Whittier, Alaska. An obscure little town that is accessible by float plane, boat, train, or car. The latter two options are only available through a 2.5 mile single late tunnel, which is an experience all in its own.
Whittier has an interesting history as it was originally established by the US Army during World War II. In 1960, the military left, but the town remained and now has less than 220 residents. Although it is small, it is still an important and active community as it supports the Alaska State Ferry, the Alaska Railroad, commercial fishing, freight, and tourism. It is a major stop for many cruise lines and is one of the most beautifully secluded places in Alaska.
You can fly in on a float plane, boat in on a cruise ship, ride in on a train, or drive 14 miles out of your way off the Seward Highway to get to Whittier. There is nothing wrong with any of these options and each offer their own unique adventures. As we are geared more towards RVing, we will stick with the road. Driving to Whittier involves a 14 mile ride through the Chugach National Forest along the Portage Glacier Road. The drive offers many opportunities to pull off and view Portage Creek, Portage Lake, and at least 7 surrounding glaciers.
A stop at the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center offers several hiking trails, a chance to pick up some maps, and the opportunity to learn more about the glaciers and forest. It is also a great place to get more information about the upcoming tunnel.
The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel
The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is the only way to access Whittier via land. It is 2.5 miles long and takes about 6.5 minutes to drive through at 25 miles / hour. You don't want to go any faster in this one. It is a dual use single lane tunnel, meaning that the railroad and auto traffic use the same lane in and out of Whittier. (Yes - you drive on the railroad tracks!) Because it is a single lane tunnel, there are holding lanes at each end and traffic is released from one side or the other every half hour. Trains take precedence, so the cars may have to wait. It is the second longest highway tunnel and the longest combined rail and highway tunnel in North America. It was the first in the world that was designed to withstand temperatures as low as -40F and winds as high as 150 mph! Alaska winters can be chilly. Safety is a definite concern with the size of the tunnel and harsh climate of Alaska. There are several safe houses in case of earthquakes, car fires or other emergencies, and there is a system of jet fans to keep air flowing through the tunnel to maintain air quality. Make sure to check out the Alaska DOT website for tunnel schedules and fees. They do close the tunnel to traffic overnight, so if you miss the last scheduled release, you are stuck on that side of the mountain until morning.
Granted, it is hyper lapse and the windows are dirty, but you get the idea. Also, notice the weather difference from the beginning to the end? Whittier is on the Prince William Sound and has its own weather pattern!
There are two camping areas in Whittier. One is on the South end of town surrounded by mountains and waterfalls, and the second is on the West side of town along the coast. Both options are beautiful and offer easy access to the harbor, hiking trails, and well… everything. It’s a really small town. The camp sites do not offer any amenities other than public porta-potties, but you cannot argue with the location.
Things to Do
For such a small town, there is plenty to keep you occupied. There are a few restaurants and shops in town, along with a coffee shop. You can catch a charter boat that will take you into the Prince William Sound for halibut, rock fish, lingcod, and salmon fishing, or just a beautiful cruise to view glaciers, whales, and other amazing wonders of the ocean. You can catch a sight-seeing train that leaves from Whittier that will take you to Spencer Glacier. Some will give you the opportunity for viewing bears, taking an additional raft excursion, and snacks. Did I mention snacks? If you are up for a hike, you can take the 2 mile trek to Portage Lake and Portage Glacier. Do not let the “2 miles” fool you. It is a steep rocky climb, and when you get to the 1 mile mark and are about to doubt your choices in life, the views are all worth it. If you are limber enough to continue on, the value is doubled.
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