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Side Trips to Turnagain Arm & Portage Glacier

One of the world's great drives starts in Anchorage and leads roughly 50 miles south on the Seward Highway to Portage Glacier. It's the trip, not the destination, that makes it worthwhile. The two-lane highway along Turnagain Arm, chipped from the foot of the rocky Chugach Mountains, provides a platform to see a magnificent, ever-changing, mostly untouched landscape full of wildlife. There are a lot of interesting pull-outs all the way along the road. It will take at least half a day round-trip, and there's plenty to do for an all-day excursion. Use your headlights for safety even in daylight, and be patient if you get stuck behind a summertime line of cars -- if you pass, you'll just come up behind another line ahead. If traffic is stopped, it usually means someone has spotted belugas or Dall sheep near the road. Mileage markers count down from Anchorage. Bus tours follow the route and visit Portage Glacier. Gray Line of Alaska (tel. 800/544-2206 or 907/277-5581; www.graylineofalaska.com) offers a 7-hour trip that includes a stop in Girdwood and a boat ride on Portage Lake for $79 adults, $39 children 12 and under, twice daily in summer.

You can also see this awe-inspiring scenery -- and more -- from a train, although, of course, without stopping along the Arm for hikes or wildlife viewing. The Alaska Railroad (tel. 800/544-0552 or 907/265-2494; www.alaskarailroad.com) operates summer trains to Whittier and Seward that trace Turnagain Arm on the way (you can book the train and a Prince William Sound day boat with one call). Definitely also consider the railroad's day tour to the glaciated interior of the Kenai Peninsula, beyond Turnagain Arm where no road extends. That unique tour, called the "Glacier Discovery Train to Grandview," begins in Anchorage, Girdwood, Whittier, or Portage; if starting from Anchorage, the return from Portage is by bus. The tour costs $110 adults from Anchorage or Girdwood, $85 from Portage or Whittier, and roughly half price for children. There are several choices of what to do during your day in the backcountry: Take a hike led by a forest ranger at Spencer Glacier, go white-water rafting, or even use the whistle-stop service for your own, self-guided hike or expedition. The railroad and Forest Service are working on ambitious plans for a backcountry network of trails, campsites, public cabins, and rail stations, which will take a number of years to complete but parts of which are already usable.

Potter Marsh (Mile 117) -- Heading south from Anchorage, the Seward Highway descends a bluff to cross a broad marsh formed by water impounded behind the tracks of the Alaska Railroad. The marsh has a boardwalk from which you can watch a huge variety of birds. Salad-green grasses grow from sparkling green water.

Potter Section House (Mile 115) -- Located at the south end of Potter Marsh, the section house was an early maintenance station for the Alaska Railroad. Today it contains the offices of Chugach State Park, open during normal business hours, and, outside, a few old train cars and interpretive displays. Just across the road is the trail head for the Turnagain Arm Trail. It's a mostly level path running down the arm well above the highway, with great views breaking now and then through the trees. Hike as far as you like and then backtrack to your car; or, if you can arrange a one-way walk with a ride back from the other end, continue 4 miles to the McHugh Creek picnic area and trail head, or 9 miles to Windy Corner.

McHugh Creek (Mile 111) -- Four miles south of Potter is an inviting and memorable state park picnic area, perched on terraced rock above the ocean and bisected by a series of crashing rapids and waterfalls. A daily parking fee is $5. Above the picnic area starts a challenging dayhike with a 3,000-foot elevation gain to Rabbit Lake, which sits in a tundra mountain bowl, or to the top of 4,301-foot McHugh Peak. You don't have to climb all the way; there are spectacular views within an hour of the road. The trail branches from the Turnagain Arm Trail: Hike west (back toward Anchorage) to where it heads uphill.

On the highway, you will find that. from this point onward. most of the stops are on the right or ocean side of the road: Plan your stops on the outbound trip, not on the return. when you would have to make left turns across traffic.

