2012  HIKING, CYCLING,

& RV TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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   DAY TRIP ALONG TURNAGAIN ARM, PART 1:
   SCENIC SEWARD HIGHWAY & PORTAGE VALLEY

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 27

 
"The 45-minute drive from Anchorage to Girdwood along the Turnagain Arm  
of Cook Inlet is one of the world's great drives, ranking right up there with  
Italy's Amalfi Drive and the highway along the Rhine south of Coblentz."
 
~ from the Turnagain Arm page on Scenic Alaska's website
 
 

We haven't driven those scenic roads in Italy or Germany but we can vouch for the stunning scenery along Turnagain Arm.

If you visit Alaska a drive, a train ride, or a bike ride along this stretch of highway should be on your Top Ten List of Things to Do.

Todayís weather turned out better than we expected so we decided to take a drive. We went farther than Girdwood to the eastern end of the arm at Portage, about 65 miles outbound from Anchorage, then turned around. This trip just made us hungry to see more things the next time we're there.

In this series of entries I'll describe what we saw and did along the way.


The Alaska Railroad tracks run right next to the water between Anchorage and Girdwood.
Cook Inlet is in the distance in this photo, which I took a few miles south of Anchorage.

Although there were a lot of clouds in the morning we didnít get into any rain and we could see most of the peaks in the Chugach and Kenai Ranges. Snow was down to the road level in some places.

It was sunnier in the Portage Valley and on the ride back to Anchorage.

I'm not real pleased with the photos on this page that I took this morning along the Arm. I think the problem was using the wrong settings while facing southeast into the sun, which was hidden behind clouds as we drove toward Portage. I also took many of the pictures while the truck was moving, like the one below:


My east-facing morning photos came out blue, gray, and black.  <frown>  This is a really
narrow land corridor right here for the highway and railroad tracks, which are on the right.

Our Canon camera is also about to self-destruct. We picked up a new, more powerful Sony digital compact camera after getting back to Anchorage this afternoon. Maybe tomorrow's pictures will be better.

Just trust me when I say the views along Turnagain Arm are spectacular.

The photos I took at Potter Marsh, Portage Lake, and Byron Glacier came out better when it was sunnier and I faced different directions. I'll talk about those areas on subsequent pages in this series.

A MUST-DO DRIVE

This map section from The Milepost (p. 543 of the 2011 edition of the book) shows where we drove today:

I highlighted our route in yellow. Turnagain and Knik Arms are extensions of Cook Inlet, the larger body of water to the left (part of the Pacific Ocean).

The Seward Highway connects Anchorage with the coastal town of Seward on the southeastern side of the Kenai Peninsula. It stretches a total of 127 miles. The mile markers begin at zero in Seward. We thoroughly enjoyed the northern half of the road today. We'll see the rest of it when we go down to Seward in July.

The section of the highway we drove today between Anchorage and the intersection with the road to Whittier, the Portage Valley Road, is very heavily traveled.

Why? It is the only road link from the mainland to Girdwood, Whittier, and the Peninsula -- and it is extraordinarily scenic. It draws both residents and tourists like a magnet.


View heading back to Anchorage this afternoon

Not only do you have the rather narrow body of water extending east from Cook Inlet where you can watch the tides come in and out and enjoy other water-related activities, there are also snow-capped mountains up to 4,000 feet high on either side of the Arm -- the Chugach Range to the north and the Kenai (KEEN-eye) Mountains to the south.

Both ranges are in the huge Chugach National Forest, which covers almost 17Ĺ million acres on the mainland between Anchorage and the Copper River Valley, as well as the Kenai Peninsula.

Glaciers abound in these mountains and feed streams that flow into Turnagain Arm. Waterfalls that tumble down the steep slopes in the summer become multi-tiered icefalls in the winter.


We could see several glaciers in the Kenai Range at the far end of Turnagain Arm.

The terrain on either side of Turnagain Arm is rugged and varies widely from high, rocky peaks to flat-bottomed valleys. The diverse terrain supports many habitats, including streams, wetlands, hillside boreal forests, and treeless alpine tundra.

