This hike was rated 5 stars.
Submitted By
Parke Cannon
Difficulty
Somewhat Easy
Miles One Way
1.5
Miles from Anchorage
60; in the town of Whittier
Season
May to September

Description

It’s June 26th, the day after my trip to Whittier and the Portage passage. It took this long to have the weather, my work, and financial situation, the alignment of the planets, and the appeasement of the gods to finally be able to take this hike. It all worked out perfectly and that is somewhat of an accomplishment, seeing as Whittier is one of the rainiest places on Earth. It was a beautiful day and I did not have to work, so I packed up my 20lbs of camera equipment and made my way to the train station in downtown Anchorage.
Pulling into Whittier I looked out the window at the trail wandering up Portage Pass and slowly watched it recede. The train stops at least a mile and a half from the trailhead.

The first part of the trail is mostly nondescript and steep. The trail is wide but lined by alder and some pine making the scenery not much to look at. I really did not like this part of the trail and wondered if what I heard was true. This goes on for about a mile and a half, I believe. If you were to look back you could see the Princess Cruise Line docked at the Whittier port and loading passengers arriving from destinations all over Alaska. It was beautiful but not what I came here for.

My first route took me to the top of the obvious lookout where Portage Glacier and Portage Lake came into view. Of course, it really was an awe inspiring sight. Just this one view was well worth the effort of climbing the mile and a half. I experimented with many different camera settings and got satisfactory results. Nothing spectacular loaded my camera though.

On the East side of the main trail I saw heads bobbing from time to time and could make out many trails, some distinct, some faint. I could also see a massive display of waterfalls coming off the valley walls and the smaller glacier off from the Portage Glacier. Out of water and not wanting to drink from the small lakes, finished with the main view, and wanting to explore the many minute glacial valleys running perpendicular to each other I went in that direction.

This was very cool and gives one a real sense of exploration. There are a million different directions to make your way and walking off the trail is just as easy as walking the trail. Two main waterfalls came off the mountain. One was glacial and the other was entirely snow melt. I went toward the snowmelt From my vantage point approaching the two waterfalls I was only looking at a very small part of it. Most of the rest of it was cascading down the mountain on a very steep incline. My side dropped straight down maybe 900 feet or so. As far as I could tell there was absolutely no way down for a Mountain Goat so it was out of the question for me. I looked off to the south in the direction of Portage Glacier. A small lake lay in the middle of a flat bluff that hung over the Portage Lake. It was fed by a snowmelt waterfall and was about a half mile away.

I started to take the trail down to the beach. At one point it split off. One fork led to the lake’s drain and cascaded down a rocky but passable valley to Portage lake and the beach. It looked farther than I anticipated so I went back up to the split in the trail. Someone had laid out rock markers, obviously trying to tell people this was the easiest way to go. I went in and quickly turned back. The brush was so thick on the trail I may as well have been bushwhacking a new trail. Forget that. I made my way halfway down the lake drain to the beach and decided to turn back. It was a long way down and I only had 45 minutes to be back at the top of the pass for my descent back to Whittier to catch the train.

My judgment of trails being twofold, the trail itself, and the destination, this one was difficult to easily judge it that way. The first part of the trail was not enjoyable at all but the final destination at the top of the pass was outstanding. The problem was that the trails at the top wandering around the glacial rifts were very, very fun. So… I have to give credit to those fun trails and give that part a 4. If I were to judge just the first part of the trail it would be a 1. I give the destination a solid 5 out of five with no hesitation at all.

I am not sure why but there is very little information online about this hike which is strange since it is obviously well traveled. I saw at least 30 people on the trail. I even saw a seventy five year old woman three quarters of the way up as I went back down. If she can do it so can you.

Important Information

Kids on this hike are no problem as long as you don’t wander too far east on the glacial rifts. It becomes too technical and there is a sudden and unexpected drop off into a river valley.
If you take the train be prepared to add 3 miles total on the hike to and from Whittier. Spend the night if you can and leave for the trail later in the day to get the best photographic material.

Take water with you if you do not know how to find safe water. There is not water available near the main viewing area. You will have to hike down into bear country to get to some or go back to Whittier.

Bug dope is not necessary if you do not go farther down into the valley. If you do you will be sorry if you left it at home.

Watch the well hidden potholes on top of the pass off the beaten path. They will swallow your foot whole and mess you up bad.

Etc.

You can continue on through the tunnel to Whittier, “The Strangest Town in Alaska”. The toll is $15 and traffic alternates, I believe, every 45 minutes.

If you’d like to educate yourself about glaciers and their awesome power, please visit All About Glaciers, a great introductory website.

Topo Map

Portage Pass topo map

Comments on hiking Portage Pass

  1. Dan — January 19, 2018

    My family did this hike a few years ago while visiting at the end of July. The initial incline is steady and moderately challenging if you are in “average” shape (regular hikers will have little issue). The view from the trailhead is already amazing, so this trail has something to see the entire hike. The top of the “saddle” provides incredible 360 degree vistas that include a full compliment of what Alaska offers – mountains, snow fields, sub-alpine tundra, kettles, and of course, WATER. Looking from where you came is a stunning view of Whittier, the harbor, and PWS. Looking forward, you get a full-on view of Portage Glacier and Portage Lake. You can’t see this glacier from the visitor center, so your choices are this hike or a crowded tour on a boat. If rushed for time, you can turn around here, but better to continue down to the gravel beach of Portage Lake for a closer view of the glacier.

  2. Shadara Wood — May 18, 2017

    My husband and I did this hike last summer and loved it. The first part is steep and all uphill, but once you are up you plateau for a bit before coming down much more gradually on the other side. So worth the incline! Make sure to turn around and look back at Whittier once in awhile or you will miss the outstanding view until you come back over. The parking is somewhat limited so the earlier you get there the better. We started off around 8 in the morning, living in Anchorage it was just an hour and a half drive to get to the tunnel to Whittier. We packed in our lunch so we would have plenty of time to explore around the lake to the flats. Unfortunately the only way to get to the waterfall off on the left is by kayak as the tidal washouts are too deep and wide to cross on foot. Some of the trail around the lake can be a bit wet and rock hopping but still fun to explore. I rolled my ankle on the descent coming back so that wasn’t fun but had my trekking poles to assist with my bum knee. We would do it again in a heartbeat. The views and pictures are breathtaking!!!!

  3. Eagle Scout — June 26, 2015

    This is a great hike! I did it on a sunny day and the views were amazing. At the top of the pass there are a bunch of little tarns that would make a great swim 🙂 I also did this in January and the top was just a wind tunnel! So if you are planning to go in winter, be sure to come prepared. Overall, this is a fun place to go.

  4. Kory Hearn — April 5, 2015

    Fun hike! Great views. Just do it!

  5. Gibson — May 4, 2014

    Went on this hike yesterday around 2pm. The part that’s essentially right straight up hill had a little snow on the path. But when we got to the top it looked as if no one had yet to venture to the glacier.. So being the foolish college kids we were we decided to venture across the snow. It turned out that the snow was till anywhere from 3-6 feet deep. So about every ten steps you’d posthole pretty far down. But once we got to the glacier it was amazing. If you want to make this hike much easier and fun I highly suggest taking a sled and sledding all the way to the glacier to save time and energy. I have several pics as well.

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