The MMT Blog / Welcome to Whittier: the Strangest Town in Alaska
Yes, it’s true: one of the two towns that Major Marine Tours operates from has been dubbed “the Strangest Town in Alaska.” There’s no denying that Whittier is a unique place. Despite (or maybe because of) this strangeness, Whittier remains one of our favorite places in Alaska.
Also known as “The Gateway to Prince William Sound,” Whittier is nestled at the head of Passage Canal, the western-most point of Prince William Sound. Surrounded by towering mountains, some people say “it’s always prettier in Whittier,” even with the area’s significant amount of rainfall (approximately 215 inches per year, not including the nearly 260 inches of snow each year). After all, Whittier is located within America’s northern-most rainforest. When the sun does shine, the green on the mountains truly glows–an experience that residents never take for granted. When it rains, the area’s numerous waterfalls are abundant and breathtaking. When it’s foggy, there’s a sense of drama that adds to the ethereal beauty of Whittier and Prince William Sound.
The odd things about Whittier are what make it so special. For starters, the town is only accessible by a single-lane, one-way tunnel that is shared with the Alaska Railroad. The 2.5 mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel cuts straight through a mountain and provides the only land access to Whittier. Driving through the tunnel is a novel experience, and a great start to your Whittier adventure. Another one of Whittier’s unique attractions is the now-abandoned Buckner Building. This “city under one roof” was constructed in the 1950s by the U.S. military to house about 1,000 soldiers during the Cold War. The Buckner Building included a hospital, jail, movie theater, cafeteria, bowling alley, and more. Now dilapidated and shuttered, the Buckner Building looms over the end of town with a haunting presence. The Begich Towers, commonly known as the BTI, is the new “city under one roof.” Following the functionality of its predecessor, the 14-story BTI houses over 100 condos, a medical clinic, a church, the police station, a small general store, and 80% of the Whittier’s population of 214 people (as of the 2016 census).
Many people, including lifelong Alaskans, might hold these qualities against the city of Whittier. But those with a keener eye, and those that live in Whittier, appreciate Whittier’s uniqueness and remarkable beauty. The dramatic sights start as you approach the tunnel. Portage Lake and Portage Glacier can be seen on your right, and the gorgeous meadows and creeks of Bear Valley are on your left. Directly in front of you, above the tunnel, are glaciers, waterfalls, and an impressive mountain. Then, you get the unique experience of driving through the middle of a mountain via the longest highway tunnel in North America.
Once you (literally) see the light at the end of the tunnel, you emerge to more views of magnificent waterfalls, glaciers, and mountains, many of which are snow-capped late into the summer. The short road to town winds along the mountainside and the head of Passage Canal and Prince William Sound. Boats of all sizes, from small private fishing boats to massive cruise ships, can be seen docked in the Whittier Harbor. Above the tri-colored Begich Towers lies Whittier Glacier, from which numerous waterfalls cascade down the smoothed-out rocky mountain face.
From natural beauty to local restaurants featuring freshly-caught seafood to day trips that explore Prince William Sound, there is certainly lots to do in Whittier. Whittier is home to multiple hiking trails for all levels. The most popular trail is the Portage Pass Trail, which climbs up and over a small pass for spectacular views of Portage Glacier. During the summer salmon runs, Whittier’s ice-cold freshwater streams completely fill with spawning salmon.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, there are several dining options in town. Enjoy some of the best fish and chips in Alaska at Swiftwater Seafood. Indulge in a pizza pie or ice cream at Varly’s. Grab a coffee from one of several quaint cafes along the boat harbor. Or, sit back, relax, and enjoy spectacular views along with your local draft beer and fine dining at the Inn at Whittier tavern. If you’d rather cook for yourself, you can pick up some fresh Prince William Sound seafood from Fee’s Custom Seafoods.
The calm waters of Prince William Sound are a popular place for fishing, kayaking, and glacier and wildlife viewing. Major Marine Tours offers two half-day cruise options from Whittier that take you to the gorgeous tidewater glaciers in Prince William Sound, home to the densest population of tidewater glaciers in the world. In addition to glaciers galore, you’ll see countless waterfalls, coastal mountains in every direction, and wildlife including sea otters, harbor seals, seabirds, and sometimes whales. You get to experience all of this in the calm waters of Prince William Sound, which is protected from the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska. Even on less-than-ideal weather days, Prince William Sound is usually as calm as a lake, allowing us to offer a no seasickness guarantee on our Whittier cruises.
Whether arriving by car, ferry, the Alaska Railroad, or a big cruise ship, Whittier will undoubtedly offer you a memorable stay. When it’s time to leave Whittier, Anchorage and all of its endless amenities are just a one hour drive away. There’s lots to see and do in Whittier beyond our Prince William Sound glacier and wildlife cruises, and we highly recommend that you spend some time exploring “the strangest town in Alaska.”