The sun was bright and warm on March 22 of this year as I hiked along a 20-inch-wide, snow-packed trail toward Byron Glacier, with snow on each side of the trail at least three feet deep.
Located near Portage Lake about 50 miles south of Anchorage, the trail is flat and only gains about 300 feet over 1.6 miles. But on this day the road to the trailhead was not plowed, making it the beginning of the trail – adding about a mile to the trip.
I had brought snowshoes, but was delighted to find a well-packed trail. Now in my seventh week after a knee replacement, I hadn’t planned on pushing all the way to the end of the trail. I simply wanted to get out and enjoy some beautiful March sunshine in the Kenai Mountains.
Traffic was definitely one-way, so for the few folks I met along the way, I stepped off the trail to let them pass.
Driving south from Anchorage, you turn left onto the Portage Glacier Highway from Mile 78.9 of the Seward Highway. Proceeding east about five miles, you bear to the right when you see a sign for the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center. Keep bearing right after another fork. In summer you’ll be able to drive an additional mile to the Byron Glacier Trailhead and further to the boat tour dock.
On this March day, and I suspect until late April or May, the snow has not been plowed and you can only drive to the beginning of the Byron Glacier Road, where there is a very small parking area carved out of the snow. From this point it’s a trail.
I took my kids on the trail when they were very young, and I was amazed that we could hike to the base of a glacier and hardly ascend much above sea level. The pictures I took made it look as if we were high in the mountains.
Towering above the upper glacier is 4,590-foot Byron Peak—destination for skilled and experienced mountain climbers, including members of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska (MCA).
Because of avalanche danger in winter, summer and autumn are much better times to take the trail all the way in—and it really is a good family excursion. On our trip we hiked onto the snowfields and found ice worms, which until that time I thought were a myth. They are about as slender as a thread, black, and about an inch long.
According to the book, “55 Ways to the Wilderness”, by Helen Nienhueser and John Wolfe Jr., these tiny annelids are relatives of the earthworm. They crawl onto the snowy surface of glaciers and snowfields where they eat pollen and algae.
Famed outdoor adventurer Roman Dial, an Alaskan, has done extensive research on ice worms throughout the world.
Windless Day is Sublime:
A bluebird day in this area without wind is indeed a blessing. I stomped out an area off the trail in front of some trees and enjoyed a mid-day lunch. A few people passed by and mentioned that the final ½ mile to the end of the trail required snowshoes.
With this year’s heavy snowpack caked on the nearby mountains and rising temperatures in early afternoon, I’m not sure I’d want to venture all the way in to the glacier.
I noticed several folks out on the lake, skiing and simply walking. I’m not sure the trail was packed hard enough for fat-tire bikes – but a friend said he’d recently ridden across to the glacier with his wife.
On the drive out I looked briefly for the Trail of Blue Ice that begins at the Moose Flats Day Use Area and follows the valley floor for five miles to the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center. However, I must not have looked hard enough – because I didn’t see ski tracks – and I know people ski and snowshoe the trail in winter.
A visit to Portage Valley and the lake in late winter/early spring is always a treat, with majestic Bard Peak, 3,698 feet, looming over a breathtaking landscape blanketed in snowy, glistening whiteness.
Editor’s Note: Frank E. Baker is a member of the ECHO News team, an avid outdoorsman and a freelance writing living in Eagle River with his wife, Rebekah, a retired Anchorage School District teacher. Reach Frank at: email@example.com