Hiking the Portage Pass Trail – Whittier, Alaska
Today was our day exploring Prince William Sound and we were so excited to see a new part of Alaska. We had to travel to the town of Whittier which required driving through a one way tunnel that alternated directions on the hour and on the half hour so it was important to time everything so we did not miss the boat departure.
On the other side of the tunnel is also another popular trail, Portage Pass, that I thought we could knock out before the boat departure at 10AM. May have been a bit aggressive. Working backwards, if we had to be at the dock at 9:30AM, be done the trail by 9AM (being very generous), the 4.2 mile trail would take us 2 hours to complete, so that is a 7AM start, which means we needed a 6:30AM tunnel entrance time, and they recommend getting to the tunnel 20 to 30 minutes before the tunnel time, so that is 6AM, and we were about 30 minutes away in Girdwood = 5:30AM departure time! Good old vacation math.
As soon as you make it through the tunnel, the turn to access the Portage Pass it there – we drove over the train tracks and then head to stop and evaluate our options to continue on.
What caused us to stop? The wildlife I was finally waiting for?
No, POTHOLES. The most giant potholes we have ever seen. We both had concerns that the Ford Focus had not chance of making it through the caverns in the dirt. I read this was a popular trail – I am shocked the road is not better maintained. We got out and walked around, assess each hole and developing a game plan on how to get through the maze.
Holding our breath, we made it through somehow. Each turn was like leveling up in a game – ok you made it through those potholes but you will never get past these (mwahahaha)! The last set were by far the worst but somehow we managed. We made it to the end of the dirt road, no cars around, and parked the car for another early morning hike – first ones on the trail of the day – and maybe a chance for some wildlife.
Portage Pass Trail is moderate 4.2 miles round trip with 1,433 feet elevation gain – another workout for the morning. I read most of the elevation climb is in the very beginning of the trail through a series of steep inclines but after that, the trail lightens up in difficulty.
A brisk, foggy morning greeted us as we started our climb up the rocky trail. We started strong and then the burn in our legs began to set back in. I do not think we were completely over the Harding Icefield hike quite yet.
After what felt like endless climbing, a few breaks, lots of rock banging and singing for the wildlife, we made it to a landing. The view was simply spectacular in every direction.
We could see the sun trying to break through the clouds so we were optimistic as we continued on for more amazing views. A little more uphill was followed by some downhill before reaching a small pond that captured the reflection of Portage Glacier and the sunlight so perfectly.
It was incredibly peaceful up here! We were so surprised to have this entire place to ourselves and we were loving every moment. Continuing on, we passed more rock formation to climb, and some tricky water crossings since it had rained the day before.
We made it to another clearing with a bench and the view continued to impress us – Alaska is just so vast and has so much going on. Since we were getting crunched on time, we decided to turn around here are not continue to the lake and shore front. We were pretty satisfied with what this hike had offered this far and the views just non stopped being amazing.
The way back was fairly easy but the rocks that made up the trail kept us on our toes. It is certainly easy to slip and slide around here so be careful. While loop trails are great, these out and back ones in Alaska allow for a completely different backdrop on the return. As the sun continued the journey high in the sky, the fog slowly burned off giving us a beautiful view for the way back.
Our car was still the only one in the lot – how was no one else on this trail? We navigated the enormous pot holes again and continued to Whittier for our adventure exploring the Prince William Sound.
Two things we learned later in the day:
- The trail is very popular and can be very crowded. We completed this at 7AM on a Wednesday in August. Apparently the Sunday prior when the weather was equally gorgeous, cars were parked out to the train tracks near the tunnel it was so mobbed.
- We saw no wildlife on this hike and there is a good reason why – on the Whittier side of the tunnel, there are no moose and no brown bears – TADA! See Kevin, we had nothing to worry about =)