Whittier is a quick-and-easy destination for visitors who only have a limited time to take in some of the state’s finest coastal mountain glaciers and tidewater scenery. I visit Whittier at least once a year, and, for these five reasons, I’ll keep coming back.
Visitors Can Quickly Access Whittier
Whittier is located approximately 60 miles southeast of Anchorage via the Seward Highway and Portage Glacier Road. Visitors take the 2.5-mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel — North America’s longest vehicle tunnel — that bores through a mountain of solid rock to reach the seaport. Before the tunnel, check out the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center in Portage Valley or watch the salmon spawning in nearby creeks.
There’s No Need to Drive
The Alaska Railroad offers daily summer service from Anchorage to Whittier. The Alaska Marine Ferry also docks at this port on a daily basis throughout the summer. For further exploration, the ferry offers transportation to the coastal cities of Valdez and Cordova, where visitors can spend the night and return by ferry the next day. Whittier has also become a popular port for cruise ships arriving or departing from Alaska.
A Walkable Area With Top Restaurants and Shops
For the best seaport eateries, spend a few hours taking in the quaint mini hut shops along the city boat dock. Expect everything from fresh fish tacos to Alaska espresso. The area is packed with young commercial fishermen and grizzled old-timers who call this Alaska seaport home.
Nearby Glacier Day Trips and Attractions
Three of North America’s largest ice fields feed the glaciers around Whittier. According to Lisa Kruse, director of sales and marketing for Phillips Cruises, Whittier’s main attraction is its glacier day cruises, which attract about 55,000 visitors a year. The “26 Glaciers” cruise is my favorite Whittier tour for wildlife, spectacular tidewater glaciers and its “no seasickness guarantee.”
Top-Notch Kayaking and Fishing
Halibut and salmon fishing derbies run during the summer in Whittier, and numerous protected coves make it one of my favorite kayak destinations. Birders also enjoy the nearby Kittiwake Rookery, one of the largest in Prince William Sound.
Residents don’t even have to leave the building they live in if they don’t want to.
That’s because Whittier, including its hospital, school and city government, functions within one self-sufficient structure: a Cold War behemoth that seems better suited to a city like Newark (no offense to Jersey).
The 14-story Begich Towers Incorporated, known around these parts simply as BTI, is probably the last thing you’d expect to see in an outpost as remote as this.
It soars skyward, rudely interrupting the surrounding National Geographic landscape of glaciers and Prince William Sound. BTI withstands six months of rain every year, followed by six months of snow and howling 80 mph winds. It was built to survive bombings, after all.
Inside, BTI feels like any massive condo complex in a big city, except that when you step outside in the winter, there are few places to go and no one to see.
Rush-hour commute in Whittier means a stop on every floor on the elevator. It means that even when it’s freezing, city employees like Jennifer Rogers can go to work in sandals that show off her red-lacquered nails. She doesn’t even have to take her three kids to school; they take the elevator to the basement and run down a bunker-like underground passage that connects BTI to the Whittier Community School.
Rumor has it that some folks have not stepped outside BTI for weeks, months, and maybe even years.
Only about 220 people live in Whittier year-round, working in commercial fishing, recreation, and tourism or for the state ferry and railroad. Most of them have homes in the tower, as though they were occupying separate bedrooms in one huge house. About their isolation together, they say: “We’re all family here.”
One big family. With lots of love and, some say, equal parts dysfunction. Everyone takes care of each other, but everyone also knows each other’s business.