This popular glacier draws summer tourists from around the world
Located in the Chugach National Forest, Portage Glacier is a designated U.S. Forest recreation area, and is one of Alaska’s most visited attractions, primarily due to its accessibility on the main tourist route. Visitors enter the area from the Seward Highway along the 5-mile Portage Glacier Access Road, which winds past a series of campgrounds and arrives at the impressive Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, built in the 1990s to showcase the popular natural attraction.
Portage may be a ghost town in the winter as a result of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, but during the summer it is a bustling destination for travelers coming to witness Portage Glacier calving into blue waters full of floating ice and resident sea mammals.
In 1893, the glacier’s terminal moraine was reached, and is marked by rocks left the foot of Portage Lake. The glacier ice has since receded 3 miles up and around a bend in Portage Valley.
Portage Valley is a 14-mile long isthmus that conjoins mainland Alaska to the Kenai Peninsula. Portage Glacier once extended the entire length of the valley and was visible from the road. Today, the glacial remnants still visible today are the Explorer, Middle, Byron, Burns, and Shakespeare glaciers. While still massive in size, these glaciers are all that remain from enormous ice sheets that once covered the area. Visitors flock to the area in the summer to see the glacier calve into the blue iceberg waters of Portage Lake and hike the area’s trails for excellent vantage points.
A snowfield at the end of the Byron Glacier Trail offers the easiest place to view ice worms in the region. The tiny creatures surface en masse in the evening after the sun retreats and dusk deepens. Related to earthworms, the miniscule ice worms have evolved to live only at temperatures near 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Bigger creatures like moose, brown and black bear and mountain goats thrive in the valley around the glacier.
During spring and fall bird migrations, great flocks of geese, ducks, swans and cranes wing through Portage Pass, taking the short cut between Turnagain Arm and Prince William Sound. Summer fills the forest with songbirds, and harlequin ducks return to nest on fast-moving streams.
Tourists have a few options for glacier viewing. For those who want to get up close to the vertical face of the glacier by water, a 1-hour boat tour is available, and tickets can be purchased at Portage Glacier Day Lodge, located 6 miles along Portage Glacier Road. For those in Anchorage, the tour company offers a round-trip package that includes the 1-hour glacier cruise and transportation to and from Anchorage.
For hikers, there are easy nature trails that reveal stunning views of the glacier, the iceberg-dotted lake and surrounding valley. Ranger-guided hiking tours are also available, leaving from the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center. The Visitor Center, built on the glacier’s terminus moraine, features exhibits, educational presentations and a bookstore to serve the public in the summer months. The valley also has campsites for those who wish to camp overnight.
Portage Glacier recreation area features two U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, both along Portage Glacier Access Road. Black Bear Campground is nestled in a beautiful forest and is popular among tent campers. Williwaw Campground is located beneath Explorer Glacier and more suited for recreational vehicles. Both campgrounds are extremely popular in the summer.
Even though Portage Glacier has since retreated out of view of its observation decks and telescopes, Begich-Boggs Visitor Center is still an interesting stop with an exhibit that walks visitors through a simulated ice cave and others featuring live ice worms or actual icebergs for people to touch. For a closer look at Portage Glacier, there are hour-long sightseeing boat cruises on Portage Lake.
Visitors can hike a number of foot trails that wind near the frozen monument. Portage Pass Trail, a mile-long trek to the pass, provides a good view of Portage Glacier. The trail begins near the tunnel leading to the city of Whittier, on the city’s side. The new Trail of Blue Ice parallels Portage Glacier Access Road and meanders through forest on a wide gravel route with boardwalks across wet areas. Another enjoyable hike is Byron Glacier View Trail, an easy mile-long hike to an ice worm-infested snowfield and grand glacier views.
There is a per-person entrance fee for visiting Begich-Boggs Visitor Center and a nightly camping fee. Sites at Williwaw Campground can be reserved in advance (877-444-6777, 518-885-3639).
Portage Glacier lies 50 miles south of Anchorage and 10 miles south of the Alyeska Highway/Girdwood junction and is accessible by road via the Seward Highway and Portage Glacier Access Road. For more information from late May through September contact the Begich-Boggs Visitors Center (907-783-2326).