Portage Glacier is a fun tourist spot in the summer with a boat tour, but even more fun if you traverse the frozen lake in the winter. We explored the glacier on February 3rd, 2017.
- Difficulty: easy
- Location: Portage Valley (an hour from Anchorage), Alaska
- Kid Friendly: yes (not near the glacier though)
- Dog Friendly: yes
- Distance: roughly 6 miles round-trip
- Elevation: none
- Season: winter (or summer if you take the boat tour)
- Lat/Long: 60.7531° N, 148.7856° W
- Directions: If you have GPS look up “Begich Boggs Visitor Center.” From Anchorage, drive south on Seward Highway towards Girdwood (which is the last place to fill up on gas and snacks). Continue on the freeway until you see the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and take a left onto Portage Glacier Rd. You’ll follow this road for roughly 5 miles and then keep on the right side to continue on Portage Lake Loop. Follow the signs toward Portage Glacier/Begich and park near the visitor center. The walk from the parking area to the glacier is under two hours one-way.
The drive from Anchorage is beautiful along the Turnagain Arm and offers views of the ocean, faraway mountains, moose, eagles, and sometimes dall sheep on the cliffs. Kevin’s backpack had all his heavy camera and GoPro gear while my backpack was stuffed with the Kachula Adventure Blanket, rope for emergencies, snacks, water, spare clothes, a towel, and extra layers. Zuko wore his red Ruffwear Barkn Boots Summit Trex to protect his feet from ice shards in the lake, though they made him slip around slightly.
Since the Begich Boggs Visitor Center is closed in the winter, we called the US Glacier Ranger District to make sure the ice was frozen enough to cross and to figure out how long it would take to reach the glacier. This was our first time crossing such a massive frozen lake so we didn’t know what to expect. We highly suggest wearing ice skates (bring a change of shoes), crampons, or something with grip like Yaktrax so you aren’t slipping around unnecessarily.
The US Glacier Ranger District very politely (without giving us permission to cross) informed us that it's about 4 miles each direction from the parking area to the glacier itself. After walking across the frozen lake and making it to Portage Glacier within an hour, we figured it might be closer to 3 miles each direction instead of 4.
This trip started out kind of strange… first we left later than we had hoped thanks to late shifts the night before, and next when we pulled into the parking lot our van started steaming from under the hood. We gave it a quick inspection, but we figured that we were already at the glacier so we should just enjoy the hike regardless and figure it out later.
Once we stepped on the ice, Zuko immediately froze in fear and wanted to turn back. He wasn’t a fan of slipping around without traction so far away from shore, so we had to leash him to keep him calm. The walk was extremely easy and flat (especially with our Yaktrax). We passed a few hikers, ice skaters, and a fat bike. There were times when the ice cracked and the sound reverberated across the lake to the mountains, but luckily Zuko didn’t seem to notice.
We made it to the blue glacier in no time and explored the structure up close. We hung out for a while to take some pictures and enjoy the views. If you bring children, make sure to keep them close. There were unfrozen areas and loose chunks of ice scattered near the glacier, plus it’s never a safe idea to stand too close to the walls. When glaciers calve, they can drop chunks of ice weighing hundreds or even thousands of pounds to the ground below (and whatever or whoever happens to be underneath).
On the way back home we stopped at a gas station in Girdwood and filled up the van’s coolant. Thankfully our van made it back home in one piece before we took it to the mechanics the next day. While we ate a delicious dinner to a day well spent, Zuko happily took a nap.
All in all, this was a mellow hike with a pretty view at the end. Just make sure to bring sunglasses (preferably polarized) if you decide to visit this glacier.