Are you planning a trip to Alaska? Avoid the crowded cruise ship and train to Denali route and head off the beaten path to Cordova, Alaska. Alaska is so much more than gold panning and Carnival Cruise gift shops. Here is the ultimate guide to vacationing in Cordova.
Cordova (CDV) maintains is beauty and mystique because it is not easy to get to. This remote Alaskan fishing village is only accessible by boat or plane. Look for the infamous "No Road" bumper stickers plastered around town reflecting the locals' historic fight to avoid road construction connecting Cordova to any neighboring villages.
Plane: Alaska Airlines flight #66 gets you safely from Anchorage to Cordova. Depending on the time of year you may even take a 12 seater which feels like an excursion over the ends of the Earth. Either size of plane, make sure to book a window seat on the left side of the craft for breathtaking views of cascading glaciers, fishing grounds and captivating tributaries. If you're lucky, you may even spot a moose on the descent into Merle K. (Mudhole) Smith, Cordova's charming one room airport. Don't be surprised if you see a shrink wrapped toilet seat and duct taped coolers shooting out of the baggage claim, evidence of a local's shopping trip to the 'Big City' of Anchorage.
Ferry: Set sail from the port of Whittier, Alaska and cruise the Alaska Marine Highway to Cordova. Things to do on this 6 hour 45 minute voyage:
Head to the top deck and bundle up in a blanket (BYOBlanket) on a lawn chair under the heat lamps and enjoy the fresh air.
Bring your binoculars! On a clear day you may see waterfalls, walrus, sea otters, seals, maritime birds, whales and Dall's porpoise (not to be mistaken for a baby orca).
Visit the cafeteria which sometimes features local wild Alaskan salmon or halibut on the menu.
Peruse the fine art on the ship crafted by Alaskan artists.
Take everything you'll need with you from your car (if you're bringing a car on the ferry) because once you leave the car area, you can't return while at sea.
When traveling from Anchorage to Whittier to catch the ferry:
Plan for enough time to wait in line to use the Whittier Tunnel, a one lane tunnel through a mountain shared by trains and autos. You wanted off the beaten path Alaska, right?! Check the schedule here.
Arrive at least an hour prior to sail time or you may need to hitchhike back to Anchorage on a coach bus full as tourists as Ubers are not easy to come by in this part of the world.
Get on the boat early to find a good spot, whether in the front of the vessel or in a quiet room depending on your preference. Seating is first come, first served. Alaskans who take this route regularly will spread out in sleeping bags on the floor to catch some zzzs on the way home. When in Rome!
Where to stay
Orca Adventure Lodge: Nestled at the end of one of only three roads leading out of town, this beautiful lodge offers breathtaking views of the Prince William Sound replete with otters, seals, sea lions and fishing vessels.
Federal cabins & campsites: Explore 5 remote, hike-in US Forest Service log cabin options or stay closer to town at one of the City of Cordova campsites or Skater's Cabin (near and dear to my heart as the site of my wedding reception!). Advanced booking recommended as these fill up.
Where to eat
Cordova has no chain restaurants. I repeat: no chain restaurants. Score! No matter where you spend your money, you can feel good that it's going to a locally operated business. But here are some of our favorites:
Baja Taco: There is definitely something magic about this school bus turned Pacific coast taco haven adjacent to the picturesque Cordova Harbor. Grab an Alaskan microbrew, a salmon burrito (or the migas) and a milkshake for dessert.
Little Cordova Bakery: Best dirty chai and fresh bakery selection in town. Take a cup of coffee to go with your stroll around the harbor.
Powder House: Whether dining in cozy interior or on the beautiful patio with spectacular mountain views, this place has great burgers, good beer on tap and you'll be sure to hear tall fisherman tales from the locals seated next to you. Take the Blaster Burger challenge if you dare!
Don't leave Cordova without eating Copper River salmon. Period. Even if you're "not a fish eater" or "don't like salmon." You've already traveled this far, try it. This luxurious gift from the sea that's rolled out on a red carpet every spring in Seattle will be life changing for your palette, and your opinion of wild salmon.
Short day hikes
Here are some nice and manageable hikes for non-hikers or folks with limited time in CDV.
