The Last Frontier -- Part 2, Whittier and the Glacier Quest

Blog Post created by bejacob on Sep 13, 2018

Picking up where I left off in The Last Frontier -- Part 1, Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula, our second full day in Alaska dawned bright and sunny, perfect weather to be out on the water. I had booked a day cruise out of Whittier so we could to do a bit of glacier viewing. The original plan was to take the 26 Glaciers cruise from Phillips Cruises, but the night before our departure to Anchorage, I received a call from the cruise company with some bad news. The boat we were supposed to take (a high-speed catamaran named the MV Klondike Express) had been damaged and was being pulled from service for the remainder of the season. Apparently a boat with a huge whole in the side is not considered seaworthy.  That left us two options. One, cancel the cruise entirely and get a full refund; the other, switch to a slightly small boat for the slightly shorter “Glacier Quest” cruise. Option two came with a modest refund covering the price difference between the two cruises, but all else would remain the same. Not wanting to miss out completely, we decided to take the shorter cruise.


Phillips Cruises offered us several ways to get to Whittier—drive ourselves, motor coach, or via the Alaska Railroad. I don’t know about everyone else, but for me, it’s almost impossible to pass up the opportunity to take a train ride. So, on this bright, beautiful, late summer morning, we departed for the Anchorage Depot. The rail journey took the better part of 3 hours including a couple stops along the way, plus the trip through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, a dual-use highway/railroad passage under the Maynard Mountains before finally reaching Whittier. If you’re curious about the tunnel, I encourage you to read up on the Portage Glacier Highway. Okay, enough of that. Here are a few pictures from the train.

The glaciers were pretty much all around as we passed by the ghost town of Portage (completely destroyed in the 1964 Good Friday earthquake). Alaska has over 100,000 glaciers, covering over 29 thousand square miles, providing plenty of water to feed rivers and streams across the state.

Yes the water really is that green/blue/gray color due to the high concentration of glacial silt.

This almost looks like it’s taken from above looking down towards the ocean. In fact, it’s shot from below looking up into a mountain valley with a glacier on top. What looks like sea and surf is actually ice and snow. Kind of a neat trick the eyes play. 


After emerging from the 2½ mile tunnel, the train stopped in Whittier adjacent to the harbor.

We checked in for our cruise and were soon on the water enjoying the lunch provided (salmon chowder again, mmmm ). From the dock in Whittier, the boat headed out into Passage Channel, an arm of Prince William Sound. From there, we dipped briefly into Shotgun Cove and then around Decision Point into Blackstone Bay. Again the weather cooperated. Much of the time this area is fog enshrouded or suffering under low rain-clouds, as Whittier is the wettest city in Alaska with annual rainfall of almost 200 inches and more than 14 feet of snow each winter.  You’d never guess that on the day we arrived. For us, it was all clear skies and great visibility, with glaciers in every direction, some carving valleys into the sides of the mountains, some hanging precariously atop rocky outcropping above the shore, and others calving ice directly into the frigid sea. While the MV Glacier Quest is a smaller vessel that the MV Klondike Express, we had enough space to move around to take photographs like this one.

Blackstone Bay fills a steep valley carved by glaciers during the last ice age. Though barely more than a mile wide, the depth near the center is over 1,000 feet. When possible, the boat cruised near the shore providing a closer look at the glaciers and waterfalls. Here’s Northland glacier, a hanging glacier. The splashes of white down by the shoreline are rushing torrents of water cascading into the sea.

The boat edged a little closer and as we rounded the rock face, one of the bigger waterfalls came into full view. All that melting ice has to somehow find its way into the the sea. We spied many more over the next couple hours.

At the end of Blackstone Bay is Blackstone glacier, a tidewater glacier. During the short time the boat lingered in the bay, half a dozen chucks of ice fell away from the face of the glacier and crashed thunderously into the sea. It happens so fast that by the time you try to snap a photo, the moment is gone. While none of these soon-to-be icebergs were huge, it was fascinating to see the how all those floating pieces of ice got into the water. Before departing, the crew scooped up several chucks of ice which were rinsed, crushed, and used in the company’s bright blue/green, signature cocktail—the Glacier Margarita.

Now this trip wasn’t just glaciers. No, no. There was wildlife as well. In Shotgun Cove, we surprised a group of Stellar sea lions hanging out on a mooring buoy. As we arrived, they decided their little sunbathing party was over and disappeared over the side and into the water. After we left, a few of them realized the coast was clear and climbed back up to resume their leisure activities. Whether that included a poker game or not (as the captain suggested ) I’m not sure.

On our way back from Blackstone glacier, we spotted this lazy sea otter floating in a shallow part of the bay. He appeared to be asleep though at one point, he did glance in our direction before returning to his afternoon nap. 

Back on land in Whittier, we had about 90 minutes to look around before catching the train back to Anchorage. The town is small, so that was plenty of time to see everything twice over and still get a bite to eat. I can recommend the Wild Catch Cafe.  Order the fish (fresh caught halibut) and chips along with a local brew and you’ve got yourself a proper dinner. Much of Whittier closes up shop at the end of the first week of September once the last cruise ship leaves for the year. The railroad stops service in mid-September and many of the gift/tourist shops cease operations until late spring, though the Alaskan ferries run year-round. Even without the tourists, about 200 people call Whittier home. All in all, our visit was wonderful, despite the last minute change of boats.


The train ride back to Anchorage and the drive to the FFI Midtown took less time than the morning journey, as we made no stops along the way. It probably didn’t hurt that we purchased a couple libations from the on board bistro (maybe the time just seemed shorter ). The scenery was just as good, but after a day on the water, we were content to sit back, sip our drinks, and watch the sun set beyond the water and distant mountains.


That’s plenty for this time around. Up next will be the drive from Anchorage to the small town Healy where we spent a couple nights, and the full-day bus tour to the “end of the road” in Denali National Park.


Until then…


Happy Travels