How Long to Spend
With a mosquito fleet of fishing boats in a bustling harbor and a cool rainforest climate at the base of towering mountains, Cordova has the maritime feel of a mossy community you might find in Southeast Alaska. Located on the mainland about 50 miles southeast of Valdez and about 150 miles from Anchorage, it can only be reached by air or by boat.
With only 2,400 full-time residents, it generates a small-town atmosphere, where locals know each other by first name, and every restaurant and quirky downtown shop lays only a few minute’s walk from just about everywhere else. And yet, the town’s population more than doubles every summer when the world-famous Copper River red and king salmon fishery ramps up in mid-May.
With thousands of seasonal workers and visitors, the salmon catch powers the economy, dominating life and conversation. As a result, any trip to Cordova opens a vivid window on life in an authentic Alaskan port, with rich seafood for dining and marine charters for adventure. The community’s Alaska Native heritage and pioneer roots complete the experience.
It’s also a great base to explore the vast Copper River Delta and the eastern reach of the Chugach National Forest. With 700,000 acres, the delta is the largest contiguous wetland on the Pacific Coast of North America, drawing more than 5 million migratory birds each spring. The 56-mile Copper River Highway runs east over the abandoned right-of-way for the historic Copper River & Northwestern Railway, offering vehicle access to world-class birding, sports fishing, wildlife viewing, hiking, camping, kayaking and rafting.
- The annual Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival celebrates the arrival of more than 5 million migratory birds in the wetlands and vast flats of the Copper River Delta. During the second week of May. Considered one Alaska’s top birding events.
- If you like salmon—and enjoy a community abuzz with venders, shops, games, running races, live music and good food—you will love the Copper River Salmon Jam held each July. It’s all about Cordova’s indelible (if not spiritual) connection to these extraordinary fish.
- Did we mention fishing? Cordova is the homeport for the legendary Copper River reds (sockeye salmon) and the rich-as-fudge Copper River Kings (Chinook salmon.) Many streams along the Copper River Highway offer decent bank-side fishing, and the harbor hosts a charter fleet targeting halibut, lingcod, rockfish and salmon out in Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska.
- Explore Eastern Prince William Sound. With huge islands and sweeping inlets, the eastern Sound offers a different experience than the western Sound, with more exposure to bigger water, tougher currents and probably fewer individual campers and kayakers. Still, there are protected inlets and pristine beaches, trails and water passages, with marine wildlife, bald eagles and brown bears in abundance. Charter a boat, rent kayaks, take a water taxi or join a guided trip.
- Drive the Copper River Highway east from Cordova for access to hiking trails, campgrounds, kayaking, rafting, sports fishing and birding. The road ultimately crosses the roiling Copper River itself, and ends at the Million Dollar Bridge landmark and the Child’s Glacier recreation site. Note: A bridge at Mile 36 is currently impassable (2020.)
- Explore Alaska Native heritage. For thousands of years, the Eyak Native people lived on Orca Inlet, relying on the rich natural resources of the ocean and forest. Visit the lIanka Cultural Center, dedicated to the revival and preservation of the crafts, skills and wisdom of the region’s Eyak, Alutiiq, Ahtna, and Tlingit peoples. (“Ilanka” is the Alutiiq word for “family.”)
- · Learn about Cordova’s tumultuous history at the Cordova Historical Museum. Founded as a fishing outpost and trading center where cultures collided, early Cordova soon found itself at ground zero of a race to build a railroad to the Kennecott Copper Mine—the most expensive privately funded industrial project of its time. Later, Cordova helped stage Alaska’s first oil boom in Katalla. The 1989 oil spill by the Exxon Valdez tanker devastated the local economy, but the community became a nexus for scientific study and public awareness of the impact.
- Pursue the wild fungi. Lurking on the floor of the pristine Chugach rain forest are myriad mushrooms and edible fungi, nurtured by the wet climate and the nutrients delivered by returning salmon. The annual Cordova Fungus Festival held in September explores these connections and celebrates the gathering of other wild food. With field trips, art classes, lectures and feasts.
Cordova is on Orca Inlet on in the southeastern corner of Prince William Sound, about 150 miles from Anchorage and 50 miles from Valdez (about 85 miles by water.) Currently most people book an airline flight from Anchorage. The Alaska Marine Highway System sometimes offers limited ferry service to Cordova from Whittier, Valdez and other ports. In 2020, sailings are scheduled several times a week between July and September.