Treeline occurs at only 1,500 feet elevation here, much lower than in the Lower 48 states.

Both plants and wildlife are diverse as well. White Dall sheep love the high rocky ledges above the highway and farther inland. Several kinds of salmon return to the streams to spawn, attracting eagles, bears, and whales. The wetlands provide food for moose, other mammals, ducks, trumpeter swans, and numerous migrating birds.

The scenery is so outstanding that the Seward Highway has been designated as a National Forest Scenic Byway and an Alaska Scenic Byway. It is also one of only fifteen roads in the U.S. designated as an All-American Road.


Clouds hung over the Chugach Mountains most of the day but it was still a scenic drive.

Most of the Seward Hwy. between Anchorage and Portage is two lanes wide. One or two short sections have passing lanes. The road curves around the bases of the mountains on the north side of the Arm but none of the curves are tight.

The pavement is about the smoothest we've seen anywhere in Alaska this summer, perfect for RVs.

And that often causes traffic problems in the summer -- tourists, especially the ones in lumbering RVs, who are gawking at the scenery, slowing down to look for Dall sheep or bald eagles on the cliffs near Beluga Point (or whales in the water), scanning the water for unique bore tides, and pulling into and out of the numerous overlooks along the roadway.


The sign at this pull-off says no trespassing but the well-worn paths on the  
 other side of the railroad tracks show how many people have ignored the sign.

Folks hauling fishing and recreational boats move more slowly than other traffic, too.

Local residents and commercial truckers tend to get annoyed with the tourists and boaters. Apparently they tend to follow too closely and/or take risks when passing because there is a high rate of accidents on this stretch of road in the summer.


Cool renovated hippie-mobile and matching toad we spotted at one of the turn-outs

Today we were in just our truck and not towing the Cameo. Jim mostly drove the speed limit or faster to keep up with traffic. It's clear that when we take the camper to the Kenai Peninsula in a few days we'll have to drive near the speed limit and pull over when we want to take pictures or look for wildlife. There are many places to pull off the road.

Consider that if you're sightseeing in an RV or driving slowly in a passenger vehicle.

Also keep in mind that in some places in Alaska it's mandatory to pull over when more than five vehicles are behind you. In some places along the Arm today we were in one long line of traffic. I imagine it's even worse on weekends when Anchorage residents head to and from the Kenai Peninsula, which is a favorite playground of theirs.

ARE BORE TIDES BORING?

Today we pulled off onto several of the turnouts along the highway. Many of them have interpretive signs about the formation of Turnagain Arm, bore tides, marine life, Dall sheep, nearby glaciers, and historic events like the gold rush and the 1964 earthquake.

We either read most of the signs this morning or took pictures of them to read later. Some of the information in this entry came from those panels:

I encourage visitors to stop and read these signs the first time through here. You can learn a lot about the geology, history, and culture from them. They're all over Alaska.

I'll share a few facts that I found interesting.

Glaciers advanced and retreated through this valley five times, beginning about one million years ago. Some of the advancing ice was thousands of feet thick The result was this narrow inlet with high, steep walls on either side.

The walls of the U-shaped valley continue beneath the water to an unknown depth. Over the eons tons of glacial sediment have filled the valley bottom and created extensive mudflats that are exposed when the tides are out. As on the Coastal Trail in Anchorage, there are signs along the Seward Hwy. warning people to avoid walking out in the mud.

It's as dangerous as quicksand. Some people have drowned when they couldn't get out of the mud or been rescued by others before the next tide came in.

Speaking of tides, bore tides are anything but boring. They are rather unusual and occur in only about 60 places around the world. Turnagain Arm has the second-highest bore tides in North America, behind the Bay of Fundy in Canada.

Quoting from another website about Turnagain Arm, "A bore tide is a rush of seawater that returns to a shallow and narrowing inlet from a broad bay. Bore tides come in after extreme minus low tides after a full or new moon . . .