Beluga Point (Mile 110) -- The state highway department probably didn't need to put up scenic overlook signs on this pullout, 1 1/2 miles south of McHugh Creek -- you would have figured it out on your own. The terrain is simply awesome, as the highway traces the edge of Turnagain Arm, below the towering cliffs of the Chugach Mountains. If the tide and salmon runs are right, you may see beluga whales, which chase the fish toward freshwater. Sometimes they overextend and strand themselves by the dozens in the receding tide, farther along, but they usually aren't harmed. The pullout has spotting scopes to improve the viewing. The farther right-hand pullouts over the next few miles have interpretive signs about the 1895 gold rush in this area and other topics.

Windy Point (Mile 106) -- Be on the lookout on the mountain side of the road for Dall sheep picking their way along the cliffs. It's a unique spot, for the sheep get much closer to people here than is usual in the wild; apparently, they believe they're safe. Windy Point is the prime spot, but you also have a good chance of seeing sheep virtually anywhere along this stretch of road. If cars are stopped, that's probably why; get well off the road and pay attention to traffic, which will still be passing at high speeds.

You may also see windsurfers in the gray, silty waters of the Arm. They're crazy. The water is a mixture of glacial runoff and the near-freezing ocean. Besides, the movement of water that creates the huge tides causes riverlike currents, with standing waves like rapids.

Tidal wave

Tides in Turnagain Arm rise and fall over a greater range than anywhere else in the United States, with a difference between an extreme high and low of more than 41 feet. When the tide is rising, the water can grow deeper by as much as 7 feet an hour, or a foot of water every 8 1/2 minutes. If your foot gets stuck in the mud, it takes less than an hour to drown. (Yes, that has really happened.) Amazing as that speed is, the tide here can go even faster. A breathtaking wall of water up to 6 feet tall called a bore tide can roar up Turnagain Arm twice a day. To see the ocean do such a thing is so unfamiliar it looks almost like science fiction, as the wide arc of foam rushes ahead of a noticeably deeper sea. You can (theoretically) predict the bore tide. Get a tide-table book, or look up the tide change on the Web (start at http://tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov and pull down "Products"). Note the size of the tidal range for the day you are visiting: The bore tide will be most noticeable during periods of large tides. (The magnitude of tides varies on the lunar cycle.) Find the time of low tide in Anchorage. Now add the following intervals to the time of the Anchorage low for a prediction of when the bore tide will pass each of these spots on the highway:

  • Beluga Point (Mile 110): 1 hour, 15 minutes
  • Bird Point (Mile 96): 2 hours, 15 minutes
  • Twentymile River (Mile 80): 4 hours

The best viewing is Beluga Point to Bird Point; at the latter wayside, a set of signs explains the tides, and tide tables are posted to predict the tidal bore.

Indian Valley (Mile 104) -- Up the road by the Turnagain House restaurant is the Indian Valley trail head, a gold rush-era trail that ultimately leads 24 miles to the other side of the mountains. The path, while often muddy, rises less steeply than other trails along the Arm.

Bird Ridge Trail (Mile 102) -- This is a lung-busting climb of 3,000 vertical feet in a little more than a mile. It starts with an easy, accessible trail, then rises steeply to views that start at impressive and get more amazing as you climb. With the southern exposure, it's dry early in the year. Parking is $5.

Bird Creek (Mile 101) -- If you stop, use the lot on the left side of the road before you reach the creek. The parking fee is $5. There are also a short trail, interpretive signs, an overlook, and a platform that makes fishing easier for people with disabilities. Pink salmon run from late June to mid-August, silver salmon mostly in August. A scenic bike trail starts here and runs 10 miles to Girdwood, much of it on an older highway alignment.

Bird Point (Mile 96) -- The remarkable wayside here is not to be missed. A paved pathway rises up to a bedrock outcropping with a simply wonderful view -- all the severity of the Turnagain Arm, but framed by the soft green of a freshwater wetland with a beaver lodge. Take a look at the fascinating interpretive signs on many subjects. A $5 day-use fee is charged for each vehicle at a self-service kiosk.

