When I invited my dad to come along to Alaska he was very eager to hike to a glacier. I don’t mean just hike to a glacier where you get a good view of it from afar. I mean literally hike up to a glacier and you can touch it. Let me tell you, my dad touching a glacier was like a kid in the candy store! Originally, this hike was only going to be my dad and I. But Kyle ended up having a delayed flight into Anchorage so we ended up staying the night in Anchorage to get Kyle from the airport. So now Kyle was dragged along to this hike (he would have rather started fishing immediately!).
My dad did some research on hiking and ended up stumbling upon a hike to Portage Glacier. This hike is about an hour east of Anchorage and it was on our way to the Kenai Peninsula. To get to the trail head, you are required to go through a still operating, one way, train tunnel that is 2.5 miles long. Yes, I said one way. This is the Portage Valley & Whittier Tunnel. There is a system in place that lets traffic through every half hour. If you just miss it, you will have to wait another half hour until your light turns green again. That was quite the experience in and of itself.
As our previous couple days, this morning was wet and rainy. The night before, a lot of rain had fallen and the parts of the trail were quite wet and muddy. I would say this hike was an easy to moderate hike. Some parts of the hike were straight uphill and adding in puddles, mud, and lose gravel made it slightly tricky in some areas. The advertised round trip length of the hike is about 4 miles. But we probably did closer to 5 miles and you will see why shortly.
The start of our hike was very foggy and it was difficult to see into the distance. We were the only ones on the trail the whole way up and I presume that a majority of the people wanting to see Portage Glacier choose to take the ferry to it. We decided against the ferry because you don’t go to Alaska to enjoy nature and not hike to the naturey spots! Anyways, the first quarter to half mile of the trail was all flat trail and super easy. But after that it was pretty much straight uphill from there until you reached the Portage Pass where you then hiked downward. We were hoping that by the time we reached the pass the fog would clear but nope. Still just as foggy. But as we continued to get closer to the shore of Portage Lake we could start seeing glimpses of the glacier and the ice blue color it gave off from that far away was awesome.
When my dad had researched this hike, some people said the shoreline was as far as you could go. However, other people said you could walk along the beach, around the water, to get up to the glacier. (The picture below on the left shows us walking around Portage Lake). Simple enough, right? This is why we increased our round trip mileage, to hike up the beach to the glacier itself. Perhaps this next part depends on the time of year, but what we ended up stumbling upon was this glacial river spitting out into the giant body of water. Yes, if wanted to get to glacier, we had to cross this river (pictured below on the right). I know in a picture it doesn’t seem that bad but I felt the water was moving fairly quickly.
Now, I have crossed some rivers in my life when I go fishing with Kyle and certain rivers I need his hand hold to cross. Let me tell you, if Kyle had not been along on this hike, like he originally wasn’t suppose to, I don’t think I would have let my dad or I cross this river. It was running pretty quickly and not to mention, it was probably FREEZING!
Well, being that Kyle is quite the river crosser (thanks to fishing a ton) he was able to tell how deep it was in different parts and outline a trajectory for crossing. Once Kyle was able to determine this, before I knew it he was already crossing the damn thing! I will be honest, for a few minutes I told myself there was no way I was crossing that river. Touching a glacier seemed cool but drowning in glacial cold water didn’t seem worth it. But this was not going to stop my dad in the very least. So then I was like “What the hell?!, I am only in Alaska once and when am I going to get to do this again??”
So I ended up stepping my foot into this river and OMG, I cannot even begin to describe to you all how f***king cold this water is. It was numbing within seconds. So I am typically very cautious when I cross rivers and go slow but you could not do this here or you would probably lose leg function from being so cold. I ended up crossing using one of my dad’s trekking poles and thank god I had it to stabilize myself or else I think I would have been taken down by how fast it was moving.
So long story longer, I ended up getting across and was very thankful but then was like “OMG, I can’t believe I am going to have to cross this again!” I immediately started jumping around and kept moving to try to warm up my legs. Surprisingly, I feel that I warmed up fairly quickly. Or maybe I was just numbed. Who knows. So this leaves my father to cross with his other trekking pole and he crossed like a champ. Phew! We aren’t dead!
It was just a couple minutes more of walking to get up to the corner of the glacier. Looking at the glacier from a distance is impressive with how large it is. But walking up to the glacier, where we were only at one tiny corner of it, really put things into perspective with how massive this thing is. The closer we got to it, the more the ice blue tint showed up.
We hiked up along the side a tad more to get our hands on the glacier and voila! There is my dad touching a glacier and his excitement for it was adorable. You know your dad is excited when he wants a selfie touching a glacier to show his friends! Kyle and I were able to find this little crevasse we could walk under and then we did a little climbing to get to a higher point to access a different area of the glacier and WOW! It was pretty damn cool.
We probably stayed and explored for about 10 minutes but thought it was best to get up and going as some clouds were rolling in. Before you know it, we were back to the river crossing, yay!! For some reason crossing the river the second time didn’t seem as bad. Perhaps my legs were still numb enough from first crossing! We all made it across successfully so the worst was over!
The hike back up through the valley was fairly up hill and it wasn’t until we started hiking back out that we finally saw the first group of other hikers. Once we got out of the valley, our hike transitioned to pretty much downhill. The only tough part about this down hill stretch was the loose gravel/rocks so you had to be somewhat careful of your footing. For some reason, to me, hiking back down a trail always seems longer than it should but we got back to the car relatively quickly.
And now the 30 minutes wait for the one way tunnel….