Hiking, paddling, sightseeing, you could probably plan an entire week in Alaska around adventures in Portage Valley, located at the head of the Turnagain Arm, just to the Southeast of Anchorage.
The same day we decided to pack our bags and head to Alaska, we decided that one of our absolute must-do adventures was to go paddling among icebergs under the shadow of a massive glacier. So, like any good travelers, we did our research, and out of all the hundreds of glaciers and lakes in Alaska, the best fit for this adventure was without a doubt Portage Lake at the base of the massively impressive Portage Glacier.
We had a plan. We had a pair of awesome Bote Paddleboards. We were ready to go. But you know what they say about plans…
Two things happened, that, unfortunately, kept this adventure from happening.
First, there were the fires. Every summer Alaska suffers from some pretty serious wildfires, and 2019 was one of the worst years in recent history. The day of our first attempt to paddle to the glacier we woke up to smoke so thick, that it seeped in through the slides of the RV, it stung our eyes, our throats were sore, and well you get the picture it wasn’t exactly ideal conditions for a safe or pleasant paddle. So we waited a few days and tried again.
Failure number 2 came in the form of wind. High winds are not an unusual event in this area, but we had hoped to find a sweet spot between smoke from the fires and the strong and constant winds, and that just didn’t happen. We did actually get as far as launching the boards one day, and after 5 minutes of paddling into a steady wind with 3-foot waves on the lake, we decided enough was enough. In any adventure, we always err on the side of caution and the possibility of falling into 34-degree water and dying of hypothermia just didn’t seem like a smart choice.
This story does come with a happy ending though. It just so happens the Portage Valley area is littered with little lakes perfect for paddling, once the smoke cleared, we had several perfect nights for paddling under the midnight sun. These are moments we’ll never forget.
If you’re feeling the same deep desire to get on the water at Portage Lake to get an up-close and personal look at the glacier, but don’t want to go through the trouble of trying to paddle there, the Forest Service does offer a cruise of the lake. You can find out more about departure times and fees here.
Begich Boggs Visitor’s Center
Located dead center in the heart of Portage Valley, the Begich Boggs Visitor’s Center is a fantastic jumping-off point to planning your adventures in Portage Valley not to mention a unique opportunity to learn about the Chugach National Forest. The center offers award-winning exhibits, interactive programs, and forest service staff is always on hand to answer any questions you can think up.
The Beigch Boggs Visitor’s Center is located at mile 5.5 of Portage Glacier Road.
Portage Valley is one of the most visited areas in Alaska. In fact, when we first pulled up to the parking lot at Begich Boggs Visitor’s Center, we were a little blown away by the number of people we saw there. There’s a good reason for the crowds, this area boasts some of the most accessible views of glaciers in all of Alaska. If you’re looking to get away from the crowds but still want to enjoy the relative ease of glacial access the area offers, then a short hike to Byron Glacier might be just what you’re looking for!
The trail to Byron Glacier, ticks all the boxes for an easy hike through the woods, ending with some seriously beautiful scenery. The trailhead is located at a clearly marked pull-out about a half-mile from the end of the road, just past the Visitor’s Center. The trail is mostly windy and flat bordered by heavy thickets-in the late summer this is a popular spot for bears, so make sure you talk loudly or sing a song as you make your way. After a short stroll you’ll arrive to open views of the glacier, and snowfields leftover from last season’s avalanches- if you ever dreamed of a mid-summer snowball fight this is the spot!
Distance: 3.2 Miles Out and Back
Total Elevation Gain: 777 Feet
Length Of Time Needed: 1-2 Hours
Trailhead: Pull-Out With Trail Marker, Located On The Right Hand Side Of The Road Just Past The Visitor’s Center
This small Forest Service-managed Campground is a perfect spot to base camp out of when exploring the Portage Valley region. This was one of the few public land campgrounds we came across in Alaska that takes reservations, and if you want to snag one of the 60 open sites here you need to act fast. All sites are dry and are tucked comfortably into the trees, with ample space between sites. It was one of our favorite campsites in Alaska, and at $18 a night, it’s a price that’s hard to beat!
Reservations Can Be Made At: www.recreation.gov
Williwaw Campground Is Located At: Mile Marker 4 On The Portage Highway, 50 Miles South Of Anchorage.
There’s a phrase around some parts of Alaska, “Everything is $hittier in Whittier”, sub that dollar sign for an S and well you get the idea. With heavy smoke ruining 90% of our plans for exploring Portage Valley, we had to test this idea out for ourselves. We certainly didn’t find ourselves head over heels with this tiny town, but it did feel like a place loaded with untapped potential awesomeness, that maybe if we had, had a few extra days we could have discovered.
What we did find though, was pretty interesting.
The Longest Highway Mountain Tunnel In The World- The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel was our absolute favorite thing about our day trip into Whittier, in fact, it’s the only way into Whitter by car. Over 2.5 miles long, this one-lane tunnel is used by both cars and trains- meaning if you’re in a car, you’re quite literally driving the whole distance on top of train tracks. There are set travel times for the tunnel, and fees associated with traveling it. You can find all the details here.
Whittier Harbor- Whitter Harbor, is a bustling hub of activity from recreational boaters, to charter fishing trips and sight-seeing cruises there’s always someone coming and going here with an interesting story to tell. You never what you’ll see or who you’ll run into walking the docks in Alaska.
For a small town, Whittier seems to have a lot to offer- we didn’t explore much with only a day to wander we kept it simple and stuck to free, on foot activities, but if you’re looking for more to do here’s a full list activities, we heard good things about from other travelers who had the chance to experience them.
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