Biking, fish viewing, a natural history center and a flat hike to a glacier are within easy reach of this quiet, intimate campground in Portage Valley at the head of Turnagain Arm in the Chugach National Forest. The 12 sites in the graveled, wooded Black Bear are yards from the Trail of Blue Ice — a non-motorized multi-use trail that traverses the valley floor. Williwaw Creek flows close by, with crystal waters offering a window on spawning salmon mid-summer on.
The Valley has some of the most spectacular views in the state, with hanging glaciers and snowy massifs looming over the 14-mile isthmus that joins the Kenai Peninsula to mainland Alaska. Portage Glacier (now across the lake around the corner from sight) often produces icebergs that ground off the beach. The whole family can learn about the retreat inside the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center.
For the adventurous, the Byron Glacier Trail leads to snow fields where ice worms sometimes surface after dusk. Anywhere you go, you’re surrounded by history: Before its dramatic retreat this century, Portage Glacier provided a travel route from Prince William Sound to Turnagain Arm used by Native peoples and gold rush prospectors.
The valley showcases a living ecosystem still rebounding from the ice age, with plant life ranging from lichens struggling to colonize bare rock to groves of Sitka spruce looming over a mossy rain forest.
You can’t do it all in one weekend:
- Bike and hike. The five-mile Trail of Blue Ice links all the developed sites in Portage Valley with well-maintained gravel surface and handsome bridges spanning wetlands. The campground loops are generally serene and fun for kids. The Byron Glacier Trail leads up valley (southwest of the lake) 1.4 miles to the toe of the glacier.
- View wildlife. Less than a mile east is the Williwaw Fish Viewing Platform, with spawning salmon from mid- to late-summer. A 1.25-mile nature trail leads along spawning streams and offers a chance to see moose, Dall sheep and bears on the mountainsides. Forest birds abound. A great place to see and hear the elusive varied thrush.
- Visit the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center. Redesigned in 2001 and open in summers, the center overlooks the lake from the terminal moraine left behind in 1914 by the retreating glacier. Award-winning displays about the region’s culture, history and natural features. $5 fee.
- Drive through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel to Whittier and Prince William Sound. First blasted from solid rock by the U.S. Army during World War II for rail access to a secret military base, the 2.5-mile one-lane portal is the longest shared highway-train tunnel in North America. Travel from Bear Valley to Whittier is usually on the half-hour, depending on train traffic, and costs $13 for a passenger car. For more information on the Whittier Tunnel visit here.
- Ride the 80-foot MV Ptarmigan to the face of Portage Glacier. A privately operated cruise on the lake. More info at Portage Glacier Cruise.
- Fish. Rainbow trout are stocked by the state in the 9.6-acre Alder Pond at Mile 1.5 of Portage Valley Road. Salmon and Dolly Varden can be caught in Portage Creek. Try the mouth of Williwaw Creek just outside the entrance to Black Bear.
- Paddle. The valley has numerous calm ponds open to paddling, including a network of shallow channels that begin next to Alder Pond at Mile 1.5 and reach hundreds of yards into the wetland and forest. For families with experience, Portage Lake can be paddled along the north shore from the parking lot on the northeast corner to the gravel bars beneath Portage Pass. Portage Creek runs six miles from the lake through Class II conditions or less to a take-out just downstream of the Seward Highway, and is considered the easiest whitewater trip in the Anchorage area. Launch beside the visitor center below the bridge.
Black Bear is less than one mile from the much larger Williwaw Campground, with 60 sites. The two campgrounds generate very different vibes. Black Bear hunkers beneath a mature spruce canopy, shady and quiet, close to Williwaw Creek. Williwaw is more open to views, with paved loops suitable for big RVs amid a brushy forest in recovery from the occasional massive avalanche (in winter when it’s closed.) Both offer outhouses, picnic tables, fire rings, water pump and bear-proof vaults.
Black Bear’s dozen sites cost $14 per night, no reservations, and large RVs not recommended. Gathering of downed firewood should be doable. Located about Mile 3 of Portage Glacier Road about one mile before Williwaw Campground.
When it’s sunny and/or calm, Portage Valley may be one of the most stunning — and welcoming — destinations in the region. But check the forecast! As the low spot between the Gulf of Alaska and Cook Inlet, the valley can sometimes grow quite stormy, in effect a regional geographic venturi that channels hurricane force gusts and sideways rain.
For more info:
Here is a PDF map of Portage Valley