Turnoff to Girdwood (Mile 90) -- The attractions of Girdwood are worth a visit, but the shopping center here at the intersection is not chief among them. Stop for a simple meal or a restroom break (the convenience store has large public restrooms), or to fill your gas tank for the last time for many miles.

Old Portage (Mile 80) -- All along the flats at the head of Turnagain Arm are large marshes full of what looks like standing driftwood. These are trees killed by saltwater that flowed in when the 1964 quake lowered the land as much as 10 feet. On the right, 3/4 mile past the Twentymile River and across from the rail depot, a few ruins of the abandoned town of Portage are still visible, more than 45 years after the great earthquake.

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (Mile 79) -- The nonprofit center, developed with visitors in mind, gives homes to injured and orphaned deer, moose, owls, elk, bison, muskox, bear, fox, and caribous (tel. 907/783-2025; www.alaskawildlife.org). Visitors drive through the 200-acre compound to see the animals in fenced enclosures as large as 110 acres -- you can often get a close look at the animals, but the larger enclosures give them natural vegetation and the ability to get away from view if they want to. There's no need to visit both here and the Alaska Zoo. The zoo has more kinds of animals and it's a fun place to stroll, but the cages there are much smaller and often seem constricting. Here the animals' settings are more natural and perhaps more humane, but viewing is car based. A big log gift shop and outdoor snack bar are at the end of the tour. Admission is $10 for adults; $7.50 for military, seniors, and children 4 to 12, with a maximum of $30 per vehicle. Summer hours are daily 8am to 8pm (last vehicle in at 7:30pm); off-season hours vary but in the spring and fall are at least daily 10am to 5pm.

Portage Glacier (Take the 5 1/2-mile spur road at Mile 78) -- The named attraction has receded out of sight of the visitor center. (The glacier you can see is Burns.) When the center was built in 1985, it was predicted that Portage Glacier would keep floating on its 800-foot-deep lake until 2020. Instead, it withdrew to the far edge of the lake in 1995. Today the exhibits in the lakeside Begich-Boggs Visitor Center focus on the Chugach National Forest as a whole rather than just the glacier, and they're worth an hour to become oriented to the area's nature, history, and lifestyles. Children and adults find much to hold their interest here. Admission is $5 adults, free age 15 and younger. It is open from the end of May through September daily from 9am to 6pm. To see Portage Glacier itself, take the road toward Whittier that branches to the left just before the visitor center, and stop at a pullout beyond the first (toll-free) tunnel; or take the boat mentioned below.

Several short trails start near the center or along the spur road from the Seward Highway. Check at the center for ranger-led nature walks. The Moraine Trail is an easy, paved quarter-mile. Another trail leads less than a mile to Byron Glacier, in case you're interested in getting up close to some ice. Always dress warmly, as cold winds are the rule in this funnel-like valley.

A day boat operated by Gray Line of Alaska (tel. 800/478-6388, 907/277-5581 for reservations, or 783-2983 at the lake; www.graylineofalaska.com) traverses the lake to within a few hundred yards of Portage Glacier on hour-long tours, ice conditions permitting. It costs $29 adults, $15 ages 12 and under, and goes five times daily in summer, every 90 minutes starting at 10:30am. If this is your only chance to see a glacier in Alaska, it's a good choice, but if your itinerary includes any of the great glaciers in Prince William Sound, Kenai Fjords National Park, or the like, you won't be as impressed by Portage. Sandwiches and other simple meals are sold at a cafeteria near the visitor center called the Portage Glacier Lodge (tel. 907/783-3117). There are no lodgings in Portage, but two Forest Service campgrounds are on the road to the visitor center, with 72 sites between them. At the Williwaw Campground, there's also a place to watch red salmon spawning in mid-August, but no fishing.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.