Alaska's Spectacular Drive along the Turnagain Arm

Roadside scenery from Turnagain Arm - looking out at the Cook Inlet and Chugatch Mountains to the north.
  • Roadside scenery from Turnagain Arm - looking out at the Cook Inlet and Chugatch Mountains to the north.

It takes little time after heading south from Anchorage to be exposed to some of the most stunning scenery Alaska has to offer.

The Seward Highway, connecting Anchorage with the Kenai Peninsula, has been justly described as one of the great drives in the world, one of only 15 drives in America designated an “All American Road.”

The two-lane highway snakes along the Turnagain Arm for 125 miles with magnificent vistas of Cook Inlet (named after Captain Cook, who looked for the Northwest Passage here) and the snow-capped Chugach Mountains in the distance. I'd compare the quality of the scenery to that along Highway 1 in Big Sur; others have made the comparison to Amalfi Drive in southern Italy.

There are many stopping points along the way, and it’s hard to resist pulling over every few hundred yards to admire a scene and snap a few pictures. Along with the spectacular views, you might spot Dall sheep on the rocky slopes, bald eagles along the mud flats or beluga whales in the water. Some of my favorite points along the way are Potter Marsh (pictured), a popular spot for bird watching; Beluga Point, where you just might spot a whale (I didn’t); and Bird Point, with its observation platforms providing a sweeping view of the Cook Inlet and surrounding Chugach Mountains. Bird Creek is the spot to stop for salmon fishing.

The Potter Section House, just south of Potter Marsh, features a small railroad museum and the Chugach State Park headquarters. Across the street, you can find parking for the Potter Creek Trailhead, which provides opportunity for a nine-mile hike with a good chance of spotting wildlife.

For a more panoramic view of the surrounding area, take the turnoff to Girdwood, about 40 miles south of Anchorage, and head to the 5-star Alyeska Resort. Hop the ski tram up Mount Alyeska and enjoy a spectacular view of the surrounding area (left). There are nature trails for hiking and restaurants with knockout views.

Just past the Girdwood turnoff, take time to visit the nonprofit Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. This is Alaska’s version of the S.D. Wild Animal Park, where native wildlife have a more open setting than they would in a zoo. Bears, caribou, moose, musk ox, bison and bald eagles can all be seen here.

A few hundred yards further south, take the turnoff to Portage Glacier. The Begich Boggs Visitor Center is a worthwhile stop and provides in-depth information on the area. The center overlooks beautiful Portage Lake. I spotted ice floating in the lake, but it is no longer possible to see Portage Glacier from there. The center once sat at the foot of the glacier, but due to climate change, getting to the glacier now necessitates a scenic half-mile walk or a boat cruise.

The Seward Highway is the link between Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula, site of Kenai Fjords National Park. The town of Seward is a worthwhile destination for glacier watching and cruises to view sea wildlife. The train ride from Anchorage to Seward follows essentially the same route as the highway, but without the worthwhile stops and detours.

Even though driving this route straight through to Girdwood takes only 45 minutes, and to Seward only about 2-3 hours, I recommend that you allow a full day for the trip. You will definitely want to linger and make a few stops and turnoffs along the way. Keep your headlights on and be wary of traffic coming in and out of the observation points. It’s a two-lane highway, and there have been numerous accidents. For some folks it’s just hard to keep your eyes on the road with so much gorgeous scenery surrounding you.

Take your time and allow the beauty of the area to soak in. You’ll undoubtedly find it one of the most rewarding drives of your life.

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