Camping in Portage Valley
Updated: Aug 5, 2018
My husband and I like to joke about how it ALWAYS rains in Portage Alaska. We often note on our way to Anchorage that, despite the clear blue skies everywhere else, it is still raining in Portage. This weather phenomenon is due to the short pass that leads from Turnagain Arm to Prince William Sound and creates a sort of clashing in atmospheric pressure. The Sterling Families Group had a weekend trip planned to Portage mid July, and I wasn't surprised to see in the week leading up to the trip that rain was forecasted for the first few days of our stay. I made sure to pack extra clothes for the inevitable wet children that would come to me in discomfort, added in our canopy for a dry area and dug out left over hand warmers from last winter. The hand warmers turned out to be a wonderful treat for the kids after peeling out of wet clothes at night, putting on PJ's and climbing into cold sleeping bags. A hand warmer to snuggle can really cheer up the grumpiest of toddlers.
Our group stayed in the Willowaw Campground , located 4 miles up the valley with a view of middle glacier and access to a number of great hikes. While the kids ran off to find their friends, I battled the wind and rain to set up camp.
My friend Jen came over to welcome me and laughed about her tent flying off into the forest when she put it up. Laughter always makes work better, and a hot drink to lessen cold hands!
I love group campouts and the sharing of meals, fires and plans. We set up a swing and zip line in the trees by our site causing lots of kid traffic. We brought out sidewalk chalk to fill the roadway with art each time the rain slackened. Wren made new friends and happily followed them around sharing toys and bikes all weekend. The Williwaw campground is paved and perfect for bikes, scooters and roller-blades. And across from our site behind the bathroom, the kids found the best climbing boulder, which occupied much of their time.
Our first group outing took us to the Begich Boggs Visitor Center. There was one lone iceberg ridding the waves at the waters edge and we got as close as possible to admire it.
As a child, I remember when the lake was filled with towering blue icebergs before the glacier receded around the corner of the lake. I remember the wind too. Inside the visitors center we roamed around and discovered a new addition that required a $5 entry fee. When I asked about it, my children were all standing by me and the woman behind the counter told me the fee was per person. Later I read on the website that children were free. I'm a bit annoyed that the woman working for the park failed to mention that because it caused all the families with multiple children to not explore further.
There is a boat that offers guided tours across Portage Lake to the face of Portage glacier, which can't be seen from the visitors center anymore because it has receded around the corner. Adults are $39 and children are $19. For more information on the boat tour, Click Here.
The only other way to see Portage glacier is to drive through the tunnel to Whittier and hike Portage Pass Trail. It is a 4 mile hike round trip with 750 feet gain in elevation on the first half of the trail. The end view of the Glacier is well worth it though!
There are many trails throughout Portage Valley and most of them are well groomed for wheelchairs, bikes and strollers.
While hiking the Trail of Blue Ice, we spotted a side trail heading in the direction of the waterfall at the base of middle glacier. It was a gamble following that unmarked trail, but it paid off when finally we emerged from the alder trees near the stream and was met by an amazing unhindered view of the waterfall and valley leading to Middle Glacier! The alder trees were pretty thick on this trail and we made plenty of noise while hiking to alert any bears in the area of our presence.
Our last day camping dawned with clear skies and we decided to get out to see the last of the trails. We walked the Williwaw trail and it was a perfect excursion for our group of bikes, strollers and explorers. They kids enjoyed the area's where the trail met up with the stream for dipping toes in the cold water.
After we packed up our campsite and loaded our minivan, we stopped in the Portage Glacier Cafe for some amazing ice cream. It was recommended at the campground and we were not disappointed! Then we headed for our last hike of the weekend, Byron Glacier. This hike is only 2 miles round trip and is super easy. We made quick time to the official end of the trail where signs were posted to continue on at our own risk. And it is a risk to take seriously. Less than two weeks before we arrived, a tourist was exploring an ice tunnel and it collapsed on her and killed her. While we did go up to walk on the snow and play a bit, we kept clear of tunnels or walking too far onto the surface.
So this trail doesn't actually take you to the glacier. It can if you don't mind hiking a few more miles up the valley, which we may do another time. What most people hike to and are happy with is left over snow from avalanches in the valley. They are fun, beautiful and well worth hiking to see.
Overall, Portage is a great family destination for anyone visiting Alaska and even if it rains the whole time, it offers sweeping views and great trails.