Portage Glacier Winter Hike

by Mike Still
Portage Glacier Winter Hike

When I first moved to Anchorage a friend showed me a photo of a fat-tire bike trip crossing a frozen lake to a brilliantly blue Portage Glacier.  I vowed then and there that I would head out on my own Portage Glacier Winter Hike or bike as soon as I could and eagerly waited for the lake to freeze over.  I almost hiked across a few weeks ago but we then we got a few warm weeks and the frozen lake started to fill with slush.

Since writing this post it has come to my attention that this is quite a risky hike.  Please be aware of glacier dangers on hikes like this and the nearby Byron Glacier Cave before attempting any glacier hikes. 

Then at the end of March my new friend Teo called to tell me the lake refroze and there were dozens of hikers crossing it last weekend.   I jumped at the opportunity to join him and his couchsurfer, Martin on one of Alaska’s best winter hikes I’ve ever had!


Hiking Portage Glacier

I was excited about hiking to Portage Glacier but didn’t get my hopes up just yet since I knew that we still had to check the conditions when we arrived.  Everyone agreed to head to the nearby Byron Glacier if we got there and the lake looked sketchy.  Even though the visitor center is closed and you can’t book a Portage Glacier Tour in the offseason we got lucky and saw a handful of other hikers out on the lake enjoying their hike to Portage Glacier and quickly followed suit.

Portage Glacier Directions

If you’re wondering how to get to Portage Glacier the best way to get Portage Glacier from Anchorage is by car.
Its a beautiful hour-long drive along the Seward Highway with lots of scenic stops.
There are signs for where to turn but I recommend using Google Maps for directions to Portage glacier just in case.

Anchorage to Portage Glacier (Distance from Anchorage to Portage Glacier – 60 miles)
Girdwood to Portage Glacier (25 miles)

We drove from Anchorage to Begich Boggs Visitor Center in just about 1 hour and were quickly on our way into this frozen white wasteland.  In the distance stood two peaks looking like fancy vanilla ice cream cones from the recent snow.  The crazy thing about Alaska is that each and every one of these mountains captivated me like a beautiful appetizer before the main entree.

The 2.5 mile hike across Portage Lake is completely flat since its on a frozen lake!

Portage Glacier Weather can be DANGEROUS!

The weather here in Alaska can be lethal!  Make sure you check the Portage Glacier Weather and Conditions or ask in a Facebook Group to see if someone has done it recently!  If the lake isn’t fully frozen then I wouldn’t take the risk and recommend heading to Byron Glacier instead of Portage Glacier.  In fact you might want to consider buying travel insurance for your trip to Alaska.  Its surprisingly affordable and covers more than just injuries if you’re interested click “get a Quote” for an instant quote!

If you turn and look to the right a few hundred meters into the hike across Portage Lake you’ll see Byron Glacier.  Hints of blue poked through the white snow and just got me even more excited for when we arrived at Portage Glacier itself!

 Where to stay near Portage Glacier

Are you coming to Alaska to see Portage Glacier?  I would recommend staying in Girdwood right near Alyeska Resort.  The drive from Girdwood to Portage Glacier is only about 30 minutes and you can turn your winter trip to Alaska into a ski or snowboard adventure by booking a room at the resort.  If you’re on a budget, reserve a room in Girdwood and you can spend your savings on beer instead!  Whichever you pick I recommend reserving your room today because they usually sell out, especially during the busy season!

To the right of Byron Glacier stands another gorgeous mountain with a textured white peak.  I couldn’t quite explain what drew me to that natural design but I stared at it for a few minutes and snapped a photo.  It reminded me of a white chocolate frosting hiding a gooey cake.  I started to get hungry thinking about it and turned my focus back to the Portage Glacier Hike.

Portage Glacier Trail

I’ve heard that during the season you can enjoy Portage Glacier Cruises or follow Portage Glacier Trail through the mountains on the north side of the lake.  But I was doing this hike at the end of winter which meant there were no boats, kayaks or even tours going.  We didn’t even stop at Portage Glacier Visitor Center but thankfully Teo had done this trip a few times before and enjoyed watching our expressions as we embraced this beautiful landscape.

Portage Glacier Visitor Center has lots of information about the area and plenty of Portage Glacier Facts but we skipped all that and only cared about seeing the natural glacial blues with our own eyes.  Trekking to Portage Glacier proved to be one of the easiest hikes I’ve done in a while, largely because there was absolutely zero elevation gain and I had micro-spikes for the snow-less patches shimmering with an icy reflection.

