Valdez (pronounced val-DEEZ
) is at the southern end of the 800-mi/1,300-km engineering wonder known as the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. The pipeline sends Alaska North Slope crude oil from the Beaufort Sea to Valdez's ice-free, deepwater port for shipment.
That oil made Valdez rich. But it also put the town on the worldwide news when Exxon's supertanker Valdez struck Bligh Reef in 1989. More than 11 million gallons of oil were spilled but did not significantly affect Valdez's shoreline because the tides pulled the oil away from the area. However, other areas of Prince William Sound and beyond were badly damaged.
Another catastrophe struck Valdez 25 years earlier, when an earthquake created a tsunami that killed 33 residents and compromised structures throughout the town. The town relocated 4 mi/6 km to the west on higher ground and was rebuilt, which is why it looks modern and young. (Both the quake and the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred on Good Friday.)
But there's more to Valdez than oil. This self-proclaimed "Gateway to the Interior" is truly one of Alaska's crown jewels, surrounded by breathtaking scenery. Most visitors reach Valdez on an overnight drive from Anchorage along the Glenn Highway over Thompson Pass, noted for its record snowfall of 81 ft/24 m the winter of 1952, and continuing down through Keystone Canyon with its magnificent waterfalls.
Some cruise ships also stop in Valdez. Most visitors take a half- or full-day boat tour to view the Columbia Glacier, one of the largest and most accessible glaciers in Alaska. Charter fishing and hikes to see the surrounding mountains, glaciers and waterfalls are also popular pursuits for visitors.
Valdez's landscape is dominated by the terminus of the 800-mi/1,288-km Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline on the south side of town. Tankers can be seen arriving and leaving the port. The opposite shore to the pipeline's terminus is the town's waterfront and small boat harbor.
Valdez is located on the northeast corner of Prince William Sound. It is connected to the rest of Alaska by the Richardson Highway. The tallest coastal mountains in North America rise there from sea level to 7,000 ft/2,170 m.
Sometimes known as "The Little Switzerland of Alaska," Valdez receives about 325 in/825 cm of snow a year, offering plenty of opportunities for extreme skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling activities in the winter. Thompson Pass and the surrounding Chugach Mountains receive more than 50-75 ft/15-23 m of fresh powder annually.
Prior to 1778, the Chugach Eskimo and Ahtna people lived in Valdez by fishing and trading copper, jade, hides and furs. In 1778, Capt. Cook arrived in the Sound and named it Sandwich (for his patron, the Earl of Sandwich), although it was later renamed after Prince William IV.
Valdez was founded in 1897, when gold prospectors moved there believing that there was an easy trail leading to the gold fields of the Interior. This supposedly easy route involved climbing and descending a glacier and crossing an ice field. Most who tried it died or were injured. The U.S. Army eventually built a safer passage through the Chugach Mountains.
In 1919, the Keystone Canyon Trail over Thompson Pass became the Richardson Highway, which connected Valdez to Fairbanks. Valdez became a year-round, ice-free port, a gateway to Prince William Sound and the Interior.
In 1964, a magnitude 9.2 earthquake triggered underwater slides, which created huge waves that washed away the Valdez waterfront. The town was relocated in 1967.
In 1973, Congress authorized the construction of the 800-mi/1,287-km Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline with its southern terminus located in Valdez. On 24 March 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, causing the second-largest oil spill in North American history. Decades later, oil still lingers on area beaches, and much of the wildlife has yet to recover fully. Commercial herring fishing has not resumed in the area.
Sightseeing in Valdez focuses largely on its stunning natural wonders, though the Valdez and Maxine and Jesse Whitney museums provide a good look into the history and culture of Alaska Native people.
The nightlife in Valdez isn't exactly bustling, but there are a few places where you can unwind after a long day.
As you would expect, restaurants in Valdez focus on seafood, typically salmon and halibut. Anywhere you go, you can be sure what's on your plate was probably swimming that morning.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; and $$$$ = more than US$40.
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