Lewis and Clarking the Portage Pass Trail, Alaska

update: full set of photos from this trip on flickr (hike pictures towards the bottom)


this mileage run to Alaska turned out to be quite the eye-opener. i knew it was supposed to be quite scenic, but truth be told, my main association with the state is Ms. Palin. *shudder*

but the wilderness here is anything but lipstick on a pig — which was made clearly evident on my hike today on the Portage Pass Trail.

sidebar: getting there take Highway 1 (Seward Highway) south from Anchorage or north from Seward and take the turnoff for Whittier (also marked for Portage Glacier). follow the road past the parking lot where everyone is taking pictures (though it’s quite scenic there as well) and continue through the Whittier Tunnel (i like to pretend i’m driving a mine cart as i’m going through — you’ll see why). this is a single lane tunnel that also has railroad traffic going through it, and traffic releases occur hourly in each direction (schedule), so make sure you have a lot of buffer time. you will wait in an eight-lane holding pen (first in to the pen, first out, so just turn off your car and wait.) the toll is $12 for a car, round trip. note that there are cops just itching to give you tickets so mind the speed limit — it’s 25 mph on the way to, and through, the tunnel, as i unfortunately learned today. 🙁 (and the ticket is PRICEY).


Click to view interactive map

once you pass through the tunnel, continue for about a half a mile(?) until you cross the railroad tracks and immediately turn right onto a very pothole-y gravel road (blue marker on the right) and follow the signs for Forest Access. park at the trail head, the blue marker closer in. it’s too bad the satellite view is from wintertime making it hard for me to draw accurately, so the lines above (which will be explained below) are just for general idea only. do not use them as a guide.


the main trail (yellow line in the map above)

the trail is steep and made of loose rock. be sure to take water and sturdy shoes with you. i would not recommend sandals or sneakers; if you have something more suitable, your ankles will thank you. it’s also VERY steep. the joints in your lower extremities will be put to the test, especially on the way back (downhill). luckily you can take many rest stops and look back at the way you came for a great view of Prince William Sound. according to my very rough calculations, it’s an average 14% grade. it’s about a mile to the lookout point, with a 750 foot rise in elevation.


Almost to the end, there’s a little pond you pass right before the big overlook.

continue to the overlook and you get:


Portage Glacier is in the distance. Get here by keeping right after the little pond. Continue up and there’s a clearing with some big boulders to sit on.

it was here, at the overlook, that i ran into several people. one, a British guy on shore leave from the cruise ship he works on (docked in Whittier) and later, some people (two locals with their friend from NYC) who said you could hike all the way down to the lake that you see right in front of the glacier. (not the smaller one closer in, though you will pass by that on your way.)

  • i wasn’t going to do it because it looked far. (twas.)
  • the British guy didn’t want to do it because he was afraid of bears. (he came across one earlier in the week.)
  • the other people didn’t want to do it because the friend from NYC wasn’t umm, a happy camper after coming up the steep trail. (they left.)

in the end, the British guy (Ollie) and i decided we’d just go for it (since i’d have someone to push me and he’d have someone in case of a bear attack lol). and off we set.

to Portage Lake

long story short, we took the rough way in — which i’m calling ‘Lewis and Clarking’. instead of following the real trail (marked in black above), we somehow went through some forest and down a gully (red line), slipping into the water several times. on some level it was fun, but on another (the more salient one), slipping and sliding on the rocks with a rushing stream, a bit scary. but it was amazing! (in our defense, the trail is very poorly marked.)


And we’re off!

Yeah, this gully, while fun, was not the brightest of ideas. (This is already a flatter part.)

Yeah, this gully, while fun, was not the brightest of ideas. (This is already a flatter part.)

it seemed like more than a mile, and it took us maybe 45 minutes to an hour to get there from the overlook.

but it was worth it! most people won’t continue past the overlook so you may have the beach all to yourself. we did for most of the time.

And voilà. The shores of Portage Lake right across from Portage Glacier.

And voila. The shores of Portage Lake right across from Portage Glacier.

at the lake

with the lapping waves (seriously better than the app i have on my iphone that plays wave sounds!) and cool breeze, all you want to do is this: (while waiting for your socks and shoes to dry…)


i apologize for the lopsidedness in this video. i need to figure out how to do pans correctly!

you can continue walking clockwise to get closer to the glacier:




[edited to add this picture i forgot about]

I grabbed this chunk of glacier ice from the lake. Pretty cool (literally, HA). (I did toss it back in)

I grabbed this chunk of glacier ice from the lake. Pretty cool (literally, HA). (I did toss it back in)

however, we were only able to get this close due to a waterfall/river combo making passage impossible:


getting back up

we saw some people on the actual trail (marked in black on the map — stay right of the gully!), and yet somehow i still managed to get (both) my feet wet again on the parts where you have to cross large rivulets. the trail heading back up to the overlook is quite steep as well, probably as steep as the first part. i encourage you to bring a change of socks (and pants? and shoes?) — i was able to drive back to Anchorage in fresh socks, leaving the shoes to dry under the floor vent on the passenger side. LOVELY, HUH.

My poor shoes. These were brand new a couple months ago.

My poor shoes. These were brand new a couple months ago.

Whittier (the town if you continue a few minutes on the main road from the trail turnoff) doesn’t have much to offer. there’s a “cafe and eatery”, a hotel by the cruise ship dock (with a restaurant with expensive but decent food — i had a late lunch here (ordered off their dinner menu), almost $50 for a salad, entree, and soda after tip, but i had barely eaten all day, so it was worth it — plus free wifi), and rumor has it, a pub further down the road. there is a well-stocked convenience store/gas station on Seward Highway about two-thirds of the way to Whittier from Anchorage, at the Girdwood exit.

5 Comments on "Lewis and Clarking the Portage Pass Trail, Alaska"

  1. Fifty dollars for lunch ? REALLY ? Hell it’s as expensive as here and it’s in euros !

    • oops! sorry, that was a late lunch, so i ordered off their dinner menu (which they just switched to). i’ll fix it up in the text. thanks!

      • Er that’s a point of detail though. Even for dinner it sounds very expensive for the US of A.

        That being said I realize that I did comment on a point of detail as well. My main comment went to Twitter, ah well. I’m so jealous just now.

        I wonder, about that British tourist… in his stead I wonder if I would be more afraid to bump into Sarah Palin or a bear… tough choice !

        • LOL! i had to remind him sarah palin was from alaska hehehe.

          but yeah, it was overpriced, but you are quite limited in your choices around there 🙁

          • Everyone should know she’s from Alaska, I mean, her main credentials as an expert of foreign policies being that she can, after all, see Russia from her window.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.