Saturday, August 22, 2015

Portage Valley: Camping, Running, and Playing with Kids (Williwaw and Black Bear Campgrounds, Begich Boggs Visitor Center, Portage Glacier)

Portage Valley is one of those places that is truly breath-taking each and every time you visit. Surrounded by mountains with glaciers of varying types and sizes and hues peeking out nearly everywhere you look, the two campgrounds, visitors center, and miles of trails dotted with info-graphics offer activities that appeal to nearly every type of visitor. 

This week I camped there alone with the kids, who at three and one are in that tricky age range that can actually be very hard to get out and do stuff with. Riggs wants to do everything but gets so excited that he often has a hard time following rules and instructions. Raina wants to explore independently but since she still can't walk it's not always possible for her to be out of the carrier or stroller. Camping with them is often really fun, but always a tiring excursion for me since I'm always having to keep a hawk eye on them. There were so many places to explore in Portage Valley that we all had fun for over 24 hours without a single meltdown and all you moms out there know that's basically a miracle!

We pitched our tent at one of the 60 sites in the Williwaw Campground. There are two campgrounds in Portage Valley, the Williwaw and the Black Bear Campground, which is geared mostly toward tent and small RV camping and only has 13 sites. The Williwaw has paved roads and campsites whereas Black Bear Campground is all dirt roads and sites. But both have very spacious and private campsites, with large, flat tent-pads and fancy fire rings with multiple grate options for cooking. Both also have huge picnics tables that are too big for the table-cloth clamps most people have. 

One thing that often makes me sad at campgrounds; Squirrels that are clearly used to being
fed by people camping there. This squirrel lived in a tree next to our campsite and came
right up to me hoping for food. 
I go very minimal when camping for one night, especially when it's just me and the kids.
Small tent, air mattress (this is one must for us and we never camp without it), sleeping bags,
a pillow for Riggs and I, and blanket for Raina. As far as food goes, I had one small bag, plus
a small cooler with apples, strawberries, some roast turkey breast, and yogurt. We had the turkey and
sweet potato chips for dinner, larabars, yogurt, raisins, squeezes for snacks, and instant oatmeal with
cut up apples and nuts for breakfast. The caramel corn was dessert the first night. We didn't
even eat everything we brought. If Steve were along we would have needed twice that much haha.
Very large campsites with plenty of room for large RVs.
I like the fancy fire ring, it felt more safe and would have been
great for cooking meals with.
Breakfast at our campsite. I use a simple burner hooked to a propane can to heat water for the oatmeal.
We had a fire because it was pretty chilly and Riggs really wanted one.
The Trail of Blue Ice: very well maintained and well marked.

The two campgrounds are connected by a short trail and both have access to the Trail of Blue Ice, which is 4.5 miles one way connecting all of the US Forest Service facilities, from Moose Flats Day Use area to the Begich Boggs Visitor Center. There are a few other points of interest along the Trail of Blue Ice, including the Williwaw Fish Viewing Platform, the Williwaw Nature Trial, and the Gary Williams Nature Trail, for a total of over 10 miles of trail. That doesn't include the trail to Byron Glacier, which is just under a mile one way. From the Chugach Visitor Guide:

"A walk in the woods that is fun for the whole family...The wide trail allows for side-by-side strolling and has an accessible, smooth surface of gravel, pavement, or wood decking.  The views are spectacular as you walk along the creek and through glacial valleys."

I loved this aspect of camping in Portage Valley because it meant we could park the truck and leave it and get plenty of exercise during our time there. I was able to fit a 5 mile run in which is really nice considering that usually a family overnight trip is at the sacrifice of my running schedule. I imagine that with older kids it would be great to bring bikes for fun and for transportation to the visitors center.

Morning run on the trails. Riggs loved the boardwalks and bridges so I stopped so he could get out and explore.

