(Guide Under Development)
Road Length: 127 miles/204 kilometers
Connects Anchorage (in the north) to the coastal town of Seward (in the south).
The Seward Highway is an incredible road. It holds the rare distinction of holding three designations: it is a USDA Forest Service Scenic Byway, an Alaskan Scenic Byway, and an All-American Road. All-American Roads are the ‘creme-de-la-creme’ of National Scenic Byways, meaning “… they have features that do not exist elsewhere in the United States and are unique and important enough to be tourist destinations unto themselves”. It is also listed as one of National Geographic’s Top Drives in the world.
I can drive from Anchorage to Seward (in good weather) in about 3 hours. But I don’t recommend it. There is a reason I call those trips ‘Seward-cide Runs’. I only drive that way (legally, by the way!) if I am making a day-trip in the Kenai Fjords and need to catch the 8:30 Northwestern Fjord boat with Kenai Fjords Tours. I recommend taking your time. As a photographer, you could easily spend 4 days driving and photographing along the Seward Highway. In this guide, I’ll show you some of the hot spots!
“Some?” you ask.
You could live your whole life in Alaska and not capture all there is to offer along the Seward Highway. That’s why I’ll keep updating this (and the other ‘Photography Guides to Alaska’) as much as possible.
There is no question about it, the Seward Highway is a beautiful drive. Every corner reveals new wonders, and every angle invites your gaze. Unfortunately, this is how car accidents happen. Every year, there are dozens of accidents (many with fatalities) along the Seward Highway due to inattentive driving, speeding, or passing in dangerous zones. Sometimes, all of the above. With that in mind, please – take a moment to read these words of caution. The Highway itself is a very safe drive, and the road is well maintained (except perhaps, during winter blizzards). It is the people on it that add the element of danger. The Seward Highway is designated as a ‘Lights On’ corridor, meaning the law states that you must have your headlights on at all times. Day or night. I can’t tell you how many people break this law everyday. Don’t be one of them. Obey the speed limit, and lower your speed should conditions dictate it. Much of the Turnagain Arm section of the Seward Highway is a 55 MPH zone, with sections of 65 MPH passing zones. The first passing zone (coming from Anchorage) Once you leave the Turnagain Arm, and begin the ascent to the Pass, the speed limit climbs to 65 mph. When the speed limits dip for corners, they do so for good reason. Once you approach the Moose Pass area, the speed limit will dip again, and not climb past 55 mph. These section of road is bordered by heavily wooded land, and moose can quickly appear in front of you – so be cautious at all times. Perhaps the biggest danger is due to how beautiful this drive is. The views are like a siren’s call, beckoning you to gaze at the mountains, to look for beluga whales in the [Turnagain] Arm, to spot Dall sheep on the cliffs near Windy Corner, or to immerse yourself in the incredible blue waters of the many calm lakes. Shift your gaze for too long though, and you might actually immerse yourself in one of those lakes. I’ve seen it happen. The best strategy is to use the many designated pull offs, take your time driving the road, watch out for others not paying attention, and arrive at your destination safe and sound. Also, keep in mind Alaska’s posted law:
Delays of more than 5 vehicles is illegal!
There are several passing zones to help traffic move efficiently, due to the large amount RVs on Alaska’s highways (especially during the tourist season). Steep hills make it nearly impossible for those towing RVs to maintain the speed limit, so they (or anyone else holding up traffic) are advised to pull to the right in passing zones, or pull over at slow vehicle pull offs. Because much of the Seward Highway (and all Alaskan roads) are just two lanes, road rage and its ugly step child (passing in dangerous areas) are all too common. Be apart of the solution, not the problem. If there is traffic behind you, and you are sightseeing/photographing, please pull over as soon as possible. Thank you.
Turnagain Arm (Anchorage to Turnagain Pass)
The Seward Highway runs north and south through Anchorage, starting out as Gambell Street. As you make your way south, out of the city, you will find yourself driving along side a marshy area.
