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Imagine yourself up early on a Monday morning in Anchorage, Alaska. Your body is tuned to the time zones of the lower 48. You have a plane to catch, but not until 4 PM. The hotel room is clean, your clothes are packed, your teeth are brushed and you are lying on the bed flipping through the channels. You need to be at the airport by 2 PM and it’s already 9 AM. What to do to kill those last few precious hours in Alaska? Of course, you could go downtown and shop for some cheaply made, overly-priced souvenirs. But… I mean… you know… YOU ARE IN ALASKA! Get your butt outside for heaven’s sake! That’s why we are introducing you to Turnagain Arm and the Seward Highway.
It may be hard to believe, but with a 3-hour window of time, you can hop in the car and head out of town and drive one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the world! You will see majestic sharply carved mountains, water as far as the eye can see, huge fields of gorgeous wildflowers (if you are travelling during summer months), and possibly some of the most exotic wildlife on the planet! And, seriously, in the amount of time it would take you to watch some feature length films!
Meet the Turnagain Arm
An exploration of the little stretch of road called the Seward Highway that weaves it’s way around one of the two terminals of the Cook inlet is well within a 3-4 hour time slot. “Turn-Again” they call it. It was named by a frustrated early explorer trying to find a passage through the mainland when he found that his boat was stuck at a dead end riverway. He named the arm when he realized that in order to get out he would have to “turn again.” Early maps labeled this inlet with the phrase, which was later shortened to a single word.
As soon as you leave the urban city of Anchorage on the Seward Highway, you will experience the richness of this drive. To the left you will find Potter’s Marsh. Make sure you take some time to take a stroll on one of the boardwalks in the marsh. Moose are often seen grazing in the meadow. Shorebirds and birds of prey can be found foraging and flying overhead. The last time I was at the marsh, I saw 5 adult moose and 2 babies.
Chugach Mountains and Dall Sheep
As you continue with the arm of the Cook Inlet to your right, you’ll see the peaks of the Chugach Mountains rising up to 3,000 feet to your left. As you pass the steep jagged hillsides, keep looking up for the Dall Sheep. Most of my trips along the Arm include a glimpse or more of these amazing agile animals. Look low for a close-up view and high for the little white moving dots. They are easy to identify.
Beluga Point on the Turnagain Arm
One of the favorite stops along the Turnagain Arm is Beluga Point at mile 110.5.
Between mid-July through August, when the various species of Salmon are flooding into the rivers that meander through the inland. The Beluga whales hang out in these waters as they feed off the marine life of the turnagain arm. Since 2000 the population of the Turnagain Arm community of Belugas has hovered around 300-375.
An observant watcher may also see the occasional black fins of the Orca who feed off the Belugas in the Arm.
The Alaska Bore Tide on the Turnagain Arm
One of the most unusual sites of the Turnagain arm for the traveller lucky enought to see it is the Alaska Bore Tide. The tidal range of the cook inlet is up to 27 feet from high to low tides. This creates a spectacular rush of water into the Turnagain Arm that can be as high as 6-10 feet. It may travel as fast as 10-15 miles per hour. You may even see adventurous Alaskans on their boards surfing the tide. It is one of the largest in the world. You can find a schedule for the bore tide here.
Surfing dudes are not the only wildlife you can spot with the bore tides. Often harbor seals ride the tide. Also, within an hour after the bore tide comes in you an spot the white Beluga Whales coming in to feed off the sea life forced in by the tide.
Whittier and the Portage Glacier and Lake
At mile 78.9 you will find the turn off for some fun sites along the Seward Highway.
Portage Lake and the Begich-Boggs visitor center for the Chugach National Forest are just a few miles along this turnout. Stop and take a look at the lake, which still has large chunks of ice floating in the Spring and grab a glimpse of the Portage Glacier that once flowed into the lake just a few short years back. Enjoy the education you can find at the visitor center and don’t forget to dip your toe into the frigid waters.
If you hit the timing right, you can leave the visitor center and make your way through the longest tunnel in North America, the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel (click for info and schedule) which connects the small harbor village of Whittier and the Prince William Sound to the rest of Alaska. Be aware, though, that the tunnel is shared by the train and is the only one-lane connection to Whittier. The tunnel runs in intervals and if you arrive at the wrong time, you might have to wait up to an hour to pass through. If timing works in your favor, it is worth the experience.
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
One last stop before it’s time to make the turn and head back to the airport to catch our flight is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center at mile 79. Stop in and take a peek at Alaska’s exotic and not-so-exotic wildlife in this 200-acre park. The main attraction is the re-introduction of the 2,250 pound Wood Bison to Alaska. The Wood Bison were once natives to Alaska. They are the largest land dwelling mammal in North America. The Conservation Center is working on a program to re-populate the Wood Bison in Alaska.
Conclusion of the Turnagain Arm
There is much more to see if you were to travel south to Seward. Or make a south-western turn on the Sterling Highway toward Homer. But, if we are going to catch our plane, we better make our way swiftly back. The Ted Stephens International Airport is awaiting our arrival.
Don’t miss this spectacular 2-3 hour journey along the Turnagain Arm on the Seward Highway!
And if you are really brave, you’ll follow the lead of my good friend, Chuck Cooper… just to say you did!