Our next vacation stop for three nights was Valdez, staying at the KOA campground just a couple miles before town.
There aren’t that many roads in Alaska, so we back tracked the same route back to Glennallen, then headed south to Valdez.
It was a rainy day, and we were driving through the clouds by the time we got to Valdez. From Glennallen, it feels like you are driving downhill all the way to Valdez, through the mountain passes, past the glaciers.
We camped in this KOA campground before, but the last time we were in a tent. We had a great time in that tent. But I’m not complaining about having a trailer, plugged into power and water! Especially the first night in the rain. Look at that red ford truck from Texas (above Jeff’s left shoulder) (If you didn’t spot it, it has 6 doors!).
We expected a week of rain, but by the next morning, the blue sky was showing!
This KOA is a really nice campground (we were on site 6 this time!). Fully treed on the perimeter, view of a mountain, and nice services. There is a little log cabin where you check in that has a little store (with ice cream!). There are also showers and bathrooms. All the trailer sites have water and power. Some have full hook ups. There is a fenced area for dogs and a playground for kids. Even horseshoes! They even have a couple of those little enclosed wagon things if you need to dump some grey water but don’t want to move your trailer. Nice touch! OH! And how did I forget, it had wifi! No limits, decent enough speeds. They had good communication too. Jeff did our check-in, and then he received text alerts when they were moving a grader into the park to smooth out the main drives, and when the wifi had a service outage one day. That was a really nice touch.
There is a walking/biking path too, paved, right from the campground into Valdez.
As usual, we set out Hank blanket for him in the sun while we prepared lunch, and he boycotted and watched the world from the next campsite over (he’s on a long leash).
We restocked with groceries at the Safeway and then planned our activities.
The Solomon Gulch Fish Hatchery was listed online as one of the top tourist attractions in Valdez, so we headed there first. I don’t remember hearing about it during our last visit to Valdez, five or so years ago. It was on a turn off before the KOA, just a few minutes from Valdez.
This place is great! The water was full of pink salmon heading back to spawn, and sea lions, sea gulls, seals, and eagles were there to eat them. And people were there to watch. Like us!
The sea lions are “Stellar Sea Lions” and they are massive! They ate an incredible amount of fish while I stood and watched.
Here’s a 6 sec video of one of the Stellar sea lions munching on a salmon.
Alaska is probably the most seismically active place on the planet. Earthquakes every day. The biggest earthquake ever was in 1964 on Good Friday. It was a 9.2 and shook for four minutes, and 38 seconds. Valdez was heavily impacted by that quake, which resulted in a massive underwater landslide that caused part of the town front to sink under the water, causing a tsunami, killing 32 people.
The entire town of Valdez was moved to where it sits today, 6 kilometres away, on more stable ground.
Because of all the earthquakes, and the history, you’ll see exit and tsunami routes all around town. Here at the fish hatchery, the warnings are even more extreme. There is a lake dammed up above it 600 feet up the hill, with a power generation station at the fish hatchery. As this sign warns, “there is a remote possibility of dam failure at Solomon Gulch, probably as a result of a major seismic event (Earthquake). Should such an event occur this hatchery would be directly in the flood pathway”. It goes on to mention the lights and sirens that would be activated, but finishes with “There would be very little time between failure at the dam and the arrival of a flood wave at this site.“
Good to know! I guess? Sounds like I wouldn’t have that much time to run!
There is a 29 step fish ladder here. And it was full of squirming fish! They really make the salmon work for it! Which is the salmon’s natural tendency anyway. The ladder ends in their spawning building where they collect their eggs. This hatchery collects and produces pink and silver (coho) salmon. They estimate that 20 thousand salmon make their way up this ladder every spawning season! The pink salmon are reared for 2 years, and the Coho’s take 3.
The view from the shore is beautiful behind the hatchery. There is a little self guided tour with interpretive signs.
Here’s a brief video of the salmon squirming around.
Jeff and Hank went to watch a bunch of people fishing at the end of the parking lot. There are so many salmon wanting to spawn, you could probably catch them with your t-shirt!
Next we planned to do a hike out on a spit of land off the marina in town. Just a 25 minute or so walk with some small hills. However, this sign made us change our mind.
The sign warns a bear chased a hiker with a dog on this trail, on the SAME DAY we were going to hike it! How nice they had signs! Does this happen often? I almost decided to still go, but, nah. Instead we toured around the town. What a gorgeous day!
I’m sure my Mom would love this view, Seward too. She loves to get a coffee and sit on a bench watching the boats. Actually, I think she’s already been here with my Grandma back in the 90’s on a bus trip!
We headed back to the campground that afternoon and sat in the unexpected SUNSHINE!
Jeff brought out the rest of the firewood we bought in Seward with plans we would enjoy a nice fire.
While Hank worked on picking up all the green burr bits out of the forest.
The campfire was a bit of a bust (terrible wood). But the view was great!
