By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
There are all sorts of tours to explore Alaska during the summer. A unique option is Alaska Railroad’s Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop. It’s a chance to take the train deep into Chugach National Forest, get dropped off and take a lovely hike to Spencer Glacier. A few hours later, another train picks you up. You can even stay over one or more nights.
There are numerous location options for boarding the train and how far you ride it. There are also guided tours available offering a range of activities. To see what is offered and to plan a trip to Spencer Glacier go to https://www.alaskarailroad.com/travel-planning/destinations/spencer-glacier-whistle-stop. This article focuses on one trip option to Spencer Glacier, but there are other possibilities.
I boarded the train in Portage for the first part of the trip to Grandview, a whistle stop at the top of Placer River Valley. It was a relaxing 19-mile journey filled with Chugach Mountain scenery and glaciers. There is also possibility of seeing wildlife, and moose were seen in the distance during our return. The train is also stopped periodically to let riders take in particularly scenic views.
After nine miles, we arrived at Spencer Glacier. Many people left the train to go on guided tours or the Forest Service ranger tour. Leaving the stop was when greyish blue Spencer Lake came into view, and the water was studded with burly chunks of calved ice. Spencer Glacier was also visible.
The train proceeded into the most dramatic part of the route by climbing into Placer River Gorge. The tracks run through a series of five tunnels interspersed with sightings of silty, grey Placer River gushing along in tight quarters.
Then Bartlett Glacier came into view, and the perspective kept getting closer. It is the nearest glacier to the tracks of this route. Then we kept going through Grandview stop, which at 1,100 feet is the highest point on the southern tracks as we were first headed to Trail Glacier.
Trail Glacier is a large, medial moraine, which means two glaciers are merging and forming a big black stripe of debris between them. We were given five minutes to take in the rugged Chugach beauty near the head of the Placer River Valley. Then it was back to Grandview.
It took 1 hour 40 minutes to reach Grandview, where we stopped for 40 minutes. There is a very short hike to a viewing platform to take in the wild, remote scenery. Then it was back to Spencer to begin part two of the trip.
From the train, it is pleasant seeing Spencer Glacier, but hiking up to it is a much more engaging experience. From the train platform, it is about 4 miles to a high point on the moraine next to the glacier. The first 1.3 miles are on a level grade on a bumpy road leading to an overlook with direct views of glacier across ice strewn Spencer Lake.
The next 1.7 miles are beside and above the lake’s shoreline. The trail is narrower and footing is easy, with light elevation gain. On the trail were fecal remains of bears and moose, which served as a vivid reminder to keep your eyes and ears alert because wildlife happens.
Though the trail ends, the route to Spencer Glacier does not. An unofficial trail about a mile in length traverses an extensive pile of moraine. While making one’s way to the highest point on the moraine in this section, there are a number of points that require ascent and descent of loose dirt and rocks.
There are a number of interesting vantage points that gets one close to the glacier while remaining at a safe distance. Each view yields different facets of this glacier’s complex appearance. A grey stream flows east into the glacier through the remains of a freshly crumbled ice arch created and destroyed by water current.
One section of glacier is much deeper blue than the ice nearby, suggesting recent calving exposed it. There is also a large, greyish pool of water covered with ice chunks of all sizes in various stages of melting. This description is just a sampling of the multifaceted features that are better shown in photos than feebly written in words. These moments were clearly the highlight of the hike.
There was no time to linger since there was a train to catch. While the hike is pretty easy for someone in shape, it may present challenges of time and distance for others. If you go on this hike, you need to be aware of the time and return well before the train departs, and it does not stop for long. Otherwise, you’ll be spending a night in the great Alaska wilderness with what you are carrying.
The return train had a few more cars on it as it was running from Seward to Anchorage. This train did not stop in Portage but did in Girdwood. The 20-mile ride from Spencer to Girdwood was spent unwinding in the café car enjoying Alaska brewed beer while taking in the Placer River and Turnagain Arm.
It was a civilized finish to a thoroughly enjoyable day.