Portage Valley and Whittier

After leaving Seward on Tuesday, we headed back toward Anchorage to get Richard back to the airport.  It was unreal that his time with us was already over!  It didn’t seem like a week had already passed and it definitely wasn’t long enough, but back to the airport he had to go anyway.  To avoid hauling the trailer into Anchorage, we found a campground that wasn’t too far out of the way and stopped to drop it off.

Williwaw Campground is located in Portage Valley, in a beautiful setting with a great view of Middle Glacier.  We scored a great pull-through spot that was very private, and while we couldn’t see the glacier from the camper, it could be seen from the road-way just outside our site.  Not only is the location here phenomenal and the views great, but the sites are quite spaced out, and the roadways and sites are paved which is a rarity for Alaska.  That probably doesn’t sound like a big deal, but when you stay in gravel or dirt most of the time, being on pavement is a welcomed change.  We loved everything about this campground.  The only thing that would have made it better is if the salmon had been running in the adjacent creek.  We were a couple of weeks too early for that, though.

Anyway, we didn’t waste any time getting set up, and since there is a visitor center just down the road, we ventured in to see what the area had to offer.  We learned that there was a short hike to Byron Glacier nearby, and since Richard wasn’t due at the airport for a few hours, we decided to check it out.  Man-oh-man, was that a good decision!  It was a super short and easy hike to a spectacular view of the glacier, complete with a stream and snowfield.  We explored the area taking lots of photos and videos and doing our best to enjoy the last little bit of time we all had together.  Unfortunately, though, time was small and we eventually had to head to the airport for our goodbyes.  We were so sorry to see him go, but glad we had the week to explore together. 

Jeff and I made it back to Williwaw Campground that evening, and decided that there was way too much to do in the area for our original planned two night stay, so we extended it to five nights.  The next day, Wednesday, it rained the entire day, so we were especially glad we had the freedom to stay a little longer!  

By Thursday, the weather was much improved and we set out on a bike ride on the Trail of Blue Ice.  This is a five mile (one way) trail that travels most of the length of the valley with stops at all the viewpoints and trailheads.  This was one of the nicest multi-use trails we have ever been on.  It was wide and smooth, with a variety of surfaces to ride on, including gravel, boardwalk, metal grating, etc.  The stars of this show were definitely the views, though.  There were gorgeous views of Explorer Glacier, marsh flats areas, streams, mountains, and Portage Lake.  We both ended the day in awe of the sheer beauty that was surrounding us on every side!

Friday was a much anticipated day for us.  It was the day we were going through the tunnel into Whittier.  The only way to access Whittier by vehicle is through a one lane tunnel that is also shared with the railroad.  At two and a half miles, it is actually the longest combined rail and highway use tunnel in North America.  Traffic is only allowed into Whittier on the half-hour and out of Whittier on the hour, and if a train schedule is delayed you might be waiting even longer than expected.  Knowing all this in advance, we were looking very forward to not just being in Whittier, but to the experience of getting there as well!

All went as expected in the tunnel and once on the other side we went immediately to the Portage Pass trailhead.  This hike took us up 750’ of elevation gain in the first three-quarters of a mile to a gorgeous view of Portage Lake and Portage Glacier from Portage Pass.  Then, down the other side we went, to end up on the shores of Portage Lake with the massive glacier directly ahead.  Because of how far Portage Glacier has retreated in recent years, this hike is the only way to view it on foot.  Of all the glaciers we have seen so far, Portage is definitely one of the biggest.  We sat on the beach along with another hiker’s dog who decided we needed a new friend, and enjoyed the view until we couldn’t take the bugs anymore and needed to get moving again.  It was a gorgeous hike, and while a little strenuous due to the elevation gain in such a short amount of time, it was absolutely worth it and we highly recommend this trail!

From there we traveled into the town of Whittier.  We started by exploring the harbor area, venturing into a couple of shops, and enjoying the water and surrounding mountains.  Then we went through the pedestrian tunnel that takes pedestrians from the harbor area, under the railway, and into the historic and residential area of town.  Whittier was built during World War II by the military as a deep-water, ice-free port and was also in use by the military during the Cold War.  The same tunnel into the city that we drove through that morning was first constructed by the military as a rail-only tunnel, and many of the buildings constructed by the military are still standing.  Many are even still in use today.  The most striking building in town, though, is one that is now abandoned.  When the Buckner Building was built, it was the largest building in Alaska.  It sits on a hill overlooking the city and was built as a “City Under One Roof.”  It housed 1,000 troops alongside a bakery, movie theater, gymnasium, hospital, library, jail, etc.  The troops who lived here were able to do most any task they needed to do without even stepping foot outside!  Modern day Whittier is unlike any town we have been to before.  There are no houses.  Most of the residents live in the Begich Towers Condos (you guessed it – constructed by the military in the 1950s) which also houses the town post office, city hall, and medical clinic.  Not quite the “City Under One Roof” of the Buckner Building, but closer than anything we have experienced!  What a fun place to visit!  We loved learning the history of the city, the interesting way of life of Whittier of today, and experiencing the unique tunnel to get in and out.   

On Saturday, we fought the urge to continue with all the amazing sight-seeing we had been doing in the area, and instead took advantage of the pavement we were parked on to rotate the tires on the truck and get a few things cleaned up a bit.  It is so much easier to complete tasks like this when you aren’t kneeling in the dirt or sitting in sharp gravel.  I don’t think either of us relished the idea of chores in such a gorgeous area, but sometimes the work has to get done and these were chores that had already been put off too long. 

We have fallen in love with Portage Valley!  It is impossible to call somewhere in Alaska our “favorite” since there are so many worthy stops, but Portage Valley is definitely near the top of that list.  If glaciers and raw beauty are what you are after, you cannot skip a visit to this amazing area! 

Next up, we are heading back to Palmer since it is along our route to some future destinations.  We have some chores that we will complete while there, along with a few fun activities we weren’t able to squeeze in on our last visit.   Check back to see what we get into!

See Whittier and the spectacular Portage Valley in this video!

Until next time!

4 thoughts on “Portage Valley and Whittier”

  1. Do you have an agenda for the must see sights in Alaska before you head south? I can’t wait to see all your photos. Is there one place that out shines everything you have ever seen? I love reading your blogs, Heather. They are very interesting.

  2. Richard goes home? Boo!

    Sorry that I didn’t get to enjoy the Whittier/Portage area more with you guys.

    Of course, you didn’t have the pleasure of some random guy falling asleep on your shoulder for a good chunk of the plane trip back to Newark, either.

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