Skip to Content

Portage Glacier Cruise: A Scenic Adventure In Alaska

The Portage Glacier cruise is worth considering when looking for a unique and unforgettable experience in Alaska. Located in the Chugach National Forest, the glacier is easily accessible from Anchorage and Whittier for those on a one-way Alaska cruise.

While there are several viewpoints from which to look up the lake from the Portage Glacier Road, the mountains shield the glacier’s terminus. 

This unique setting allows tour-goers to enjoy breathtaking views of icebergs, wildlife, and calving glaciers, making the scenic cruise a truly unforgettable experience.

Portage Glacier, as seen from my cruising vessel
This post may contain affiliate links. If you purchase from an affiliate link, I may receive a very small commission, which does not result in additional charges to you. Full disclosure here.

I took the short Portage Glacier cruise as part of my 14-day cruise and land tour with Holland America. While my itinerary included the scenic cruise as a stopping point between Whittier and my Alyeska Hotel, I include how to get there from Anchorage and Whittier in this guide.

Whether you’re a nature lover, photographer, or simply looking for a fun activity to or from Anchorage, a Portage Glacier cruise is a great option.

Overview Of Portage Glacier

Due to the glacier’s proximity to Anchorage, visitors don’t have to travel far to see one of the most beautiful natural wonders in the world. 

The Portage Glacier cruise is a fantastic budget option, lasting just one hour and costing under USD 50. 

If you’re considering the six-hour 26 Glacier Cruise but are put off by its extended itinerary, this cruise offers a shorter and more budget-friendly alternative, ensuring you get the most out of your Alaskan adventure without breaking the bank.

Portage Glacier is part of the Portage Valley, a favored destination for visitors looking to explore the Alaskan wilderness. The glacier is a remnant of the last ice age and is one of the most visited glaciers in Alaska due to its road accessibility.

Close up of Portage Glacier
Close up of Portage Glacier

Historical Background

The history of Portage Glacier is fascinating. It has been an important part of the Alaskan landscape for centuries. In the late 1800s, Thomas Corwin Mendenhall named the glacier, and a famous glacier bears his name in Juneau.

A century ago, Portage Glacier filled the area that the lake covers today. Like most glaciers in Alaska, it has rapidly retreated in the last century.

Planning Your Cruise

The best time to visit Portage Glacier is May through September, when the weather is mild and the glacier is accessible. However, keep in mind that the weather can be unpredictable, so it’s always a good idea to check the forecast before your trip.

Here are some tips to help you plan your trip.

Left side of Portage Glacier
Left side of Portage Glacier

What To Bring

Due to the unpredictable nature of Alaska’s weather, I always pack a few things to make my trip more comfortable. Here are some essentials:

  • Warm clothing: Even in the summer months, the temperature on the water can be chilly. Wear a warm jacket, hat, and gloves to stay cozy.
  • Sunscreen: The sun can be intense when reflecting off the water, so using sunscreen ensures skin protection.
  • Camera: To capture the incredible vistas of the glacier and its surroundings, bring a fully charged camera or smartphone to take photos. For video, we use the DJI OM5 to provide stabilization.
  • Binoculars: Binoculars help to provide a closer look at the glacier and any wildlife nearby.

Booking Tickets

To secure a spot on a Portage Glacier cruise, booking tickets in advance is advisable. The cruise offers daily time slots: 10:30 am, noon, 1:30 pm, 3 pm, and 4:30 pm. 

Tickets are available online or through a tour operator in Anchorage. The Portage Glacier cruise costs USD 49 for adults and USD 29 for children.

Some tours offer transportation to and from Anchorage, while others necessitate driving to the glacier. One option, a Portage Glacier Cruise Tour, includes a visit to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Tours with transportation include the cruise fare and wildlife center entry fee.

Right side of Portage Glacier
Right side of Portage Glacier

Getting There

There are a few different ways to get to Portage Glacier. Here are some of the most common transportation options:

Transportation OptionsCost
Car rental from AnchorageUSD 100+ a day
Car rental from WhittierUSD 250+ a day
Portage Glacier Cruise Tour from AnchorageUSD 119
Cruise line tour with drop-offUSD 119+

The 50-mile journey from Anchorage to Portage Glacier is scenic, with plenty of photo opportunities along the way. The one-hour journey travels on the Seward Highway along the coast of Turnagain Arm, then turns off onto the Portage Glacier Road. 

The best time to visit is between mid-July and August, when beluga whales can be spotted in Turnagain Arm.

From Whittier, it’s only a 7.5-mile drive. However, to reach Portage Glacier Cruises, the route travels through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel which carries a toll of USD 13.

Approaching the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel
Approaching the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel

Since the one-lane tunnel shares its road with trains and the direction of travel changes every 30 minutes, expect the 7.5-mile journey to take 25 minutes or longer. Plan for delays if unplanned trains require access through the tunnel.

Once at Portage Lake, parking is available at the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center.

When taking a one-way cruise to or from the Whittier cruise terminal, most cruise lines offer the Portage Glacier excursion with drop-off in Anchorage or Whittier. This tour is not available for those doing a back-to-back cruise.