Knowing that I wasn’t up for a longer hike (Mexico City gut effects continue), and that Jeff was going to have a salmon fishing charter in a couple days, I decided to go on a boat cruise tour the next day. We both couldn’t go unless we booked a day kennel for Hank (we should have). The weather was going to be nice. We’ve done the trip before, on the LuLu Belle boat. So this time I booked myself a spot on the Stan Stephens cruise out to the Columbia glacier.
The boat cruises in Seward are much better, if you had to book one or the other. There are more sea mammals and birds and you don’t take the same route in and out, but this Valdez cruise is perfectly enjoyable.
Jeff dropped me off in the morning to check into the cruise, then him and Hank went for a hike back at the fish hatchery, up to the lakes up above.
I checked into my cruise and then waited around for 30 minutes until they let us board. Here’s a fish processing plant across the marina.
I was one of only a few English speakers on the cruise. There must have been an entire bus load of Koreans on an Alaskan vacation, and the rest were German. The boat was very new, super clean, but I found the layout unsatisfactory. The only outdoor seats were on the back and all sat sideways facing the same way, close together. Inside was nice, two levels, and warm, but everyone seemed to snag a spot and park all their bags there and I was super annoyed by it. Almost every seat, inside and out, had a bag left on it, with no one around. Super rude really.
We left the harbour and the captain told us about the history of Valdez, the earthquake, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He did a good job and the speaker system on the boat was decent so I could hear him, except when he was going faster. As soon as he increased the speed, the wind was phenomenal! I couldn’t keep my cap on, so I switched to a toque, two hoods, and a pair of gloves I bought in Valdez.
We stopped at some otters, because they are adorable, floating around on their backs. (Yes, it would have been great to have my camera and zoom lens! But at least I could live in the moment, or something.)
This was the shorter of their two offered cruises, approximately 6 hours, but it still came with a lunch! And they invited you to bring any snacks onboard that you wanted. I was just exploring the ship and heading downstairs when they said lunch was ready, so I found a 2 seat table by the stairs that wasn’t full of people’s stuff, and asked for the minestrone soup (over the clam chowder). It came with 4 Oreos, a toasted bagel, and cream cheese. Nice!
Soon after I was out on the front of the boat, where it is super cold and windy, and there were no seats, and we came upon the area where all the immature Stellar sea lions hang out (and there was one California sea lion there too you could hear barking!) The Stellar sea lions make loud grumbly growling noises. Can you hear them in this video?
There were horned and tufted puffins here too!
Soon after we tucked into the inlet that goes to the Columbia glacier, and the glacier ice chunks/icebergs started showing up.
I enjoyed the captains explanation of how glaciers form, and what triggers them to start receding. They also advance too! The next big glacier over is currently advancing. The Columbia is receding, and is many miles back from what it once was. This summer they haven’t been able to get anywhere near the edge of the glacier, for all the ice in the water, but on this day, we were able to get 2 miles back from it. It’s about 2 miles across right now. One of the younger fellows working on the boat said he’s never gotten that close!
There is no doubt the Lu Lu Belle tour got us much closer (smaller boat) but I remember it took HOURS to get back out, dodging the ice, so this was fine!
I saw just one calving, but it was extra special to me because I don’t think anyone else on the boat noticed it, so it was just for me 😀
Knowing that most people were on deck, and since I was getting a chill, I went inside to snag a seat for awhile to warm up.
I was warmed up soon enough and went back outside for the last hour into Valdez. There are a several thin waterfalls from the glaciers above that are really pretty.
All day we saw fishing boats tucked away and anchored in every single cove. The captain said they were all waiting for a 2pm announcement from the Alaskan fish and game department that would announce if they were going to be allowed to fish the next day. By this point it was past 2pm and we heard the announcement opened a 14 hour fishing window the next day so a bunch of them were on the move.
We were back to the dock in about 6 hours. I had definitely wind or sun burned myself around my mouth (about the only part of my skin showing!).
Valdez is so beautiful. This is also where Alaska’s oil pipeline terminates, across the harbour from town, accessed by the road past the fish hatchery. A big tanker was docking as we went by to fill up with oil. These ships are huge! 900 feet long! The captain said the bus tours used to tour the big storage facility, but that stopped on 9/11. There is now a big security zone even out into the bay. You can’t drive to it. And you can’t take your boat anywhere near it.
That night was beautiful and clear.
We tried to have another fire, but the wood wasn’t any drier.
It was interesting to us that we always thought Valdez was our favourite over Seward. We didn’t find that this time. Maybe it was the excitement of being able to stay right on the shore in Seward, watching the boats. Valdez feels smaller and more remote, even though I think the population is actually higher (4,000 people compared to 2,700 in Seward).
We have more things we could do in either place. Many hikes, for sure. But also the museums. I really wanted to visit the two museum buildings in Valdez, but we ran out of time. I could see us going back to Seward though, staying for longer along the shore. Valdez has many campgrounds in town too, but most are parking lots without a view of the marine traffic, so I’d highly recommend this KOA just out of town.
On to our last stop – Copper Center!