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A little over an hour from Anchorage is a large block of ice that’s slowly disappearing, and you’re highly encouraged to watch.
Portage Glacier is a short way’s inland off the Gulf of Alaska, sitting atop a lake that exists, in great part, because of the glacier itself. Portage Glacier is melting, and in turn feeding Portage Lake, the central hub from which tourists visit and watch the glacier slowly recede. On most days, you’ll see and hear the crash of broken ice falling into the water below, as the ice slowly retreats at roughly a foot a day.
It might sound like the depressing harbinger of warmer temperatures. Surprisingly, though, it’s not just that. In fact, if previous visitors are any indication, it’s a fantastic day trip, and absolutely worth your time.
There is, to be sure, plenty of other things to do at Portage Glacier than sit around and watching ice melt. But that’s not what keeps visitors happy and coming back. So what, you ask, might induce visitors to spend a day watching melting ice?
The simple truth? It’s fascinating. There are plenty of reasons to visit, and we’ve highlighted a few.
1. Portage Glacier is Both Fun and Quick…and Cheap
This isn’t a joke – one of the consistent highlights that visitors give the Portage Glacier tours is that it’s not excruciatingly long. You’re pretty much done in an hour and a half, and you have time afterwards to explore the area’s many trails.
Alaska is a huge land with huge mountain ranges, numerous national parks, and plenty of sights to see. It’s easy to get burnout. If it’s your first time visiting the state, then taking a multiple-hour day tour of a fraction of the coast, or one of Alaska’s thousand-plus rivers, isn’t going to leave you with anything but fatigue.
Long tours also hit another hurdle and complaint of visitors – they’re too expensive. Portage Glacier tours tend to stick to Portage Lake and the surrounding hiking trails. If you’re traveling on a budget, and most of us are, then Portage is right up your alley.
‘Cheap,’ mind you, doesn’t mean ‘terrible amenities.’ For less than $60, all in, you can take a literal cruise through Portage Lake, and enjoy guided lectures from a representative from the U.S. Forest Service from the luxurious comfort of a liner. Portage Lake cruises are among the most popular daytime activities for new visitors to Anchorage, and they’ll even pick you up in the city and drive you down to the glacier if you don’t want to do the work yourself.
Cheap and fun is all well and good, of course, but don’t forget you’re at the cusp of a deep connection to the past. Portage Glacier, like most of its neighbors, has a history that extends well back into the Ice Age. Staring into the glacier is staring into the past.
Floating the lake, listening to lectures, and watching the glacier aren’t all to do, however. There’s plenty of exploring to be had, and in keeping with the ‘affordable and simple’ theme attached to Portage Glacier, we can’t recommend the hiking enough.
2. The Hikes Are Pleasant, And Not Exhausting
Alaska suffers from a unique problem – most of its tourist attractions are also treacherous and exhausting. Most of its national parks can’t even be reached by car, but require a small airplane. It’s hard to find leisurely daytime activities that don’t also require lots of preparation, good physical stamina, and specialized equipment.
Portage Glacier, thankfully, is an exception. It’s a part of the Chugach National Forest, and thanks to that, there’s more than enough trails available to fill several days of exploring. While many of Alaska’s trails wind through steep glaciers, high mountain passes, or abandoned copper mines, the Portage Glacier and Chugach National Forest trails don’t pose a threat to life and limb. If you’re not a quasi-professional hiker, this is the area to start exploring.
For views of Portage Glacier itself, nothing beats the Portage Pass trail (seriously, nothing beats it – it’s the only trail that gives a view of the glacier). If you’re up for more than the four-mile round trip through Portage Pass, Chugach National Forest has plenty more trails available, all of which will leave you tired, but not exhausted, cold, and depleted.
You’ll probably be hungry, but Chugach National Forest has more than a few options for wining and dining in the evening hours.
3. The History Is Both Ancient, And Immediate
We mentioned earlier that staring into Portage Glacier is staring into the Ice Age. The ancient connection, though, doesn’t overshadow the more immediate and prescient one – Portage is shrinking in our own time, and it’s healthy and necessary to see it with your own eyes.
