By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
A summer visit to Portage Valley is almost always a charming experience. There are numerous easily accessible activities, such as fishing, hiking or biking. It’s also a fine venue for gourmet picnicking when the weather cooperates.
Portage Valley epitomizes relaxation and engagement with nature.
Scenic Portage Lake offers overlooks allowing visitors to gaze at chunks of calved ice slowly melting. Sitting next to the lake is the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, where one can learn more about Chugach National Forest and Portage Glacier’s dramatic recession.
Portage Glacier was once seen from the visitor center, but its retreat has been so swift that ice is no longer visible from there. To see the glacier, one must hike lovely Portage Pass Trail from Whittier.
The popular Byron Glacier Trail offers easy access to dramatic scenery of steeply walled mountains, forest and a glacier. To reach the trailhead, take the Portage Highway to the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center turnoff. Instead of going to the center, keep following the road and make a right on Byron Glacier Road. Two miles in there will be a parking lot on the right and the trailhead.
To hike on the maintained trail is an easy 2.8 miles round trip, or further if you wish to explore more off trail and closer to the glacier. The trail is fairly level with slight elevation gain near the end, and the hike is appropriate for children.
The trail cuts through lush forest that envelops hikers in green walls of trees and vegetation. The sounds of the nearby glacial stream are heard during much of the hike, and there is usually a steady flow of people enjoying the trail. There are a number of places along the way where one can access the creek and look around.
The official trail ends at a small resting point where tired hikers can sit before heading back. Beyond that point is where the fun begins above the tree line. You get to choose where to go and how to get there, including up to the glacier if you wish to walk that far.
With the low snow of the previous winters, an ice cave was exposed during recent summers. With this year’s heavy snowfall, there is a small snowfield that shows no sign of leaving soon, despite the creek that flows underneath it.
This snowfield was the highlight of the hike, especially from a photographic perspective. With Byron Glacier in the background, the snowfield made a striking foreground in multiple images. A number of large cracks, some 10 feet deep, have developed on the ice’s surface. The melting, pitted surface of the ice offers endless fascinating textures to pair with views of Byron Glacier.
Each changing view offers something new. When one turns around, the snowfield can be paired with the panoramic view of Portage Lake and surrounding mountains. Both the Visitor Center and Portage Highway seem small in the distance. It’s worth taking the time to carefully search for the best perspectives to create images with dramatic impact. The scenery makes photo composition easy.
If you are exploring the snowfield, you should exercise caution around any large fissures. A slip into the deep blue ice could have grave consequences, even though they appear shallow. With no cell phone service, help is a long way off. If you go up to Byron Glacier, keep a safe distance because it can calve at any moment.
Byron Glacier Trail is a thoroughly enjoyable hike that will put a smile on your face and leave you with remarkable photos until your next visit.