Although the former village of Portage is basically a ghost town, it’s still one of Southcentral Alaska’s most popular roadside destinations for one big reason: Portage Glacier.
Between Girdwood and the road to Whittier, just off the scenic Seward Highway about 50 miles south of Anchorage, is the stunning Portage Valley. The area provides access to fantastic hiking and biking trails, camping, wildlife viewing, an informative visitor center, and views of one of the most easily-accessible glaciers in Southcentral Alaska.
Things to do
Portage Glacier is located in the Chugach National Forest and is one of Alaska’s most visited attractions. The Portage Glacier Road winds about five miles from the Seward Highway, past a series of campgrounds to the impressive Begich Boggs Visitor Center. Portage Glacier is retreating and is no longer visible from the center’s observation decks, but the center is an interesting stop thanks to interactive exhibits that let visitors walk through a simulated ice cave, view live ice worms, and touch an iceberg. The visitor center also tells the story of the former village of Portage that was destroyed during the Good Friday Earthquake and has a large theater that shows an informative video on the area’s wildlife and geography.
To get up close to the glacier, take an hour-long narrated sightseeing boat tour on Portage Lake that cruises out to the face of the glacier. Five departure times are available every day from late-May through early September.
Hiking trails in the area showcase Portage Valley’s glaciers, steep-sided mountains, and lush forests. The Byron Glacier Trail is located just past the Visitor Center on Byron Glacier Road. The 1.4 mile-long trail is flat and family-friendly, leading hikers through a stunning river valley and culminating with views of Byron Glacier perched in the mountains at the end of the valley. The popular Trail of Blue Ice departs from the Visitor Center and parallels Portage Glacier Road along the valley floor. This 5-mile paved trail is fully accessible and popular with bikers and hikers. The trail leads through the lush forest with several sections of raised boardwalks and bridges, featuring views of the surrounding mountains and opportunities for wildlife and fish viewing.
Just past the Visitor Center on Portage Glacier Road is the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, leading through a mountain to the small town of Whittier. The 2.5 mile-long one lane tunnel is a marvel of engineering and is shared by both cars and the Alaska Railroad on a staggered schedule. It is the longest highway tunnel in North America. Once in Whittier, visitors can take glacier and wildlife cruises, kayak, and go fishing in the calm, protected waters of Prince William Sound. Whittier also is the starting point for hiking access to Portage Glacier on the Portage Pass Trail, a two mile hike that leads over a low pass to up-close views of Portage Glacier from the shores of Portage Lake.
Just before the turn-off to Portage Valley from the Seward Highway is the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a non-profit organization that provides refuge for orphaned and injured Alaskan animals. It’s a great place to learn about Alaska’s wildlife and get up-close views of grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, musk ox, moose, and many other species.
One of the most unique railroad trips in Alaska is the Alaska Railroad's Spencer Whistle Stop Train. The trip starts from the Railroad Depot in Anchorage, or for a shorter train ride you can hop on the train at the Portage Station along the Seward Highway. The train takes passengers to the Spencer Whistle Stop, a remote wilderness area offering access to a short hiking trail with stunning views of Spencer Glacier on Spencer Lake. From the whistle stop, visitors can join a guided nature walk, paddle among icebergs in Spencer Lake, raft down the Placer River, or stay overnight at the campground or public use cabin.
The former community of Portage was located at the end of Turnagain Arm and was home to almost 100 residents until the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. The massive earthquake caused the shoreline to drop between six and twelve feet, allowing high tides to flood the town and surrounding area with saltwater. All that remains of the original village are a few structures sinking into the nearby mud flats and scattered stands of dead trees, all of which can be easily seen from Seward Highway.