Want to see one of Alaska’s most accessible glaciers? In this guide we’re sharing how to hike the Portage Pass Trail in Whittier, Alaska.
What if you could combine a railroad tunnel, glaciers, waterfalls, mountains, and water views into one hiking experience? Meet the Portage Pass Trail in Whittier, Alaska.
The Portage Pass Trail was one of our favorite shorter day hikes in Alaska and it’s easy to see why. It not only offers stunning scenery, but also provides a unique experience in how you get to it.
Watch us hike the Portage Pass Trail and spend the day in Whittier, Alaska!
If you’re like us and can’t get enough of Alaska’s glaciers, the Portage Pass Trail should be high up on your list. And in this guide we’re detailing everything you need to know before hitting the trail, including the trail stats, when to hike, what to expect, and more!
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About the Portage Pass Trail
Distance (round trip): 4.2 miles
Elevation gain: 1,433 feet
Reviews & Current Conditions
Nestled within a mountain on the edge of Portage Lake is the Portage Glacier. This glacier gets its name because it was used by a variety of people over the years to portage between the Turnagain Arm and Prince William Sound.
It is one of the most visited and accessible glaciers in Alaska, with a couple different ways to experience it. One of which being the Portage Pass trail! This 4.2 mile (round trip) hike may sound easy, but don’t let the lower mileage fool you!
The Portage Pass trail is relatively difficult, with two uphill sections that gain about 700 feet in a mile or less. We were definitely huffing and puffing during the climbs (and saw many others doing the same), but it was well worth it for the scenery at the end, as well as along the way.
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
How to get to the Portage Pass Trail
The Portage Pass trail is located in Whittier, which is a small town located about 1 hour and 15 minutes southeast of Anchorage, Alaska. This makes it a great day trip option if spending time in Anchorage!
And to get to both Whittier and the Portage Pass Trail you’ll have a unique journey. You can take a car, train, or ferry, and any option only adds to the experience!
Driving to Whittier
The cheapest and easiest way to get to Whittier and the Portage Pass Trail is by car. And it’s a fun adventure!
First, you’ll need to make the scenic drive along the Turnagain Arm from Anchorage. This is one of the most scenic drives we’ve ever done! You’ll turn off right before the Kenai Peninsula begins to head down Portage Glacier Road.
After a bit of a drive down the road, you’ll reach Portage Lake, where you can stop at the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center to learn more about the science and history of the area. Or just admire the view from a roadside overlook!
Your next step is to drive through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. At 2.5 miles, this tunnel is the longest combined rail and highway use tunnel in North America.
It was originally built as a railroad tunnel during WWII and connects Whittier to the rest of Southcentral Alaska. After decades of being only open for train traffic, it was converted to accommodate cars and opened to the public on June 7, 2000.
The tunnel is only open from 5:30 AM-11:15 PM in the summer and 7:00 AM-10:45 PM in the winter. Despite being now open to both cars and trains, it is only one lane, so cars and trains take turns going through in one direction. You can see the full schedule for both directions here.
One other important thing to know is that there is a toll to drive through the tunnel. It costs $13 roundtrip for passenger vehicles and RVs under 28 feet not pulling a trailer. Thankfully our Sprinter van fit into this category!
Taking the train to Whittier
If you don’t have your own vehicle or would rather not drive, you can also get to Whittier by riding the Alaska Railway’s Glacier Discovery Route!
This train leaves from Anchorage in the morning and arrives in time for a full day exploring Whittier, whether that is a cruise on the Prince William Sound or hiking the Portage Pass trail. After your day in Whittier, you can hop back on the train to Anchorage in the evening.
However, if you choose this method, you’ll have to walk an additional 1.3 miles each way from the train station to the trailhead. This is mostly flat and there is a sidewalk along the side of the road.
Ferry to Whittier
You can also take a ferry to Whittier from Valdez. This takes about 6 hours and does have a steeper price tag, but you’ll have epic scenery as you cruise the Prince William Sound.
