating fast in the past decade. The water in front of the Glacier is filled with large and small chunks of ice falling off the Glacier over the years. It's like a huge iceberg labyrinth for kayakers. Today the closest you can approach the Glacier via kayak is about 5 miles from it. Be aware where you are. You may enter an iceberg labyrinth and not able to find your way out.
Just 1 mile out of town along Richardson Highway is the salmon viewpoint set up by USFS (US Forest Service). Each year in July and August salmon swim up here to spawn. Here you'll find interpretive displays and easy boardwalk for salmon viewing. Maps and guided walks also available.
Visit Worthington Glacier. It's about 30 miles from Valdez on the other side of Thompson Pass. It's and easy and beautiful drive. It's an easy walk from the parking lot to the glacier which your can walk right up to and touch if you want. Beautiful view with paths and benches. A little gift shop and glacier info signs are in the parking lot and there are public bathrooms.
Photo: Hiking to Solomon Lake. The Solomon Lake hike begins from Old Dayville Rd at the Solomon Gulch water project. A fish hatchery is located across the street.
Other hikes in the area include the old gold mining road to Mineral Creek. You can also rent a mountain bike to go to Mineral Creek. Watch out for black bears!
Whitewater rafting with lonemooseoutfitters.com. Best
rafting company in Valdez. Sea kayaking, FISHING, hiking. Rock climbing in summer, awesome ice climbing in the winter, along with skiing and snowboarding.
Tour the Alyeska Pipeline facility located across the bay from the city of Valdez. The tour bus takes you all around the complex while the driver talks about the construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline and the delivery of the oil to the tankers.
This is the culmination of 800 miles of the pipeline.
This glacier, located in Prince William Sound, is the largest and most magnificent of the tidewater glaciers along Alaska's coast. The Columbia Glacier has an area of about 440 square miles/1144 square km. The tidewater terminus which you see in the photo is approximately 3 miles/4.8 km across. By boat, you can get close up views of the glacier face and watch it calve ice sections the depth of its face and 1/4 to 1/2 mile wide! You can get there with a yacht or sailboat charter or on a flightseeing trip. The other option is to see it as I did, from the ferry going between Valdez and Whittier. The ferry moves in to the distance in the photo and then continues on. The ferry requires advance reservations.
Drive over Thompson pass. You have to if you're driving to Valdez!
The pass has an elevation of 2,678 feet/816m but remains above tree-line. You may find some wildflowers in bloom up here if you hike around a little. I think this would be mainly in July.
Snowfall extremes in Alaska have all been credited to the Thompson Pass station. Record measurements are: 974.5 inches for season (1952-53); 298 inches for month (Feb. 1953); and 62 inches for a 24-hr period (Dec. 1955). Snowpoles along the roadsides mark the road edge for snowplows.