advertisement

Big events have shaped Valdez (val-deez). The deepwater port, at the head of a long, dramatic fjord, first developed with the 1898 Klondike gold rush and an ill-fated attempt to establish an alternative route to the gold fields from here. Later the port and the Richardson Highway, which connected Valdez to the rest of the state, served a key role in supplying materials during World War II. On Good Friday, March 27, 1964, all of that was erased when North America's greatest recorded earthquake occurred under Miners Lake, west of town off a northern fjord of Prince William Sound. It set off an underwater landslide that caused a huge wave to sweep over the waterfront and kill 32 people. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers moved the town, rebuilding a drab replacement in a safer location that slowly filled with nondescript modern buildings.

The construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline, completed in 1977, brought a new economic boom to Valdez and enduring economic prosperity as tankers came to fill with the oil. Then on March 24, 1989, on Good Friday 25 years after the earthquake, the tanker Exxon Valdez, on its way south, hit the clearly marked Bligh Reef, causing an oil spill ranked largest ever in North America until it was surpassed in 2010 by the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The spill cleanup added another economic boom. More than 20 years later, most wildlife populations have recovered and visible signs of the spill are difficult to find, but the spill's impact remains indelible and the marine ecosystem has changed.

Today Valdez is a middle-American town, driven by industry but turning to the vast resources of Prince William Sound for outdoor recreation. Despite a spectacular setting and pleasant waterfront, it isn't the sort of historic or charming fishing village that justifies a trip all by itself. A day is enough to tour the small museums and take a hike or a river float. Instead, come for the setting -- the wildlife, fishing, kayaking, and sightseeing in the Sound, and the spectacular drive down the Richardson Highway.

Because Valdez lies at the end of a funnel of steep mountains that catches moisture off the ocean, the weather tends to be overcast and rainy in summer and extremely snowy in winter.