Teo stopped us before we rounded the last corner.  He wanted to make sure we were adequately prepared for the awesomeness that was coming.  Martin and I glanced at each other silently agreeing that he was hyping Portage Glacier up a bit too much.  Teo he ran ahead to check if it the first epic view was in fact just a few seconds away.  Just around this snowy hill on the right stood what would instantly become my favorite glacier in Alaska!

Rounding the corner the blue ice fills your eyes with wonder and you think that you are almost there.  Then it starts to hit you just how massive Portage Glacier is.  That HUGE glacier is still over 1500 feet away and the tiny specks near it are people who probably aren’t even at the base of this icy monument.

Portage Glacier Alaska

We approached Portage Glacier taking photos as we walked.  It took another 20 minutes after we could see it before we were actually near it.  Martin and I wanted to head straight to the edge of it but Teo insisted there was a better view in the middle so we veered towards the massive rock outcropping laid there after the glacier receded.  Portage Glacier Receding is so drastic that the giant boulder you see in the center was completely hidden in ice just a few years ago.  In fact when the glacier was visible from the visitor center when it was built in 1986!

Walking up that snow covered boulder proved to be the hardest part of our hike and I would only recommend it for experienced hikers.  We carefully picked our path to avoid the snow-covered edge of these rock faces.  It was hard to tell exactly where the rock ended so we hug close to the inside winding our way up a few small switchbacks.

Portage Glacier grew closer with every step and moments later we reached the precipice of this boulder and the best vantage point at the glacier.  Naturally, I snapped a few photos and launched my DJI Mavic Pro to capture some aerial views too!

I know its still early in the year but this photo of Portage Glacier just might be my favorite for all of 2018!  A special thank you to my newest sponsor, PolarPro, for polarizing filters that made these drone images possible.  They also sent me an awesome hard case to keep my camera and batteries safe on this journey.  I’ve got a Polar Pro gear review coming out soon but let’s focus on Portage Glacier for now!

The blues of this ice field blew me away before I even saw the aerial view but then as my drone glided over each icy ridge my jaw dropped.  I couldn’t wait to get back to my computer and see how it looked because it was so bright out here on this Hoth like landscape that I could barely see my phone.

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We spent about 2 hours walking around and taking photos of Portage Glacier before deciding that it was time to head back.  Turning to walk away from this beautiful sight was hard but I was comforted by the fact that I knew I would be back here again.  After all Portage Glacier is only an hour away from Anchorage!

Walking back along the frozen lake our feet crunched more under the snowpack.  Today’s sun had melted the top layer of snow exposing faintly blue ice in some spots. If we hadn’t just spent a few hours staring at blue glacial ice this might have been interesting enough for me to snap a photo.  But instead I just focused on getting back to the car and warming up.

In the distance, we saw more beautiful mountains as we continued eastward back to the parking lot.  I looked at Teo and Martin; they both had huge smiles on their face too.  Alaska is so beautiful that you can spend hours staring at a glacier and then turn around and still have a gorgeous set of mountains to enjoy on the way out.

We got another quick view of Byron Glacier on our left as we neared the Portage Glacier Lodge and piled back into Teo’s car.  Portage Glacier was a huge success and although I don’t think it will be safe to hike across the lake again this year I highly recommend getting out there the next time you hear the conditions are right!  Or just wait for the Portage Pass to open up and hike it in the summer, anyone wanna join me?

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More photos from this adventure and others can be found on the @LiveTravelTeach Instagram Account and don’t forget to follow www.LiveTravelTeach.com by adding your email at the top of this page to make sure you don’t miss any of these amazing adventures!

Disclaimer:  This is the internet and It is safe to assume that links and content contained on this webpage provide compensation to the website’s owner.  The opinions here are my own and the information here is accurate as of April 2018.  Unless otherwise labeled, all photos and video were taken by Mike Still.

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Mike Still
Mike is a travel enthusiast, photographer and teacher. He loves adventure travel, meeting the locals and exploring new culture. As an outdoor enthusiast you can often find him hiking mountains or exploring forests trying to capture the beauty of mother nature. In 2013 he founded www.LiveTravelTeach.com as he left his home in America and has been teaching or traveling around the world ever since!

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Julie Cao April 8, 2018 - 4:50 pm

I went there in the winter as well but did not do the hike, and I really wish I did. The scenery is breathtaking on the road and the pictures look stunning! I returned there in the summer and the lanscape is beautiful as well.

Mike Still April 11, 2018 - 2:23 pm

Hi Julie,

Thank you for reading my Portage Glacier Blog post. I can’t wait to go back to Portage Lake in the summer and explore. I hear there are some wonderful hikes with a good view of the glacier.

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