The Begich Boggs Visitor Center sits on the shore of Portage Lake, and it's view has changed quite a big since I was Riggs' age. I remember feeling the cold air flowing off the ice-burg filled lake when we visited when I was a young child. We visited once on a school field-trip and the park ranger showed us ice worms right there at the bottom of the stairs leading down to the lake. 

Now there's not an iceberg to be found and portage glacier is barely visible from the visitors center at all. Luckily there is an hour long boat tour that takes visitors right up to the glacier, with Forest Service interpreters providing narration during each trip. I think it's about $40 for adults and half that for children, but I'm not sure of the exact price.

The Visitor Center is definitely worth a visit in my opinion, especially if it's rainy, like it is 80% of the time in Portage Valley. There are restrooms, a small gift shop, and an information desk available to visit and use for free. For $5 per adult (children 15 and under are free) you gain access to the rest of the center, including about three or four wings of exhibits and an award-winning film about the Chugach National Forest. 

For us it was a welcome opportunity to let the kids explore and play a bit, especially Raina, who was able to crawl around anywhere she pleased. This is a very child-friendly visitor center, with lots for them to explore with their hands and eyes. There was even a giant ice-worm for the kids to climb and crawl all over - Riggs especially loved that. 

Inside the Begich Boggs Visitor Center - lots for kids to enjoy.

Beautiful quick run back to Williwaw campground (1.5 miles) - the kids fell asleep and slept while I broke down camp.

It's pretty clear that we had a blast during our short stay in Portage Valley. Let me break down the pros and any cons I can come up with for you:

  1. CAMPSITES: large, private, great tent-pads, very safe-feeling fire rings.
  2. TRAILS: beautiful, well-maintained, double-stroller friendly, informational.
  3. ACTIVITES: salmon viewing, visitors center, walk-up glacier less than a mile away.
  4. LOCATION: close to Anchorage (nice to have a short drive with young kids)
  1. WEATHER: usually pretty rainy and windy. We definitely lucked out with gorgeous weather during our visit. However, it's still a very fun place to visit even with wet, nasty weather, especially if you have a camper or a good rain-fly for your tent.
  2. BUGS: this trip there were quite a few flies early in the morning and late in the evening. They were more annoying than anything, and kept their distance once the fire was going. Stick to campsites 35-59 to avoid the buggier sites.
  1. Black Bear Campground: This campground is small but has very spacious sites. Not quite as private as the Williwaw sites because there are more spruce trees than leafed trees. I think the sites on the back of the loop (5-8) are nice because they are close to the river, have shortcuts to the Trail of Blue Ice, and lots of big rocks and trees for kids to play amongst. 
  2. Williwaw Campground: Our favorite. Truly a gem of a campground with the nicest campground hosts this year too. We like the campsites on the last two loops, but the first two loops have a beautiful view and are closest to the other campground and to the Salmon Viewing Deck.
  3. Salmon Viewing Deck: If you have kids with you, this would be a great spot to come hang out in August and the first week in September. I would bring a camp chair if you're lazy like me haha. Both my kids (yes, even Raina) loved watching the salmon and would have stayed much longer than the 20 minutes we were there if time would have allowed (we stopped there on our way home). 
  4. Whittier: One thing I haven't mentioned thus far is that the tunnel to Whittier is literally five minutes away from the campgrounds. Visiting Whittier is another must-do for Alaskan's and visitors alike, and camping in Portage Valley is a great way to enjoy a full day in Whittier. There's glacier cruises (see my post about our trip last year, here), kayaking, fishing, and lots of hiking (see fellow Alaskan blogger Kelsey's post about hiking Portage Pass from Whittier, here). Plus traveling through the tunnel is an experience in its own right.
  5. Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center: Another great activity to enjoy during the day while camping in Portage Valley is the AWCC right across the Seward Highway from the Portage Valley Highway turnoff. I will be doing a separate post about our visit there, but I will take the time to say this is a must-do when visiting Alaska or for those who live here. Great experience for a great price that supports a great cause. 

Williwaw Salmon Observation Deck. The kids loved this!
Beautiful glacier views in the Williwaw Campground - Portage Valley.

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