The glacier is shrinking at the rate of roughly one foot a day, its melting waters providing the bulk of the material for Portage Lake itself. The lake is just over 100 feet deep, which is a lot of glacial water over the years. But if you’re still doubting the intensity of the glacial retreat, look no further than the Begich/Boggs Visitor Center, one of the nearby attractions, and also one of the silent testaments to warmer temperatures. Center, built in 1986, used to be right by the glacier. Now, you can’t even see Portage Glacier from the center itself.
Retreating glaciers are slowly overtaken by vegetation, wildlife, and eventually a new ecosystem, and traveling from the Visitor Center to the edge of the ice gives a unique look into the transition from wilderness to ice.
There’s more than just ancient history here, however. Many of the sights nearby have an historical component. If you want to enjoy them, though, know in advance what to look for.
10 Things to Do and See Near Portage Glacier, Alaska
1. Go Kayaking
If you want a little more exercise than the day-cruises, outfitters also offer kayak tours of Portage Lake. You probably won’t get another chance to paddle the remains of a dying glacier. The nearby towns of Whittier and Girdwood provide several more places to explore, and more than enough trips to occupy several days of paddling.
It might go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway – this activity is better done in the summer. The lake is frozen over in wintertime, which leaves you the option of…
2. Go Skiing Or Snowshoeing
The glacier and lake are excellent spots for cross-country skiing and winter hikes. For beginners, the lake’s flat surface provides a safe area for as long a hike as you wish.
3. Visit Injured Wildlife
Really – the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is nearby, and its staff specializes in nursing wounded and abandoned Alaskan creatures back to health. Animals large and small are healed here. At any one time, you’ll have a chance to see, bears, deer, marmots, and musk ox, as well as witness the methods used to keep them – and their caretakers – safe.
4. Stop By The Begich/Boggs Visitor Center
While at the visitor center you can listen to a tour from a forest expert or explore the glacier’s speedy retreat. You can also just learn more about this amazing area.
5. Visit The Nearby Town Of Whittier
Nowadays it’s a popular cruise ship stop, but it was originally founded as a World War II U.S military base. There’s plenty of eating and shopping to be done here, so take your time.
6. Visit Portage Town, Or What’s Left Of It
There’s not much here at present, and you might miss it if you don’t know what to look for. Considering what happened, however, this stop is worth your while.
Portage Town is technically in Anchorage, but most of it is simply buried underground. One of Alaska’s most famous natural disasters occurred on March 27th, 1964. It was Good Friday. The earthquake started just after 5:30 in the afternoon, and brought down homes, businesses, and nearly all of Portage Town. The tsunami that came soon after was nearly 30 feet and took with it an entire village.
The earthquake measured a 9.2 on the Richter Scale, making it the largest in North American history, and the second largest in world history.
Portage Town sunk six feet as the fault lines adjusted. It was enough to allow high tide to take over, and the town and nearby trees were buried in salt water. The remains of some of these buildings are still jutting out of the ground, and the old trees are still standing in a ghost forest outside of town.
7. Go Hiking
Portage Glacier is part of the Chugach National Forest, and there’s more than enough exploration here to satisfy any hiker. Bring boots, water, and a windbreaker, and you’ll be more than prepared.
8. Drive With A Train
The nearby Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is one of the few, perhaps the only, place in the U.S. where cars and trains share the same space. It’s a one-way tunnel, which means that driving through it is rigorously scheduled and coordinated, so you’ll want to book your slot well in advance.
9. Go Fishing
Nearby Whittier and Girdwood have more than a few opportunities to charter fishing trips, and the saltwater deep-sea fishing here is sought out by anglers across the country.
10. Visit Girdwood
It’s a resort town, so there’s plenty to eat, buy, and see. If you need to escape the wilderness for a few hours, this is the place to do it.
Portage Glacier is still shrinking at roughly a foot a day during the summer. It’s big, and won’t disappear completely for a while, but the time to see it is slowly running out. A trip here has plenty to do for both children and adults and is absolutely worth your time.