Alaska Scenic Drive: Seward Highway

The Seward Highway, linking Anchorage with Seward, passes through some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. For 127 miles, the road winds through a land of remarkable beauty, a land of saltwater bays, frigid blue glaciers, knife-edged ridges, and alpine valleys.

From the reflective waters of Turnagain Arm, you rapidly ascend 1,000 feet above sea level to an alpine meadow. Within the hour, you find yourself back at sea level surrounded by fjords, having just passed through a district of rivers and lakes.

Historical Qualities of Seward Highway

The route from Resurrection Bay to the interior has been in existence for thousands of years of Alaska's history; even Russian explorers searched the area for gold and fur in the 1700s. Following the same early routes used by native Alaskans, the Seward Highway has evolved into a modern transportation system.

Natives first used an area along the Seward Highway 9,000 years ago as a hunting camp. In this area, now known as Beluga Point on Turnagain Arm, Tanaina Indians also discovered abundant game in the region more than 8,000 years after the first natives inhabited the area.

The region finally received its name in 1778. When shallow water forced James Cook to turn around in his quest for the Northwest Passage, he christened the sound Turnagain River. South of Anchorage, Highway 1 now follows the shore of Turnagain Arm.

In 1895, prospectors discovered gold in Hope in the Kenai Peninsula, and the rush began. Suddenly, the tiny towns of Hope and Sunrise grew into booming gold-mining towns. Sunrise was even considered as a potential state capital.

Scattered findings of gold all over the Kenai Mountains established the need for improved transportation routes from the ice-free port of Seward to Turnagain Arm.

By 1910, most miners had left the area in order to follow prospects of gold farther north. Sunrise dwindled into nothing more than a few residences, and mining activity in Hope came almost to a standstill.

However, Cooper Landing's economy was soon influenced not by mining but by interest in big game hunting and fishing.

Today, the mining legacy of the Kenai Peninsula lives on through stories, museum photos, and weathered wood remains scattered throughout the Kenai Mountains. The privately owned town site of Sunrise is a historic archaeological district. The Hope Historical Society operates a small museum that displays items from the gold rush.

Natural Qualities of Seward Highway

Along the highway, you may hear the honking of Canada geese in the wetlands, the whistle of hoary marmots in the alpine valleys, and the cry of bald eagles in the dense coastal forests.

Along Turnagain Arm, you may spot Dall sheep as they scale rugged mountainsides or bring their young near the highway to forage. Moose, bears, mountain goats, salmon, and a variety of birds thrive along the highway as well. Many species of wildflowers help beautify the road corridor.

This map will guide your travels along Seward Highway.
This map will guide your travels along Seward Highway.

Recreational Qualities of Seward Highway

The section of the Seward Highway adjacent to Turnagain Arm provides scenic vistas across to the Kenai Mountains. Most of the lands above the highway are within Chugach State Park and provide you with a collection of things to see and ways to see them: windsurfing on Turnagain Arm, rock climbing on roadside rock cuts, rafting or canoeing on rivers, kite flying at Beluga Point, angling at creeks, and bicycling the highway. Two hundred miles of trails are in the forest alone.

Once a mining town, Girdwood is now home to a world-famous ski resort that offers excellent scenery and plenty of challenges. This town combines the best of today's recreation with classic activities of the past, such as panning for gold.

Other byway towns including Hope and Cooper Landing offer havens for fishing. In Anchorage, you can browse in shops or visitor centers.

For more useful information related to Alaska's Seward Highway, see:

  • Alaska Scenic Drives: Seward Highway is just one of the scenic byways in Alaska. Check out the others.
  • Seward, Moose Pass, Girdwood, Anchorage: Find out what there is to do in these cities along Seward Highway.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Alaska? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.

Highlights of Seward Highway

© Turnagain Pass is contrasted with the Chugash mountains along Seward Highway.
© Turnagain Pass is contrasted with the Chugash mountains along Seward Highway.

The trip fr­om Anchorage to Seward along Seward Highway is one of the most scenic drives you can take. Frequent pulloffs offer vistas of snowcapped mountains, glaciers, wildlife, and wildflowers at almost every turn, and side trips and hiking trails beckon adventurous explorers.

The road up Portage Valley leads into the 5.8 million-acre Chugach National Forest and past three hanging glaciers that are perched in the cleavage of mountain canyons.

Portage Glacier pokes its nose through the mountains at the head of a valley that it cut a long time ago. Since 1890, it has receded one mile and will be out of view by 2020 so don't procrastinate taking a trip to see it. Now, only a few bergs float in water that was once brimming with ice.

The visitor center offers excellent descriptive displays of glaciers and the best chance to see ice worms, pin-size critters that burrow into glaciers and eat algae. Temperatures ­above freezing can kill them.

You can take a day cruise along the rugged coast of Kenai Fjords National Park to see wildlife and tidewater glaciers that calve into the sea. Along the way, you may see orcas breach at boatside or a humpback whale with young swimming placidly along.

At Chiswall Islands, thousands of puffins and kittiwakes circle the boat. Just when you think you've seen the best, the boat stops at the foot of Holgate Glacier.

With the engines cut, the cracking and popping of the 500-foot wall of aquamarine ice thunders through the frigid air. A slab of ice silently slips from the face of the glacier and crashes into the water. Seconds later, the blast reaches your ears. This is no dainty wildflower beside a trickling stream; you're witnessing the raw power of nature that carves valleys through mountains and determines the weather of the entire planet.

The Seward Highway is in a richly varied and highly diverse area of Alaska. Over the length of its route, the character of the byway continually changes with its proximity to water, mountains, and towns.

Seward: The Seward Highway begins in the town of Seward nestled among the fjords surrounding Resurrection Bay. Nearby Kenai Fjords National Park offers the chance to see puffins, otters, eagles, arctic terns, whales, seals, and other marine life.

Ptarmigan Creek Recreation Site: Traveling north, the landscape surrounding the byway becomes one of alpine meadows dotted with rivers and lakes. During late July and early August, Ptarmigan Creek Recreation Site, 23 miles from Seward, is an excellent place to stop and watch the incredible salmon run, when thousands of red salmon head upstream to spawn.

Portage Glacier: Another few miles along the byway is Portage Glacier. Portage Glacier provides an incredible opportunity to watch glacial action on fast forward. One-hour boat tours are available to better witness the action.

Twentymile Flats: Farther north is Twentymile Flats, an expanse of lowlands and intertidal mudflats where three river valleys empty their silt-laden waters into Turnagain Arm and provide unobstructed views of the surrounding mountain peaks and glaciers.

Turnagain Arm: Turnagain Arm experiences the second highest tides in the world, often up to a 38-foot change in water level. Bore tides, a rare natural phenomenon in which the front of an incoming tide is a moving wall of water from three to five feet high, can be witnessed during extremely low tide here.

Anchorage: An­chorage offers a wealth of Alaskan history and cultural sites that you can enjoy.

The natural beauties you'll discover along Seward Highway are truly like no other you'll find in the United States -- or the world.

For more useful information related to Alaska's Seward Highway, see:

  • Alaska Scenic Drives: Seward Highway is just one of the scenic byways in Alaska. Check out the others.
  • Seward, Moose Pass, Girdwood, Anchorage: Find out what there is to do in these cities along Seward Highway.
  • Scenic Drives: Are you interested in scenic drives beyond Alaska? Here are more than 100 scenic drives throughout the United States.
  • How to Drive Economically: Fuel economy is a major concern when you're on a driving trip. Learn how to get better gas mileage.