A Bucket List Backpacking Trip to Portage Lake

Whenever someone asks me my favorite trail, I usually say it’s a tie between Lost Lake and Portage Pass. Ever since hiking to the top of Portage Pass 7 years ago during my first summer in Alaska I’ve been absolutely hooked on this hike. It’s relatively easy (only one mile to the top of the pass with an 800 foot gain) and the views up there are incredible. Plus there’s lots of side trails at the top of the pass that can be explored. If you’re feeling tired or just want a quick hike you can stop at the top of the pass. But if you’re looking for a longer hike you can keep going another 1.5ish miles down to the shores of Portage Lake. The trail ends with the most incredible views of Portage Glacier and is absolutely worth the extra time and effort to get there. I’ve hiked this trail multiple times every year in all different seasons, hiked it while pregnant, and it was also Elliott’s first hike after I was cleared to hike after giving birth. It’s just a special trail for me and my family. So when I finally had the chance to backpack this trail with a friend and her kids it was a no brainer!

We got lucky finding a few non-rainy days in Whittier to plan this trip. Last Wednesday we started the hike in the late afternoon and made a pact to just go slow and steady and take lots of breaks. The day was cloudy and a bit cooler than it had been earlier that week so we were feeling a bit better about struggling uphill. I was carrying Elliott and about 25 pounds of gear and water so I knew it was going to be tough. It took us about an hour to reach the top and we took a long break with plenty of time to explore the side trails too. The sun had finally come out and the views of the glacier were amazing!

After leaving the pass, the trail down was slow going. We had to take lots more stops and I had to filter water at one point because it was so sunny and warm. When we finally reached the lake it was 7:30 PM and we were all EXHAUSTED. It was almost Elliott’s bedtime but I knew it would take us a while to get situated. My first order of business was making dinner to get some calories in us both before setting up camp. After dinner we filtered more water, set up our tents and sleeping gear, and then explored the beach a little. The sun was gorgeous at 10:30 PM but once Elliott started saying “Sleep! Sleep!” I knew it was time to call it a night. I carried a book out there because Elliott is obsessed with books, and it ended up being a good call because it kept him occupied and calm during the whole camp setup process.

I was too tired to be worried about how he was going to sleep, but he ended up totally surprising me and having an amazing night! Once I zipped him into his Little Mo sleeping bag and pulled him onto my chest he immediately closed his eyes and quickly fell asleep. I was able to roll him onto his side and sleep next to him for most of the night. It was honestly the best sleep I’ve ever had while camping with Elliott, which makes no sense because we were in a tent with so much bright light coming through the rain fly! If you follow me on Instagram or have read past posts you’ll know that this was a huge deal because we’ve had some crazy nights in the past. I woke up a bunch of times because I could hear the glacier calving (lots of very loud, echoing “Boom” sounds) and also whenever Elliott changed positions or needed an extra snuggle. But overall it was a great night of sleep and I feel like I’ll never forget how amazing it was to snuggle my son while listening to a glacier calve nearby.

We woke up at 7:30 AM and I read him his book a few times before crawling out of the tent and grabbing some breakfast and diaper supplies from the bear box. The morning was cloudy and the glacier looked beautiful. It hit me how amazing it was that I was the only person standing on the shores of this lake looking at this glacier. My shoulders were so sore from the hike in and I was nervous about how painful the hike back was going to be, but in that moment I was so grateful to be there. It was honestly the perfect camping spot! After a quick breakfast our friends woke up and we all started packing up and getting ready to leave. I would have stayed there forever except that the bugs were absolutely terrible and we knew that bad weather was coming the next day. We started hiking back up to the pass and actually made pretty good time getting up there (about two hours including long breaks). When we reached the top we knew we were less than an hour from the car and real food and coffee in Whittier! It motivated us to keep going even when our shoulders started hurting. I was so happy to finally see our cars and celebrate having crossed this trip off our bucket list! After chugging a bunch of water and packing up the cars we headed over to the Lazy Otter in Whittier to grab food and coffee before heading home.

Overall this was an amazing backpacking trip! The entire time I wished that my husband was there because I knew that he’d love the campsite and he’d also really enjoy the silence of camping alone on the lake. I’m definitely taking him back there with me and Elliott at some point so we can all camp on the beach together. I was really proud of Elliott for doing so well on the trip (especially with sleeping after all the crazy sleep moments we’ve had this summer!) and although he was definitely being a typical toddler and refusing most of the things I tried to feed him he seemed like a happy kid overall. Plus, the campsite was literally the most beautiful one I’d ever had (except for maybe this one) and hearing the glacier calve all night made it feel really special.

Thinking about doing this as a hike or backpacking trip? Here’s some tips!

  • The trailhead is right after you exit the Whittier tunnel. It’s well marked but on a dirt road with lots of potholes. There’s no lot so you have to park along the side of the road, and spots fill up fast.
  • You can make this a shorter day hike by just hiking to the top of the pass. If you do that, I recommend exploring some of the small trails up there. My favorite views are the ones from the hill right behind the bench. You can see both the glacier and Prince William Sound from up there!
  • The trail was pretty overgrown on the way to the lake, and the bugs were really bad. Bring deet and be prepared for lots of branches in your face.
  • Once you reach the shores of Portage Lake there’s lots of great spots to camp on the beach. If you take a left and cross the small creek you’ll see a camping sign that shows you where the bear boxes are located. We chose to camp in the next little cove along the lake to give ourselves space from the smelly objects just in case a bear showed up. We didn’t hear any bears or see any signs of them the entire hike, but they’ve been known to frequent that area!
  • Be prepared to hear calving all night

Would you ever camp here? Where is the prettiest campsite you’ve ever had?

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