Potter Marsh (managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game) is part of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge and is home to a wide variety of bird life, as well as moose, and salmon spawning in Rabbit Creek at different times of the year. Besides the 1500+ feet of boardwalk that winds its way along the northern border of the marsh, there are also a few pull offs directly off the Seward Highway. Be cautious going in and out of these pull offs. Be sure to watch for traffic on the highway, other vehicles attempting to use the pull offs may make sudden movements, and there are a few sections where the shoulder of the road is a significant step up from the pull off. Now’s a good time to mention rental vehicle insurance…
Throughout the spring and summer months, various species of bird use Potter Marsh as nesting grounds. Most notable are the:
- Arctic tern (which flies from the South Polar region to Alaska each year, and back again! That’s over 44,000 frequent flyer miles, each year!)
- Canada goose
- northern pintails
- canvasback ducks
- horned & red-neck grebes
- northern harriers
- yellow legs
In the fall, trumpeter swans move in (occasionally in large numbers) to rest as they begin their migration south for the winter months. Moose are most frequently spotted here in the winter, early spring (when the ground is still frozen), and starting again in the fall as the temperatures cool significantly.
As you make your way further south, past Potter Marsh, mountains on the right side of the road appear. These are part of the Kenai Mountains, and they border the southern side of Turnagain Arm. The mountains directly above you and running the entire northern flank of the Turnagain Arm are the Chugach Range. The Seward Highway runs the length of the Turnagain Arm’s northern side, until it reaches the eastern tip of the Arm, when it bends west and then south towards Seward. The road is quick curvy in places, and the views beg the eyes to wander – but please, pay attention while driving.
Luckily, there are many designated scenic pull offs along this stretch of road, to safely get out of the flow of traffic. One of the first isMcHugh Creek, part of the Chugach State Park (the 3rd largest state park in all of America). There is a small, but beautiful stream that comes out of the mountains here, tumbles over boulders, and through a section of forest. As with nearly all of Alaska, be bear aware. There have been bear incidents at/near McHugh Creek over the years.
Further along is Beluga Point. When high tide is in (especially when hooligan (a smelt) or young salmon are in the area) beluga whales can be seen feeding off Beluga Point. Beluga are a small, white whale, and can easily be confused for white caps on windy days in the Turnagain Arm. There are telescopes set up at Beluga Point. You can also turn them around to look into the mountains across the road, to scan for dall sheep.
Our next area of interest is Windy Corner. I’m not entirely sure why they call it Windy Corner, the whole length of Turnagain Arm tends to be fairly windy. There are 4 turnoffs here; (heading south) two on each side of the road, staggered a bit. This can be an excellent area to spot dall sheep. Occasionally, they can be very close (and sometimes, on) the road. Dall sheep are large, white sheep. They are, in fact, the only white wild sheep in the world. Both males and females have horns, but the female’s horns are more slender, shorter, and slightly curved.
As you drive along the Turnagain Arm, beware of falling rocks. You will also notice the abundance of cascades and waterfalls, especially in the spring after the snow melt, and after rain showers. In the winter time, be aware of avalanche danger. The areas most prone to avalanche are designated by signs, and the State of Alaska has put up gates in some sections, that close automatically during avalanches to keep vehicles out of the avalanche zone.
Next up is Bird Creek. Bird Creek is a popular salmon fishing destination for local anglers, the lush greenery surrounding the river can make for a nice setting for photography. If you are looking for a more strenuous (but highly rewarding hike), try the Bird Ridge Trail. It covers 2.5 miles (one way) and 3400 feet of elevation gain. That classifies it as moderate to difficult. Views from the top include those overlooking the Turnagain Arm, the Kenai Mountains, and more Chugach peaks.
Next is Bird Point. This area juts out into the Turnagain Arm, and there is a nice turn off (paid) with elevated walkways that take you to an overlook of the Point. Below is a section of the Alaska Railroad. There are trails (starting near the rail road tracks as the enter/exit the tunnel) that will take you along the coastline and out to the point. It is a very scenic area and is easy to forget that you are still near the Seward Highway. The shoreline here is a jumble of large rocks (many with interesting patterns and possibly ancient footprints) and driftwood likely from the 1964 earthquake. Interesting patterns in the mud (at low tide) can be seen along Bird Point for the macro and intimate landscape photographer. Be careful in the intertidal zone, as the tides change quickly and drastically along the Arm.
The next section (between Bird Point & the town of Girdwood) has several pull offs on the right side of the road (the water side). The views looking further down the Turnagain Arm can be quite impressive, especially at sunrise.
