A very pretty corner of Alaska can only be accessed in a unique way. If you want to go to the town of Whittier, you will need to detour off the Seward Highway, through the beautiful glacier-carved Bear Valley, and then through a one-lane tunnel that serves cars and trains. And if that’s not enough, you’ll also find a helpful visitor center, and a cruise line that takes you up-close to a very big chunk of ice.
Portage Glacier Road is located south of Anchorage, Alaska, at the end of Turnagain Arm (just before the Seward Highway curves onto the Kenai Peninsula). After the junction, follow Portage Glacier Road to the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, a small tunnel, a scenic view parking area, and then the waiting area for the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. As of 2016, the tunnel toll was $13 for an average-size car. Traffic heads into Whittier on the half-hour, and out of Whittier on the hour (subject to change, or delay due to railroad traffic).
During my first visit to Alaska, I didn’t take the time to drive out Portage Glacier Road. I figured that I didn’t need to, and that I didn’t want to spend the money to drive out to Whittier, then turn around and come back. Because of that decision, I missed a beautiful drive, and the fun experience of driving through the tunnel. Oh, and Whittier is an interesting town, too. But let’s start at the beginning.
When you turn off of Seward Highway, you’ll drive for a few miles through Bear Valley — the isthmus that connects mainland Alaska with the Kenai Peninsula. The road is surrounded by beautiful mountains, as it runs alongside Portage Creek — the drainage from Portage Lake to Turnagain Arm. The creek is popular for easy rafting trips.
I found one side road that led down to a nice view of Portage Creek. Other than that, Portage Glacier Road doesn’t provide a lot of opportunities for stopping until you reach the first of two tunnels. Before passing through that tunnel, you’ll definitely want to detour over to the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center.
The modern facility is situated on the western edge of Portage Lake (the same lake you’ll see if you hike to Portage Pass, out of Whittier). Portage Glacier used to reach this spot, back around 1914.
The Begich, Boggs Visitor Center is filled with exhibits that will teach you about glaciers and the Portage Valley. Admission is usually $5, although it was free on the day of my visit (I’m not sure why). Even if it hadn’t been free, I could have used my National Parks annual pass for free access.
Back outside the visitor center, you can enjoy the view of Portage Lake, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see some big ice cubes floating around in it. These miniature icebergs are fragments from Portage Glacier, which is just out of view from the visitor center. A few decades ago, you could see it from here, but since then, it has receded around the corner.
Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel
Whittier, Alaska would be very isolated from the rest of the world, if not for the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. Engineers creatively solved some challenging problems in order to provide vehicle and railroad access to the town, without building an ugly freeway or otherwise impacting the environment. In the process, they set some records: this is the longest highway tunnel in North America (at 2.5 miles), the longest combined rail-and-highway-use tunnel in North America, and the first tunnel designed to withstand temperatures of -40 degrees, and 150 mile per hour winds.
The original railroad tunnel was built by the U.S. Army, and was completed in 1943. The military pulled out in the 1950’s, and Whittier transformed into a commercial port. By the 1960’s, the demand for vehicle access led to flat-bed rail cars carrying cars in and out of town. It wasn’t a very efficient system, and it couldn’t keep up with demand. But, it wasn’t until 1998 that work began to convert the old tunnel into a modern, computerized, well-ventilated operation that could switch between inbound cars, outbound cars, and rail traffic. The project was completed in 2000.
If you’re headed into Whittier, you’ll want to arrive shortly before the half-hour. Inbound traffic passes through the tunnel at :30 past the hour, while outbound traffic (leaving Whittier) flows through the tunnel at the top of the hour. You’ll have, perhaps, a 15-minute window to travel in either direction, then the tunnel is shut down and ventilated to remove fumes. If a train needs to go through, cars on both ends will have to wait until the train passes, and the tunnel is ventilated.
Driving through the tunnel is an odd experience. It’s narrow in most spots, but there are wide spots that allow for disabled vehicles to pull out. Your tires will slip in and out of the rail grooves, but it’s just a minor annoyance. Traffic lights alert you of any problems.
After two and a half miles of driving in a straight line, you emerge in Whittier! I’ll show you what to expect in town, on the next page.
The Bottom Line
If you have the time, include a drive out to Whittier in your Alaska road trip. If you can’t spare enough time to make the drive through the tunnel, it’s still worth your while to drive out to Portage Lake and the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center.
Here’s a time-lapse look at the drive out to the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center…
… and a look at the drive through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel: