January 11, 2020

Road Trip: Alaska's Seward Highway - from Anchorage to Seward

From Anchorage to Seward, the drive along Alaska’s Seward Highway is a visual buffet of towering mountains, wildlife and sparkling water. The Seward Highway is also one of my absolutely favourite road trips.

On our most recent visit to Alaska, we decided to shake things up a bit. Instead of our usual trip down to see friends in Kasilof (because we were going to see them later in the week in Anchorage), we decided to drive down the Seward Highway and spend the night in the little town of Seward, Alaska. The breathtaking land shaped by glaciers, nestled between mountains and the ocean. Population, 2800 (give or take few).  And as some would call it, where Alaska starts.

road trip along Seward Highway from Anchorage to Seward Alaska

Starting in Anchorage, the Seward Highway meanders generally south 127 miles (204 km) from sea to mountains to sea across the Kenai Peninsula, ending in the harbour town of Seward, on Resurrection Bay. The time-pressed traveler could make it to Seward and back in a full day, but take my advice, this memorable road trip is best enjoyed across one or more nights.

There’s a few reasons why this drive is one of my favourite road trips. One, it’s short – only about 2.5 hours – which is key when you have antsy little ones in the car. But by far my favourite reason is because of its stunning beauty. In fact, the Seward Highway has garnered many awards for this stunning beauty – among them are the National Forest Scenic Byway, All American Road and Alaska Scenic Byway. In a nutshell, all of those titles mean its stunning.

You get the idea right? It’s stunning. If I haven’t hammered home that point enough, I’m going to take you along on our little road trip, and share some equally stunning photos from our adventure.

Road Trip along the Seward Highway from Anchorage to Seward, Alaska
Road Trip along the Seward Highway from Anchorage to Seward, Alaska

One of the most impressive things about Anchorage is how quickly you can leave the “big city” of Anchorage behind. We hit the highway, heading south past Potter Marsh, with the city quickly disappearing behind us. 

Normally, we would stop at places along the way – Potter Marsh, Bird Point, Beluga Point, McHugh Creek, Girdwood, to name a new – but this road trip, we only had one stop in mind, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC).

Believe it or not, in the three years we lived in Anchorage and three times we have visited since, AWCC has not been a destination for us to visit. No real reason why. But when you have little ones that are HUGE animal lovers, it’s added to the itinerary. 

This nonprofit conservation centre provides large-enclosure spaces for orphaned and rehabilitating Alaska animals such as bears, moose, musk ox and caribou, and is open year-round. Visitors can view the animals by either driving or walking the 1.5-mile loop that encircles the centre. We chose to walk, and splash in muddy puddles along the way. Because it’s more fun that way, of course.

young child at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Alaska
moose at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
child at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

After peeling off our many layers (and letting the rental car warm up a bit), we hopped back in the car and were on our way. The terrain around us quickly changed as we entered the Pass. Aside from a few glacial lakes, there was no water until we the end of the road, in Seward.

We did make one additional mandatory stop, at the Kenai Peninsula welcome sign.  I love to see the difference between this photo and the one we took in the exact same spot just two years ago

Seward Highway Kenai Peninsula Welcome Sign photo op

We arrived in Seward around 12:00pm AKST (which is four hours behind EST), and checked into our hotel for the night - Harbour360 Hotel, the premier waterfront hotel in Seward located right on the small boat harbour. If you plan to visit Seward, I highly recommend this hotel - if not for the stunning view from your harbour view room, for its close walking distance to Seward’s finest restaurants, shops and the Alaska Railroad Depot, and the delicious continental breakfast included in your stay. If you’re visiting in the busy season (May to August), I also highly recommend a wildlife cruise in Kenai Fjords National Park with Major Marine Tours - you check in and board straight from the hotel.  We did a cruise for my 25th birthday a few years back, and it was such an amazing experience!

puffin mural on Harbor360 Hotel Seward Alaska
harborview room at Harbor360 Hotel in Seward Alaska
view of Seward Harbor from Harbor360 Hotel Seward Alaska

After a quick bite for lunch, we headed to the Alaska SeaLife Centre, Alaska’s leading public aquarium and only marine mammal rehabilitation facility. If you know me even slightly, you know we would NOT miss visiting an aquarium. Stellar sea lions, harbor seals, a variety of sea birds and native Alaskan fish and invertebrates such as rock fish, salmon, sea stars, octopus and more call the SeaLife Centre home. The Aquarium also has a viewing area where you can look down onto the pools that are home to some of the animals are being rehabilitated and studied by researchers to better develop an understanding of the role of marine mammals, birds and fish in the arctic and subarctic marine ecosystems, and to generate scientific knowledge relevant to resource management and policy.

The great thing about visiting the Aquarium at this time of year was that we pretty much had the entire place to ourselves, giving the girls freedom to run from exhibit to exhibit to check out all of the Alaskan animals. They even braved sticking their hands in the cold water invertebrate touch tank to get a “hug” from a sea urchin, and feel an anemone, sea star and more. 

Alaska SeaLife Center Seward Alaska
tough tank at Alaska SeaLife Center Seward Alaska
research facility at Alaska SeaLife Center Seward Alaska
stellar sea lions at Alaska SeaLife Center Seward Alaska

Another highlight of our visit was watching the stellar sea lions "dancing" in the water with their newly introduced enrichment, a piece of firehouse. We were told it was the first time they had received this item to play with, and clearly it was a hit. 

After our visit to the Aquarium, we decided to take a walk through the harbour to check out all of the boats and look for any sea life that may be swimming through (think sea lions, otters and seals). Believe it or not, people are still fishing this time of year. So while there may not have been as much action as there would be in the summer with all of the tourists, it was still fun to watch the fishing boats go out. 

boats in Seward Harbor, Seward Alaska
boats in Seward Harbor, Seward Alaska
little girl looking at jellyfish in Seward Harbor

While things being quiet at the Aquarium were a bonus, one of the downsides of visiting in the “shoulder season” (the time between busy summer and dead quiet winter) is that once the tourists leave, a good majority of the businesses close for the winter. A lot of the restaurants were closed, meaning our choice for dinner was limited. Luckily, one of our options was The Highliner Restaurant. They support local, natural, sustainable  & organic whenever possible, and their Alaskan seafood pasta (think shrimp, halibut and scallops) was delicious!

With the days getting shorter, the darkness sets in pretty quickly. I remember that being one of the toughest things about winters in Alaska. Not the cold, that I could handle. It was the darkness. But then again, if you can make it through that, the long days of summer more than make up for it.

We headed back to the Harbor360 Hotel to pack it in for the night before our drive back to Anchorage in the morning. In the morning, we got to witness a beautiful sunset over the Seward harbor. Let's be real, it was about 9:00am AKST, but that's Alaska in the fall - the run doesn't rise until you've been up for at least two or three hours.

sunrise over Seward harbor Seward Alaska
view from harborview room at Harbor360 Hotel Seward Alaska

Before hitting the Seward Highway back to Anchorage, we decided to make one last stop, at Exit Glacier - one of the most road accessible glaciers in the entire state. In that same trip to Seward for my 25th birthday, we spent one night camping at Exit Glacier. To this day, it still remains one of my favourite ways I’ve celebrated my big day. Unfortunately, this visit wasn’t as memorable. While we had talked up seeing a “giant ice cube” to Morley (really is the only way to logically explain a glacier to a 3 year old), we didn’t do our homework. Turns out, the road to Exit Glacier had recently closed for the winter. Our bad.

Exit Glacier Seward Alaska

So, back to Anchorage it was. But not without seeing that giant ice cube we had promised. While Exit Glacier is the only one you can walk to, glaciers aren’t a rare sight in Alaska. Instead, we decided to hit the road and stop at Portage Lake, about an hour south of Anchorage, to see Portage Glacier. Like Exit, the Begich Boggs Visitor Centre was closed for the season, but that didn’t stop us from hoping out of the car in the whipping wind and rain to point out the giant ice cube that is the glacier, and all of the small ice cubes bobbing in the lake. 

child visiting Portage Lake in Portage, Alaska

While summer may the best time to visit Alaska, there is still plenty to do in the “off season”. Alaska offers so much in all seasons, it really just depends what you want to get out of your trip. And personally, a road trip from Anchorage to Seward, should ALWAYS be on the itinerary.

Is Alaska in your future travel plans? Check out my recommended Alaska travel planning resources.

What is your favourite road trip? Have you been to Seward, Alaska? I’d love to hear!

Disclosure: We were provided complimentary accommodation at Harbor360 Hotel in Seward, Alaska in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are 100% that of To & Fro.

Road Trip Alaska's Seward Highway from Anchorage to Seward, Alaska

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