This story originally appeared in the Alaska Dispatch News on December 27, 2016.
It’s been a frenetic few weeks. Holiday cards, shopping, schlepping kids, cooking — you name it, we’ve done it. The Christmas season and subsequent vacation days are a delightful cacophony of activity, but we always make sure to invest at least one full day to retreat into Alaska’s quiet outdoor spaces. This year, in between the busyness, we found falling snow and untouched space along Portage Valley’s Trail of Blue Ice.
Full of campers, tour buses and outdoor enthusiasts all summer, Portage Valley hops between May and September. Eager glacier-viewers stop by Portage Lake for a visit to the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, operated by the Chugach National Forest, or crowd the banks along the Williwaw Nature Trail for a glimpse of spawning salmon. The Portage Highway, a 5-mile cut through Portage Valley, is full of vehicles and looky-loos straining to catch a glimpse of the hanging glaciers that give the Trail of Blue Ice its distinctive name.
But come winter, a hush falls over the landscape, and as snow piles up, a new slate of opportunity arises for those seeking solitude and scenery, with a bit of backcountry ruggedness.
Planned and constructed over several years beginning in 2002 by Chugach National Forest, the Trail of Blue Ice is one of the most attractive aspects of the Portage Valley due to its flat terrain and ample opportunities for scenery and wildlife spotting. In the non-snow months, the trail tread is a wide gravel surface. Come winter that surface is replaced by snowfall that creates the perfect platform for skiers, snowshoers, or fat bike riders eager to experience a bit of Alaska backcountry on a doable platform.
For us, recreational-style Nordic skiers, and our son, an avid snowshoer, the trail represented a way to diversify individual interests without compromising fun.
Users have several options for winter access. The easiest ways are to start at either Moose Flats Day Use Area just past the turnoff from the Seward Highway; or at Portage Lake near the seasonally shuttered Begich, Boggs Visitor Center. For casual day use, an out-and-back ski or hike is perfect for smaller legs with plenty to see and do along the trail. For those with bigger kids or longer legs, bring two cars and park one at your destination end, making a one-way trip of five miles.
It is possible to park at a few locations along the trail as well, including Explorer Glacier Viewing Area, located about 1.5 miles from Moose Flats; and Williwaw Salmon Viewing Platform, located approximately 1 mile from the Portage Lake parking lot. Keep in mind that while gates may be open, heavy snowfall can make entrance or exit cumbersome, so be prepared with adequate vehicle clearance and the tools to dig out, if necessary.
What attracts us to the Trail of Blue Ice during a long Alaska winter is the same scenery we ogle over in the summertime. But it becomes a completely new experience with a few feet of snow on the ground and coating tree branches. Standing dead trees become ghostly figures with beards of snow or hoarfrost, and familiar landmarks like the campground are far more fun to explore with no vehicles around.
In fact, taking time to visit Williwaw Campground or nearby Black Bear Campground can be one of the best parts of the day. We enjoyed looking at our favorite seasonal campsites, the picnic tables covered in tall hats of snow, the ground pockmarked with the tracks of snowshoe hares and moose. Campgrounds can be perfect places to teach kids the basics of backcountry nordic skiing or snowshoeing — the terrain is flat and the series of loops make for a more-interesting experience. And, as a bonus, if you park at the Williwaw lot, you can pack in firewood, snacks and a hot drinks for a snowy picnic, which of course makes an ordinary outdoor adventure much better in most kids’ minds.
The Trail of Blue Ice also boasts extensive boardwalks and bridges over the tangle of creeks that crisscross the trail, adding to the experience. Some open water was still visible during our ski last weekend, and we watched several birds, including a dipper, make a beeline for the creek. A lone eagle soared overhead in the stiff breeze buzzing through the valley, probably in search of a snowshoe hare or ermine.
The trail is not groomed during the winter, but we found it easy to navigate ski tracks of previous visitors, and snowshoes were perfect for the off-trail exploring done by our 12-year-old around the campground sites. If children can adequately pick themselves up when they fall and manage their skis or snowshoes independently using poles, they should have little trouble.
What you need to know
While it’s relatively simple to find the Trail of Blue Ice, it’s another thing to manage a successful outing in the often variable and sometimes nasty weather of Portage Valley. The forecast for the area warned of heavy snow and wind later in the day, so we left town early and packed the SUV with everything we might need in case of a weather delay, or worse, an absolute whiteout, which can happen.
There are no services available in Portage Valley during the winter. Begich, Boggs Visitor Center is closed, as is the little restaurant across the parking lot. There are no bathrooms available, either, save for the great outdoors, so practice excellent backcountry stewardship by planning ahead and packing out what you bring.
Remember warm clothing, a sleeping bag or blankets, a shovel to dig out in case the snow falls faster than you can get out of your parking spot, extra water (snowshoeing and skiing are hard work), headlamps or another light source, and a first aid kit. Cell service is extremely spotty in the valley, so be sure someone knows where you are headed and when you plan to return, just in case. And, as a reminder, the Chugach National Forest cautions against venturing out on Portage Lake. Ice thickness is variable and as unpredictable as the valley weather itself.
There are no fees for using this section of the Chugach National Forest during the winter, and you won’t encounter much company. So embrace the cold, savor the scenery and welcome a new year with a dose of Alaska outdoors.
Erin Kirkland is author of “Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th State With Children” and publisher of AKontheGO.com, Alaska’s only family travel and outdoor recreation resource.