Hiking to Ice, on Ice: Winter Hiking to Portage Glacier

I’m pretty obsessed with hikes that lead to glaciers.  Maybe it’s the fact that we don’t have any of those where I grew up, or the fact that they’re melting so fast in Alaska that I’m paranoid that I won’t get to see them all before they disappear.  Or maybe it’s simply the fact that they are the most gorgeous part of the Alaskan landscape.  Whatever it is, I tend to go out of my way to plan hikes that will take me to glaciers, even in the winter.

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Because of that, it’s probably no surprise to anyone that I’ve hiked to Portage Glacier twice in the past month.  I guess you could say I’m really in love with this trail – but it’s more like I have a really complicated relationship with it!  I had been hearing about this trail for years but finally had the chance to do it for the first time last year.  My first time doing this hike I was miserable due to intense winds and frigid conditions, and we left too late in the day and missed most of the sunlight which made us extra cold.  This year it was a totally different experience!  We hiked in sunshine with barely any wind and had the glacier all to ourselves for a while.

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If you’re thinking about doing this hike, it’s important to make sure that Portage lake is adequately frozen over.  I think the best time to do it is in February and March because the ice will be thick enough (but this varies year to year).  It’s also important to pick a day with as little wind as possible (which is hard to do because it’s in a very windy spot) and to bring the right tools for walking across the lake.  If there’s not a lot of snow you’ll need microspikes, and if there’s a ton of snow you’ll need snowshoes or skis.

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The hike starts at the Portage Visitors Center.  You’ll go south on the Seward Highway, take the turnoff for Portage and Whittier, and then follow the signs for the visitors center.  The parking lot fills up fast, especially since it might not be fully plowed when you go so there is less space for cars.  The visitors center won’t be open, so bring water and snacks.

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To get to the glacier, you’ll take the stairs down to the lake and then walk all the way to the end of the lake.  You can’t see the glacier from the start of the hike but just know that eventually the lake will turn to the right and you’ll see a giant glacier that was hiding from view!

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The hike is about 6 miles depending how much you walk around at the glacier, and it has taken us about 3 hours each time we’ve done it because we always spend about an hour at the glacier taking pictures and exploring.  It’s important not to get too close to the glacier for safety reasons – even though it’s cold out, the glacier can still calve in the winter and if you’re too close you’re going to get crushed.  I did not do a great job of following my own advice the last time I was there but at least I avoided getting near the face of the glacier.

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I’m hoping to hike out there one more time before the lake thaws out.  There’s something so alluring about doing a hike that is literally melted for most of the year, especially when it takes me somewhere this gorgeous!

Have you ever hiked to a glacier?  Have you ever done a hike across a frozen lake?


20 thoughts on “Hiking to Ice, on Ice: Winter Hiking to Portage Glacier

    1. Do it! It wasn’t even that cold when we did it this weekend. March is an awesome time to come up to Alaska – the sun is out for a long time and it’s warming up, but it’s still snowy and gorgeous!

  1. That is STUNNING. I’ve only ever been to Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, which was really neat – but seeing that last picture of you up against the glacier made me realize the majesty of glaciers! They’re just ice mountains, dude! And they’re INCREDIBLE! You make me want to come up to Alaska!

    1. Do it! I would love if you came up to visit! Glaciers really are like giant ice mountains. I hiked to the top of an ice field once and it was the toughest and steepest hike I’ve ever done.

  2. Utterly incredible! I’m blown away just by your photos- hard to imagine the magnitude up close and personal! I have hiked across a frozen lake and it tested all my nerves in good ways of course, haha.

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