Cars are allowed on the ferry, so once you get to Whittier, you can drive to the Portage Pass trailhead.
The schedule does vary and is not offered everyday, so make sure to check it in advance here!
When to hike the Portage Pass Trail
The best time to hike the Portage Pass Trail is in the summer or early fall, when it’s snow free. We hiked the trail at the very beginning of August and it was perfect! The weather forecast called for rain, but we lucked out with a mix of sun and clouds.
You technically can hike to Portage Glacier in the winter if Portage Lake is frozen over. This is a popular winter activity, but you must ensure the lake is frozen solid and that the conditions are safe. To do this, you’ll start at the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, which means you skip the tunnel and don’t actually hike the Portage Pass trail.
Things to know before hiking the Portage Pass Trail
There is no fee to access the Portage Pass trail, but you will need to pay the toll to get through the tunnel to the trailhead if driving.
Parking is limited
When we visited in the summer of 2022 there was not a dedicated parking lot. At the end of the road to the trailhead there is a Y, where you can park or turn around. There aren’t many spots, so make sure to arrive early!
And if you can’t find parking, we read that you can park at the City of Whittier Campground. It adds an extra, flat 1.4 miles round trip.
Also, the road to the trailhead, at least during our visit, was pretty rough with some large potholes. It may be tough for smaller vehicles to get through this part!
Dogs are allowed
Furry friends are allowed on the trail. However, like the rest of Alaska, there is a risk of running into a bear here, so please keep your dog under control in order to not bother any wildlife. And please pick up after them!
How long does it take to hike the Portage Pass trail?
Due to the inclines and us taking some breaks to soak up the scenery, plus film, this hike took us almost 4 hours. Our actual “moving time” was 2.5 hours, so for most people, we’d say that 3-3.5 hours is a safe bet.
There are no bathrooms at the trailhead, so plan ahead or be ready to find a secluded bush!
What to expect on the Portage Pass Trail
From the trailhead to Portage Pass
As soon as you leave the parking area, prepare to get a good cardio workout! The trail starts off by climbing at a steeper rate for about 0.7 miles until you reach Portage Pass.
On this stretch of the trail you can expect rockier terrain and some vegetation at first, but it does open up a bit. Make sure to turn around every once in a while to admire the view behind you.
If it’s a clear day, you’ll be able to see the nearby mountains, which have glaciers tucked into them.
Once you finally make it to the top, prepare to be treated to even better views, which make the slog worth it!
At the top, there will be a large and open rocky area where you can climb up a bit higher to see the first major view of the hike. From here, you’ll have sweeping views of the Passage Canal on one side and Portage Lake and Portage Glacier on the other. Plus dozens of mountain peaks!
It is a breathtaking view and if it hadn’t been for some crazy wind, we could’ve sat there for hours. But as we stood there, trying not to blow away, we were just mind blown that these views are NORMAL for those who live in Alaska!
Besides this main rocky area that you can hang out at, there are a few more spots you can wander around. However, keep in mind that this terrain is mostly tundra, so be careful where you step in order to not harm it.
Portage Pass to Portage Lake
You can turn around at Portage Pass and continue back the way you came, making for a shorter hike. But we think this is a mistake! Although the views from the pass are extremely satisfying, it is well worth the extra distance to go down to Portage Lake.
This stretch of the hike is downhill, which depending on your preference, may be a relief after the uphill to Portage Pass. The trail goes mostly through the brush and trees, but you will have some spots where you can see mountains and waterfalls plunging down them.
Along the way you’ll pass a small lake called Divide Lake and as you descend closer to the lake, you’ll come across a creek, with a small waterfall. If you’re lucky, you’ll see some wildflowers too!
After about 1.4 miles from the top of the pass, the trail will open up to give you a view of Portage Lake and Portage Glacier.
Portage Lake and Portage Glacier
There are different pathways that will take you down to Portage Lake’s rocky beach and right in front of you will be the impressive Portage Glacier!
