HIking · Living in Alaska

Hiking Through Portage Pass

We’ve had such a cold, rainy summer and fall here in Anchorage so whenever the sun comes out it seems like everyone drops everything and goes outside!  I was definitely one of those people on Saturday.  It was sunny and warm, so we chose to drive down to the town of Whittier to hike the Portage Pass trail.

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The view from the Seward Highway

I’ve hiked to the top of Portage Pass before, but we were short on time and water and didn’t get the chance to make it down to the bottom of the trail.  That was 3 years ago and I haven’t been back to Whittier since!  Whittier has notoriously bad weather and is barely ever sunny, so you definitely have to be patient if you want to be there on a sunny day.  There’s also not much to do in Whittier, and the only way in or out of the town is through a long tunnel (that you have to pay $13 to drive through) that is only open in each direction for about 15 minutes per hour.  Another way to reach Portage Glacier is to wait until the lake freezes over in the winter and then hike 8 miles round trip across the lake to get to it.  We did that last winter and loved it, but we were looking forward to doing this trail in much warmer weather.

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The last time we saw Portage Glacier it was covered in snow – and we were standing in the middle of the lake!

To get to the trailhead, make the first right after you get through the tunnel and follow the signs.  There’s not a lot of parking so we parked along the side of the dirt road leading to the trailhead.  The trail starts off with a gradual uphill, and then starts to get steeper the close you get to the top.  It’s not too long or difficult to get to the top, although I did break a sweat.  Once I got up there I kept climbing up until I got a killer view of Portage Glacier and the lake.

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At the top of the pass there are a ton of little trails winding all over the place.  When I hiked up here a few years ago I spent a lot of time exploring each of these trails and checking out the views from each spot.  This time, however, we decided to head right down to Portage Lake to get a close up view of Portage Glacier.

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The trail to the lake rolled up and down with lots of flat and gentle sections in between.  The trail seemed to be an active creek about half the time, so you’ll definitely want to wear waterproof shoes.  I felt like I was hiking in the backcountry even though I was only a few miles from Whittier.  The area was covered in mountains, hidden lakes, wildflowers, and views of hanging glaciers.  Every few minutes we saw more and more gorgeous views.  I fell in love with the trail before I even made it to the glacier!

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When we made it to Portage Lake we spent some time exploring the area and taking in the incredible views.  I saw a few people heading down there with backpacking gear and instantly got jealous.  This is for sure on my backpacking bucket list for next summer/fall!

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Portage Lake with a bergy bit floating around

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Once the sun began to dip below the tall mountains we decided it was time to head back.  Unlike most trails where the midpoint is at the top and I have to climb down to get back to my car, this hike made me climb back up to the top of Portage Pass before hiking back down to the trailhead!  It was pretty gradual on the way back up, and before we knew it we were back at the top again.  We let Ridley play with another puppy while we took in the final views before sunset.  We had to time our return to the car perfectly because we only had a 15 minute window to get back through the tunnel, and we ended up making it back there right on time.

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I decided about 1/4 of the way through this hike that this is one of my favorite hikes ever.  It wasn’t too difficult and the views were amazing.  I have a soft spot for glacier hikes for sure.  I also realized that my memory of this hike was that it was a lot more difficult than it actually was.  Either my memories aren’t accurate, or I’m a stronger hiker now than I was 3 years ago.  I’m definitely going to go with the latter!  It was great being able to power up and down Portage Pass with minimal stops to catch my breath (and I was waiting to stop to catch my breath only when I got to a place where I could take good pictures!).  I’m glad I finally got to do the entire trail this year and I’m hoping I can make it back there again every summer!

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Have you ever re-visited a hike/trail/activity years later and noticed that you were way better at doing it the second time?  Would you rather hike over a mountain pass or across a flat frozen lake?

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