Onboard Experience

The 200-person MV Ptarmigan is the only boat providing access to Portage Glacier. Since the lake and glacier sit on National Forest Service lands, the tour operator requires a special use permit to ferry guests across the water.

MV Ptarmigan
MV Ptarmigan

My guided tour of Portage Glacier was narrated by a US Forest Service representative who provided information about the glacier’s history, geology, and ecology. 

They explained the creation of glaciers, how they move, and how their ice mass shapes the surrounding landscape. They will also point out any wildlife that we may see along the way, such as eagles, bears and mountain goats. Portage Lake is a dead Lake with no plants or fish, due to its high level of silt.

MV Ptarmigan has a fully enclosed, heated cabin with basic seating. With large windows, guests can easily view the scenery indoors during bad weather.

Inside MV Ptarmigan
Inside MV Ptarmigan

We had great weather during our cruise, so we took advantage of the open upper deck. It allowed for fresh air and unobstructed viewing for picture taking.

During our tour, we had the incredible experience of getting within 300 feet of the glacier’s face. This massive ice formation has retreated around a sizeable rocky landscape at its foot. 

The ice now meets the water on each side of the rocky terrain, creating a breathtaking sight that you won’t want to miss.

Icebergs dotted the waters around us, and these are called ‘growlers’ or ‘bergy bits.’ The former are smaller in size and are usually visible up to three feet above the water line. As the air bubbles in the ice escape, they make animal growling sounds, hence their name. 

The latter, ‘bergy bits, ‘are larger and considered anything over three feet or one meter. These unique ice formations are a fascinating part of the glacier’s ecosystem.

The touring vessel has a restroom onboard but no place to purchase food or drinks. However, for a one-hour excursion, we didn’t think this was necessary. We recommend bringing your own snacks and drinks if needed.

The Begich, Boggs Visitor Center

The Begich Boggs Visitor Center
The Begich Boggs Visitor Center

The Begich Boggs Visitor Center, which sits on the edge of Portage Lake, opens from Memorial Day in May to Labor Day in September. It’s a short drive from Girdwood or the Alyeska Resort, where we were staying.

While the visitor center is complimentary, there’s a small entry fee to access its exhibits and a movie. We learned about the Chugach National Forest, glacial retreat, and the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.

The 9.2-magnitude earthquake, the largest recorded in the United States, devastated the nearby towns of Portage and Valdez and the Girdwood area.

When driving from Anchorage to Portage Lake, look for the remnants of Portage. The ghost town still has a few buildings buried in the landscape and signs of the once lush forest, which succumbed to the salt water.

Exploring Portage Valley

The Portage Glacier cruise isn’t the only way to explore Portage Valley. Locals take kayaks and paddleboards on the lake, and there are several great hiking trails.

Waterfall on Portage Lake
Waterfall on Portage Lake

Hiking Trails

One of Portage Valley’s most popular hiking trails is the Trail of Blue Ice. This 7-mile, out-and-back easy route is often used by bikers. With little elevation gain, it’s a great choice for novice hikers, who can choose to hike a portion of the trail.

The route travels through a beautiful glacial landscape, with lots of chances to capture beautiful photos.

Another great hiking trail in Portage Valley is the Byron Glacier Trail. This trail is rated moderate even with its shorter distance of 2.3 miles. It travels to the base of the Byron Glacier for an up-close look at the ice.

For an aerial view of Portage Glacier, head to the Portage Glacier Pass. The 4-mile roundtrip hike starts in Whittier. If you’re coming from Anchorage, bear in mind that access is on the other side of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.

Like the Byron Glacier trail, this one is moderately rated. The first section is a steep incline and rocky, but once at the peak, it’s downhill to the lake. While making it to the pass provides lovely views of the lake and glacier, continuing to the lake’s edge is rewarding.

Wildlife And Nature

Portage Valley is home to a variety of Alaskan wildlife, including moose, black bears, and bald eagles. While we couldn’t see whales on the Portage Glacier cruise because the tour crossed a lake, there was an opportunity to spot them along the Turnagain Arm.

Turnagain Arm
Turnagain Arm

During our visit, we were lucky enough to spot a moose grazing in a nearby field. We also saw several bald eagles soaring high above us.

The natural beauty of Portage Valley is genuinely mesmerizing, surrounded by towering mountains and glaciers. Whether taking the scenic cruise or exploring the road between Anchorage and Whittier, there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the stunning scenery. 

Recap Of The Portage Glacier Cruise

We had a fantastic time on the Portage Glacier Cruise! The area’s picturesque views, including surrounding mountains and glaciers, were breathtaking. 

The one-hour cruise on Portage Lake was the perfect amount of time to take in the sights of the area after our 7-day cruise and the ideal beginning to the exciting land tour ahead.

Overall, we’d recommend the Portage Glacier Cruise to families who aren’t looking for a long excursion and anyone visiting the Anchorage area. It’s a great way to experience Alaska’s beauty and learn about its unique ecosystem. 

Portage Glacier, snow, and waterfall seen on the Portage Glacier cruise