What is wild is that the Portage Glacier used to extend the entire length of this valley. Back in 1911, it would’ve gone about 5 miles to the right. But it has since retreated to where it is now and created Portage Lake, which is over 650 feet deep.
We highly recommend having some time to just sit and soak it all in. There is lots of space to spread out, have a picnic, or just walk around. And if you have a brave dog like ours, they may want to get their feet wet too!
The hike back
To get back to the trailhead you will go the same way you came. Which means that you’ll first have a nice climb uphill to Portage Pass, before having a steep downhill walk the rest of the way.
Don’t want to hike? Take the Portage Glacier Cruise
If hiking the Portage Pass Trail seems a bit too intense for you, there is another option to see the Portage Glacier. You can take the Portage Glacier Cruise, which takes you closer to the glacier than the hike.
However, it doesn’t get the higher up views of the glacier and area that you’ll get along the trail!
What to bring to hike the Portage Pass Trail
To see everything we take hiking, check out our hiking gear as well as our guide about how to make a 10 essentials kit. But here are a few items we really want to stress bringing with you on the Portage Pass trail.
The trail has some rocky sections, so you’ll want good hiking shoes. Kathryn rocks Lowa Women’s Renegade GTX and Adam wears the ALTRA Lone Peak 6, which are trail running shoes. We are both happy with our choices!
We always carry our Garmin inReach Mini when we hike or backpack and it has come in handy several times on our adventures, mostly to text family (not for SOS reasons, thankfully)!
This trail is easy to follow, but having the AllTrails map will be handy to check your progress along the way. We always recommend having the map downloaded just in case, which requires an AllTrails+ subscription.
Want to get 30% off an AllTrails+ membership? Click this link or use our code aplusk30 (you must redeem this code on the website, not the app)!
We use AllTrails+ on every single hike and it is the most helpful hiking tool out there! Some of the features we love are offline maps (so we can navigate even without cell service), wrong-turn alerts, and its 3D maps feature, so we can get a feel for trails before we hike.
With some steeper climbs, you’ll want to stay hydrated. We like to carry our 3L Camelbak bladders while on any hike, which makes it easy to store a lot of water and drink while on the go.
Alaska is home to a variety of wildlife, including bears. Specifically, both black bears and grizzly bears, with grizzlies being the more aggressive of the two.
Although we didn’t see any bears on the trail, we did see a black bear roaming the streets of Whittier! We recommend carrying bear spray while on this trail just in case you have an encounter.
Not only is it important to have bear spray on you, but you need to have it readily available and know how to use it. We’d recommend watching this video that explains how to use bear spray, if you aren’t familiar.
Trekking poles will be helpful for the downhill portions of this hike. We have the Black Diamond Equipment Distance Z poles and highly recommend them!
Weather in Alaska can be extremely unpredictable. One minute it feels like a cold, windy winter day and the next the sun is beaming and it feels like summer. Carrying some layers with you helps you be prepared for a day in Alaska.
Rain jacket and rain pants
It can rain or snow any day of the year so having rain gear is recommended. Kathryn wears the Patagonia Torrentshell jacket and Adam wears a Columbia rain jacket.
Rain pants or waterproof pants are another recommended item that we did not have, but will hopefully have for future Alaska trips. Many trails in Alaska require you to go through brush, which can often be wet and soak your pants.
If you haven’t heard, the common joke is that the state bird of Alaska is the mosquito. Make sure to bring bug spray with DEET! We thankfully didn’t find the mosquitoes to be that bad at all during our time in Alaska.
Many parts of this trail have zero protection from the sun. Sunscreen and a hat will be very helpful!
Seeing glaciers with the naked eye is fantastic, but you’ll be able to see even more views with binoculars. We have the Bushnell H20 Roof Prism binoculars and we love them!
If you love photography, a zoom lens (we use a Sony 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 GM lens) is a lot of fun here, as you’ll be able to capture much closer shots of the glacier!
Ready to hike the Portage Pass Trail?
Pin this hiking guide to help plan your trip!