Sheridan Glacier Lake Trail: You'll instantly feel the cool blast of Sheridan Glacier as you reach the trailhead. Prepare to have your breath taken away as you crest a small incline and soak in the view of Sheridan Glacier. This is wild Alaska. No metal barriers or viewing decks here. The super adventurous locals strap on their crampons, tie up to one another with ropes and explore the ice. You can get close to bergs and explore the varying nature of the glacier but I do not recommend doing so without a guide. My dog and I starting sinking into the glacial silt and boy am I still happy to be here to tell about it! Orca Adventure Lodge offers guided trips around the actual glacier but you do not need a guide to view the glacier from the trail. Take home a souvenir of glacial goodness with an Alaska Glacial Essentials product, owned by a local former commercial fisherwoman, and as seen on Shark Tank!
Ski Hill: This hike offers breathtaking views of the Prince William Sound and the city of Cordova. Get an aerial perspective of the fishing plants around town, the Copper River Delta, and the Chugach Mountains. You will hike alongside a diverse selection of Alaskan wildflowers on your way to the top. Take the classic 'skill hill photo op' sitting in the lift chair with "the Sound" in the background. If you have more time and gusto, continue on to Mt. Eyak where you can rope climb to the top of the peak.
McKinley Lake Trail/Pipeline Lakes Trail: This scenic and mostly flat trail leads you through the moss carpeted understory of the Chugach National Forest. You may find yourself wanting to yell "olly-olly-oxen-free!" when you're out in the open fields at the base of towering mountains, as you're not likely to encounter other hikers while out on the trail.
Brisk walks along the way to Power Creek, through Nirvana Park or around Hartney Bay are also lovely parts of Cordova to explore.
Of course, there are much more challenging and longer hikes in the area. Here is a comprehensive list from AllTrails.
WARNING: Cordova is bear country. The brown bear I saw from a distance near at Hartney Bay looked like something out of Jurassic Park standing at least 12 feet tall on it's back legs near the Copper River salmon stream. Wherever you hike, tell someone where you are going, go in a group, talk in loud voices (yelling "hey bear!" is a thing), bring bear spray or a pistol, and ask around town if and where they have been any recent bear sightings.
Where to shop
Cordova Gear: Skip the trip to REI and spend your $$ in CDV. If you need some rain gear, new hiking pants, want to rent an electric or fat tire bike, or are in search of souvenirs, don't miss this local shop.
The Net Loft: For crafters, cookers, creatives and beyond. This place has something for everyone, including a beautiful selection of native pieces like salmon skin earrings and sealskin purses. Join an art class on the cozy second floor if you have time. My needle felted mushrooms that I made at The Net Loft are my most treasured art pieces in my home.
Cordova Museum Gift Shop: Peruse through this quaint shop for jewelry, cookbooks and other Alaskan treasures before visiting the museum or beautiful rotating art exhibits in the same building.
Ilanka Cultural Center: This museum and shop honors the full heritage and culture of the Eyak, Alutiiq, Ahtna, and Tlingit peoples. They are dedicated to the revival and preservation of Native crafts and skills for future generations. Not to be missed!
Copper River Fleece: Once you see the beautiful traditional Alaskan patterns in this iconic shop, you will start to recognize them all over Alaska and even in the continental U.S. Show your support and love for this wild Alaskan salmon fishing village by donning Copper River Fleece apparel.
Any rummage sale you see advertised. Follow the signs! Cordovans are artists, fisher folk, travelers, adventurers who have interesting collections. Who says you can't mitigate climate change while souvenir shopping?
Other CDV tidbits not to miss
Schedule a yoga class after a long hike at Current Rhythms studio. Contact in advance as no drop-ins accepted during pandemic.
Pick up an edition of The Cordova Times, Cordova's local tribally-owned newspaper. The heartwarming story lines, sense of community and Law & Order section may just make you want to move to a remote fishing village on the Copper River Delta.
Tune into local radio stations 1450 AM KLAM and 100.9 FM KCDV to really get into the Alaskan fishing town mood. Weather reports include how many knots the winds are a blowin' and tide reports. Start your morning out by listening to the iconic chorus of kids shouting "I Love Cordova!"
Eye up the produce section in one of two grocery stores in town and take a moment of gratitude for everything you have access to down in the "Lower 48."
Attend a Sunday service with Reverend Belle Mickelson who runs 4-H music camps in native villages throughout Alaska, and a week-long bluegrass camp, at St. George's aka "The Red Dragon."
Get in the mood for your trip by listening to Belle's son, commercial fisherman and astounding musician, Mike Mickelson, croon about life at sea.
When you get home, extend the bliss of your trip by making a delicious wild Alaskan salmon poke recipe with Alaska Fresh Copper River sockeye salmon, or a killer fried Alaskan halibut recipe with Prince William Sound halibut, both recipes by local Cordovan fishing captains. Let your tastebuds take you back to Cordova!