Southcentral Alaska’s Prince William Sound is an area famous for both scenery and wildlife. Dotted with islands, this 70-mile-wide gulf extends 30 miles north and west from the Gulf of Alaska to the Kenai Peninsula. It is bordered on the southeast by Montague and Hinchinbrook islands, which form Hinchinbrook Entrance, the 10-mile-long water passage from the Gulf of Alaska to Prince William Sound. To the north, the sound is edged by a glaciated coastline and the Chugach Mountains.
The most prominent of glacial feature in the glacier ringed Prince William Sound is the Columbia Glacier, one of the largest and most magnificent of the tidewater glaciers along the Alaska coast. Columbia Glacier is also the second fastest moving glacier in the world. It travels about 80 feet per day and discharges 2 cubic miles of ice into the Sound annually. It has receded more than 9 miles since 1980. The glacier is currently 34 miles in length, 3 miles wide and more than 3,000 feet thick in some places. It is the greatest glacial contributor in North America to increasing sea levels. Visitors to Prince William Sound see its tidewater terminus 6 miles away. How close you get to the glacier’s face depends on iceberg production: the more icebergs, the greater the danger.
The glacier was named by the Harriman Alaska expedition in 1899 for Columbia University in New York City. The glacier’s source is Mount Einstein (elev. 11,552 feet) in the Chugach Mountains. Columbia Glacier is off of College Fjord and is part of what is known as the “College Glaciers.” Neighboring glaciers include Harvard and Yale.
There are several ways to explore Prince William Sound. From Anchorage, drive (or take the Alaska Railroad) south on the Seward Highway 47 miles and take the Whittier/Portage Glacier Access Road 11.4 miles to Whittier on Prince William Sound. From Whittier, you may take the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system (drive-on or passenger-only) across the Sound to Valdez or Cordova and return the same route or reserve a spot with one of several cruise companies who offer day tours of the sound.
Glacier cruises and kayaking adventure companies tour Prince William Sound from each port, while flightseeing trips depart from Anchorage (see Rust’s Flying Service). Kayak rentals in Valdez are available from Pangaea. By air, by kayak, by ferry or glacier cruise, however you choose to see Prince William Sound it is spectacular! On a clear day, you are surrounded by a pristine wilderness of snow-capped mountains, glaciers and emerald-hued islands. And don’t forget to watch for wildlife: Humpback whales and porpoises are 2 of the star attractions here. Prince William Sound cruise tour operators include: Phillips Cruises & Tours, Stan Stephens Glacier & Wildlife Cruises, and Lu-Lu Belle Glacier Wildlife Cruises.
Whittier is located at the head of Passage Canal on Prince William Sound, 60 miles southeast of Anchorage via the Seward Highway and Whittier Access Road. Created by the U.S. Army during WWII as a port and petroleum delivery center, today Whittier is home port for fishermen, recreational boaters, the Alaska state ferry and a number of privately operated excursion and charter boat services. In addition, several cruise lines call at Whittier during the summer season.
Valdez (pronounced val-DEEZ) is 115 air miles and 304 highway miles from Anchorage, and 366 highway miles from Fairbanks. Situated in a majestic fjord, where the 5,000-foot-tall Chugach Mountains rise from Prince William Sound, Valdez is often called Alaska’s “Little Switzerland.” The city lies on the north shore of Port Valdez, an estuary named in 1790 by Spanish explorer Don Salvador Fidalgo for Antonio Valdes y Basan, a Spanish naval officer. Valdez is the southern terminus of the Richardson Highway and the trans-Alaska pipeline. The small community of just under 4,000 people offers all services. Like Whittier, Valdez is home port for fishermen, recreational boaters, the Alaska state ferry and privately operated excursion and charter boat services offering fishing and wildlife and glacier viewing cruises on Prince William Sound. Kayak outfitters are located at the harbor and offer guided trips as well as daily kayak rentals.
Cordova, located on the southeast shore of Orca Inlet on the east side of Prince William Sound, is accessible only by plane, boat and ferry. With around 2,300 people, hotels/motels and B&Bs, shopping and other visitor services are available. Boat charters and kayak rentals are available at Cordova’s harbor, which is also home to a commercial fishing fleet.