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Portage Pass: Quite Possibly My Favorite Trail

Portage Glacier stream and beach

  • Distance: 5 miles RT
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Trailhead: Whittier, Alaska; first right across the railroad tracks after you exit the tunnel. If you make it into town, you missed the turn.
  • Notes: Always check the weather forecast and the FAA webcam in Whittier. Even though the pass is only 800′, it can produce dangerously brutal and fast-changing weather. On a beautiful day, though, there’s no place I’d rather be.

Once upon a time you could see hulking Portage Glacier from the Portage Glacier Visitor Center, now known as the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center. Nowadays, however, taking the tunnel to Whittier and then hiking Portage Pass is your only option for getting a glimpse of the glacier from land. Long-time locals sometimes find it sad to see just how much the glacier has receded, but that doesn’t take away from the area’s stunning beauty.

The Hike

Climb the 800′ to the pass in about .8 mile on an old Jeep trail; the climb is sustained but short, and footing is great. Make sure to turn around for great views of Whittier and Passage Canal. From the pass, it’s about 1.5 miles of easy, sometimes winding trail down to the rocky beach at the lake’s edge. Large, well-made cairns guide you back to the trail on your way back from the beach. The tundra slopes to either side of the valley are dotted with waterfalls and potentially great campsites.

If you see a boxy ship on the water, that’s the M/V Ptarmigan, operated by Portage Glacier Cruises. The Ptarmigan is the only motorized craft allowed on the lake, making five trips between Portage and the glacier every day. A park ranger rides aboard to narrate the sights for visitors.

You may occasionally see kayaks or canoes on the lake too. They’re supposed to follow a non-motorized corridor that hugs the near shore of the mountains; this makes it easy for the pilot of the Ptarmigan to spot them and stay well away.

I’ve been to Portage Pass a number of times over the years; here’s a newspaper article I wrote about how the valley has changed.

Pictured: The creek and trail wind down to Portage Lake’s rocky shores, with Portage Glacier in the near distance.