Many visitors of Alaska know Whittier as a starting point of their cruise tours. But let them be a little bit adventurous and they end up with a completely different Whittier itinerary, a trip that has nothing do to with any cruises.
Last updated: October 5, 2021
Visit Alaska by Road: Whittier Itinerary that doesn’t Include Cruise
Whittier or Seward? For more than two hours I was sitting in front of my laptop, zealously analyzing all pros and cons of having one of these towns as our departure point for Kenai Fjords National Park cruise. Seward won by offering more options and better prices. But the peculiar city of Whittier was that place that made us hit the Seward Highway and drive about one hour in the southeast directions the day after our cruise.
Without any detailed Whittier itinerary or any idea whatsoever what to expect or do in this Alaskan town, we left our hotel in Anchorage early in the morning. After visiting a few places along the way, we finally got a change to explore our final destination and compile this Whittier itinerary that doesn’t include any Kenai Fjords or Resurrection Bay cruises.
A little bit about Whittier and what to Expect During Your First Visit
A tiny city lies at the head of Passage Canal. It’s so small that its population hardly exceeds 200 people. Almost all of the locals live in a single building, the Begich Towers. There are no supermarkets or malls, no top-notch hotels or resorts. Even a hospital is nowhere to be found. And this is Whittier or, as the locals call it, the “town under one roof“.
Due to its remote location and ever-changing weather conditions, the city is not easily accessible, especially during harsh Alaskan winters. Thus, most of the businesses and public services operate from the same building that houses the majority of the residents of Whittier.
Yet this doesn’t prevent neither the locals nor random visitors from enjoying the place. On the contrary, enormous mountains on one side and temperamental waters on the other create perfect conditions for outdoor activities to pack your ideal Whittier itinerary that goes beyond any cruise tours.
WHITTIER ITINERARY: THINGS TO DO IN AND NEAR THE CITY
1. Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel
The only way to get to Whittier is through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. There is no other way around. Although driving through the longest (2.5 miles) highway tunnel in North America sounds enticing, the structure can present some inconvenience.
The one-lane passage must be shared with vehicles driving in both directions. Thus, you can be stuck here for up to an hour, waiting for your turn to enter the tunnel. We were somewhat unlucky to reach the tunnel terminus Bear Valley and pay our round-trip fee of $26 just in time when a passenger train was leaving Whittier. The smoke from the iron horse held the traffic for extra 30 minutes.
Inside, the Whittier Tunnel reminds of a movie set, the one that is used for filming old pictures about Alaska’s gold rush. Dark walls seem to almost squeeze your car from both sides.
You can’t speed up or go back: a long caravan of cars in front and behind you significantly slows you down. So for approximately seven minutes, all you can do is to go with the flow and pray that none of the vehicles in front of you get flat tires or any other breakdowns. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck in the tunnel for much longer and will have to adjust your itinerary or cancel the visit to Whittier altogether.
2. Whittier Boat Harbor
Like any other coastal Alaskan cities, Whittier has its own boat harbor. With 350 slips for transient and permanent berth holders, the place stays busy all year round.
Two things contribute to such popularity of Whittier Boat Harbor: the ice-free water and Prince William Sound with its abundant islands, fjords, waterways, glaciers, and rich marine life. Opportunities for kayaking, canoeing, and water-skiing also increase interest in the harbor.
Even taking pictures against the epic backdrop of the boats, blue water, and giant mountains is worth visiting the area and adding this place to your Whittier itinerary.
3. Portage Lake
Portage Lake seduces you with spectacular views of Portage Glacier on your way to Whittier and ultimately becomes another must-visit place on your itinerary. Driving farther without stopping to admire a long, glaciated valley surrounding the lake with the ice-cold water is out of question.
Luckily, you don’t need to wonder where to pull over for this feast for the eyes. A big parking lot sits on the southern end of the lake, making it easier to visit the place before reaching Whittier.
4. Horsetail Falls
From the Whittier Tunnel, it takes just a few minutes to get to Horsetail Falls, the first in-town destination on your itinerary. The impressive waterfall nestles right behind the Begich Towers.
No official parking lot can be found here. Yet an open space in front of the forested area undoubtedly indicates that you should pull over here. From this temporarily car shelter, a dirt trail runs down a relatively flat hill only to end abruptly in front of rushing down the mountainside Horsetail Falls.
The beautiful waterfall cascades from a height of 330 feet and empties into Whittier Creek. The latter itself can claim a separate spot on the one-day Whittier itinerary.
5. Portage Pass Trail
One of the simplest ways to see Portage Glacier, though, is by hiking along the Portage Pass Trail. This 2-mile path presents very few difficulties, but enormous amount of opportunities to enjoy the dreamy landscapes of Alaska.
Not once, but multiple times, you’ll tread past glacier-scraped stones and slabs. From almost the beginning of the trail, mezmerizing views of Maynard Mountain and Shakespeare Shoulder greet you at a distance. At the top, Portage Glacier and Portage Lake come into view, signaling the triumphant completion of the Portage Pass Trail hike.