The small town of Girdwood is a good place to top off your gas tank if you are heading south. The fuel prices here are generally equal to those in Anchorage, and are much cheaper than those on the Kenai Peninsula. There are several hikes in Girdwood that offer great photographic potential. As always, be bear aware.
- Virgin Creek Falls – a short hike through the lush rain forest to the punchbowl waterfalls. As with most waterfall photography – this site is best on an overcast/cloudy day, or when the sun is still low in the sky and shielded by the surrounding mountains.
- Winner Creek Trail – roughly 6 mile hike (1 way), starting either at Alyeska Resort or from Crow Creek Road. A unique hand tram is the only way to cross a section of this trail. The trail travels through dense northern rain forest, and crosses two gorges (one by bridge, and the other by the aforementioned hand tram).
- Crow Pass Trail – multi-day, 23 mile trek across the Chugach Mountains to the Eagle River Nature Center, in Eagle River.
- Alyeska Mountain – in the summertime, once the snow is gone, this is a pleasant hike along what is a sky resort in the winter months. For a quick bypass to the alpine zone, buy an aerial tram ticket at the resort and ride up in style.
Also in Girdwood – If you are looking for an aerial adventure, check out Alpine Air Alaska, inc. They are one of Alaska’s premier flight-seeing companies, and offer a great range of flight tours based out of Girdwood. Pricey, but well worth the investment. Ask them if they can remove the doors for aerial photography! An amazing experience!
I also recommend Chair 5 for local, fresh made pizza and burgers. Excellent food! Another dining option, is 2000+ feet up the side of Mount Alyeska, Seven Glaciers Restaurant! An exquisite dining experience with incredible views. Very expensive, but likely one of the (if not the) best meals you’ll ever have. Also frequently mentioned by locals is The Double Musky. I still don’t have any experience here, but everyone I’ve ever talked to said it is fantastic food. But be prepared for a long line at the door, and they do not take reservations.
Side Trip to Portage Valley
Just over 11 miles from Girdwood (south on the Seward Highway), is the entrance to Portage Valley. This sliver of a valley (running 14 miles deep) is the only piece of land holding the Kenai Peninsula to the Alaskan Mainland. At it’s head is Portage Lake, and it’s source – Portage Glacier. The drive through the valley typically exhibits more extremes of weather than the Turnagain Arm. If it looks like it could potentially rain along the Turnagain Arm or by Girdwood, it likely is raining in Portage Valley. So be prepared. There are a few stands of pristine rain forest, on the right side of the road, about a third of the way along. Notice a parking location I have placed on the Google Map (“Parking for short rainforest hike”), this will get you to a nice section. Everything in these forests is draped in dense, damp moss. Watch your step on the sometimes slippery surfaces, and I highly recommend waterproof hiking boots, or even Xtra Tufs/Bogs (both are great wet weather, high protection boots – perfect for being on boats, or tide-pooling, wading in shallow water).
The road parallels a beautiful stream in several spots, as you head deeper into Portage Valley. It also passes by a few, beautifully colored ponds – tinted a powder blue from glacial melt and sediment.
At Portage Lake, look for drifting icebergs (and others that have become stranded near the Visitor’s Center) in the cool blue waters. Not very long ago, Portage Glacier was easily visible from this point (prior to that, it spanned the entire lake from the cliffs on the left to the right. Now, it has receded out of direct sight. There is a short cruise available ($34/adults & $17/children) that takes you from the lake edge to near the face of Portage Glacier.
From the Visitor’s Center, you can also drive through two tunnels to reach Whittier. The second tunnel passes under Maynard Mountain, and is the longest – single track tunnel shared by both vehicle traffic and trains – in North America (over 2.5 miles long). From here, there are boat charters (both for fishing and scenery), water taxis (to deliver kayakers/hikers), and the State Ferry terminal to service Prince William Sound.
Back on the Seward Highway
After you round the turn and pass the Portage Valley turnoff, you will cross a few, short bridges. Then the road parallels the eastern portion of the Turnagain Arm again (from the southern side), and a long series of ponds (on the left side of the road). These ponds are frequently home to a variety of waterfowl, and supposedly moose (although I have never seen moose here). Finally, you will turn left as you pass over a bridge, and away from the Turnagain Arm. This is the entrance to the Kenai Mountains, and Turnagain Pass.
Turnagain Pass to Summit Lake
Summit Lake to Moose Pass
Moose Pass to Seward