Alaska's most famous bore tide occurs in Turnagain Arm, just outside Anchorage. It climbs up to 6-10 feet tall and can reach speeds of 10-15 miles per hour. It takes not just a low tide but also about a 27-foot tidal differential (between high and low tide) for a bore to form in Turnagain Arm."


Low tide at the far end of Turnagain Arm this morning; this is near the former town of Portage.

The website explains that what makes Turnagain Arms' bore tide so dramatic and unique are its size (one of the largest in the world), it's the only one in the far north, and it's the only one bordered by mountains.

It's also very accessible for 40-50 miles along the Seward Hwy. It takes the bore five hours to travel from the mouth near Anchorage to the end of Turnagain Arm at Portage, giving plenty of opportunity along the Seward Hwy. to see it when it occurs.

The website has suggestions for where and when to view the bore tides. You need to know when the five-day "windows of opportunity" exist around the full and new moons and must consult detailed tide tables to time it right. You can get both from NOAA's website. (NOAA also monitors oceans, not just weather.)


You can see some of the mud flats at low tide near the mouth of Turnagain Arm in this shot I took  
a little south of Anchorage this morning.  Cook Inlet is the large body of water in the distance.

We spent about six hours along the Arm today. Low tide in Anchorage was about 8:10 AM, high tide about 1:50 PM.

That means the tide was still going out as we proceeded east toward Portage this morning. (I'm not sure if it takes five hours to go out as well as come in, but I'm assuming it does.)

We could still see a lot of mud in the last few miles near the far end of the arm around noon:


A creek empties into Turnagain Arm at low tide.  The Kenai Mountains are in the background.

By the time we got back to Anchorage in the afternoon the tide had already come back in there.

We didn't see any waves rolling in on the way back, probably because we're about halfway between a new and full moon. Maybe we'll get lucky and see a bore tide when we travel down to or back from the Kenai Peninsula in July.

BELUGA POINT TO GIRDWOOD

Reportedly one of the best places to see Dall sheep is on the hillsides above Beluga Point at MM 110.

When we pulled off at the overlook Jim got out the binoculars, pointed them where other people were looking, and found a herd of seven sheep in a high meadow:

 

 

The sheep were still there several hours later when we were going back to Anchorage. I barely got them with my old Canon camera Ė was wishing I had the new one with 16x zoom and 16 megapixels.

If thereís room at this turnout when we have the camper with us on our way to Russian River in a few days weíll stop again to see if any sheep are there. I hope I'll have better pictures for you later.

For the closest view of sheep, eagles, and whales there are some powerful viewfinders at the overlook:

Beluga Point is a popular overlook. Not only is it a prime sheep-viewing spot, it's also reportedly a good place to see beluga whales in the water and bald eagles in the sky. We looked for whales both outbound and on the return but didn't see any today. I don't think it's prime time for them to be here yet and they don't come in unless the water is deep during high tide. Sometimes they get stuck in low water. 

Several of the turn-outs along the Seward Highway also have trailheads to hiking trails and bike paths.

The trails look like they go straight up the ridges into Chugach State Park. Iíd like to check some of them out later in the season. With all the melting snow right now they are probably either a muddy mess at the lower elevations or under snow higher up.

The bike paths are paved and run along one side of the highway or another. A 3-mile path runs between the settlements of Indian and Bird; a 6-mile trail connects Girdwood to Bird Point.

As you can see in some of the photos on this page there isn't much land between the water and the base of the mountains so the highway, Alaska Railroad tracks, and bike paths run parallel and pretty close to each other.

There are numerous waterfalls coming down the mountains on the north side of the road. We could see a few small ones from the road today. More are visible from the trails going up into Chugach State Park and the national forest (Chugach SP stretches for about 30 miles along this section of the Seward Hwy.).

Two creeks that we passed before reaching the short road to Girdwood are very popular with fishermen -- Indian Creek (MM 103) and Bird Creek (MM 101). We saw only a few people fishing in Bird Creek today. I don't think the salmon are running yet.

