Whittier, Alaska: Hiking Portage Pass & The Town of Whittier
Updated: Nov 7, 2021
Summary: Situated on the gateway of Prince William Sound, the only way to access this tiny coastal town, by car, is through a one-way tunnel. Once in town, we went on another breathtaking Alaskan hike to see Portage Glacier. This 4.2 mile out-and-back trail features a jaw-dropping view of Portage Lake and Glacier, which will surely make your top 10 best-ever hiking views. Afterwards, we walked the town of Whittier before making the 90 minute drive to Anchorage, where we visited the Alaska Native Heritage Center.
What Gear To Bring. Whenever hiking in Alaska, come prepared with your day pack stocked with bear spray, water, and snacks. It does not really matter whether you hike a highly trafficked trail or not, bear danger is real no matter where you go. Also, when we traveled in June the weather can change quickly. Bring layers including rain jackets and/or ponchos, gloves, and knit caps.
About Whittier. Situated on the gateway of Prince William Sound, this tiny coastal town is accessible only by boat, air, or if by car, through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. This tunnel is a one-way mixed-use road and rail tunnel. Entering by car means matching your entry and exit with the tunnel schedule. The tunnel itself is an interesting experience. It's not often you pass through a one-way tunnel as your only means to access a whole town.
Portage Pass. Portage Glacier is accessible by cruise but we preferred to skip the boat and head out on foot. This 4.2 mile out-and-back trail has 1,433 feet of elevation gain, most of which is in two places, namely an initial climb up to Portage Pass, then the climb out of the Portage Glacier viewpoint, located at the turn-around. This is a heavily-trafficked trail so we recommend hiking early in the day. We arrived around 8:30 a.m. and were one of just a couple of people on the trail. By the time we made our way back to our car, the trail was filled with lots of hikers and the parking along the road was almost completely full.
At the top of Portage pass, you can get your first glimpse of Portage Lake, which is at the foot of Portage Glacier.
Hike down to the Lake. The trail does not take you all the way to the water, rather to a viewpoint where you can catch a great view of Portage Glacier. As there was still snow on the ground in places, we were able to be reminded of why we carried bear spray. At one point, fresh bear tracks crossed the snow (!)
If it weren't for a boat that happen to be cruising by the Glacier, we are not sure we would have appreciate just how big the Glacier is. To put it in perspective, you can barely see the boat in our photos. If you look closely you can see it down at the bottom right of the first photo below.
The Town of Whittier. After our hike, we visited the town of Whittier. The entire "downtown," can be walked in a manner of minutes as it consists only of a handful of store fronts. We stopped at the Lazy Otter coffee shop (which conveniently has a restroom), and took a stroll along the waterfront. From here you can take a day cruise or chartered fishing expedition. (Our tour, unfortunately, was canceled due to a boat malfunction).
A whole town in one building. One particularly unique trait is the fact that almost the entire population of Whittier, roughly 220, give or take, all live in one building, Begich Towers (photo below). This apparently proves to be helpful during the long winters when traveling outside in cold, dark conditions is avoided when possible.
Afternoon in Anchorage. As we had some extra time due to the boat cruise cancellation, we decided to make our way early to Anchorage which is roughly 90 minutes from Whittier. Before checking into our new AirBnB, we stopped in at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. Here, we enjoyed a demonstration of native dances along with the Hall of Cultures, which displays artifacts and historical information related to the five major cultural groups of Alaska. Outside, we strolled through the Center's six live-sized Native dwellings.
Dinner at a Bar. After the Heritage Center, we went out to dinner at F Street Station. This busy spot does not take reservations so a little bit of waiting and luck is involved, though it was well worth it. In fact, we liked it so much, we came back the next day. This little "hole the wall" restaurant located in a bar was soooooo good. The boys had a garlic bread chicken sandwich and we enjoyed the calamari and fresh caught Alaskan salmon salad, which was perfectly grilled.
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