GIRDWOOD & GLACIERS

At MM 90 we came to the Alyeska Highway, a two-lane road that leads back three miles to the small town of Girdwood. This area is a popular weekend retreat for folks who live in Anchorage and it has several things of interest to tourists.

Girdwood was one of several towns in South Central Alaska that was seriously affected by the epic earthquake on Good Friday in 1964. Like Valdez, Girdwood was relocated to higher ground after much of it was destroyed by the quake and resultant high tides (the town sunk eight or nine feet).


Nearing the turnoff to Girdwood

The town of Portage, at the east end of the arm, was destroyed and never rebuilt. Reminders include some abandoned buildings and the skeletons of trees killed by saltwater.

All we did today at Girdwood was drive up the road to town, turn around at the Alyeska Ski Resort, and go back down to the main highway. We looked at lunch menus at two restaurants and were so dismayed at the prices that we just ate the snacks we brought with us in the truck.

Consider yourself warned:

This house caught my eye as we approached Girdood. On the way back out to the highway I asked Jim to stop so I could get a better picture of it:

It has interesting angles, beautiful windows . . . and a motorhome out back. Our kinda people.

I'd like to come back here another time to visit the historic Crow Creek Mine, a National Historic Site, and maybe hike the Winner Creek or Crow Pass trails. The latter is part of the famous Iditarod Trail. Cyclists can use most of the Winner Creek Trail.

At MM 82 we got a good view of Spencer Glacier, one of several we were able to see today on the south side of the Portage Valley. I think those are technically in the Kenai Mountains: 


Spencer Glacier

We were amused at this "No Target Shooting" sign where the Twentymile River (MM 81) empties into Turnagain Arm near Portage:  


Obviously a tempting target for miscreants

Twentymile River comes down from glaciers north of the highway in the Chugach Mountains. It is a popular place for dip net fishing.

PORTAGE VALLEY ROAD TO WHITTIER

We drove east on the access road to Whittier for about 5Ĺ miles to the Begich, Boggs National Forest Service visitor center but didnít go as far as the famous one-way tunnel where vehicles drive for 2Ĺ miles on railroad tracks through the mountain. We might do that another day.

The seacoast town of Whittier lies at the end of the access road about 11 miles east of the Seward Hwy. You can see its location on the map at the top of this page.


A little more blue sky on the road to Whittier

We drove through the Black Bear NFS campground. Itís nice but most sites are too small for us. Jim talked to a retiree at Potter Marsh whoís camped at the nearby Williwaw CG. We didnít go back to see it but should have. Itís paved and has larger sites.

Iíd like to stay at Williwaw on our way to or from the Peninsula so we can do more along the Portage Valley Road than we did today. It's another very scenic drive with views of hanging glaciers to the south and the wetlands surrounding creeks and rivers to the north. The water is very blue from lots of glacial silt.

We could see this blue hanging glacier from the parking lot at the Williwaw Fish Viewing Area:

We also want to hike and ride our bikes on the five-mile long Trail of Blue Ice.

From the road we could see portions of the trail and some handsome wooden bridging over a creek and wet area:

 

Most of that trail is hidden from the road and more secluded than the bike trails along Turnagain Arm.

We could also see Byron Glacier but didnít know its name until we got to the very nice NFS Begich, Boggs visitor center at Portage Lake, about five miles back this road.

We stopped in the visitor center briefly and hiked a snowy hike back to Byron Glacier. I'll show you pictures of that glacier and the pretty blue icebergs in Portage Lake in Part 3 of this series.

BACK TO ANCHORAGE

By the time we got done hiking to Byron Glacier we were ready to head back to Anchorage.

The sky was still cloudy to the north over the Chugach Mountains . . .

. . . but clearing over Turnagain Arm and Cook Inlet to the west.

It was quite pretty when we got back to Potter Marsh, which we toured on the outbound this morning when it was cloudy:

Next pagePotter Marsh wildlife refuge photos

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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