This capital city is located on the northern edge of the Inside Passage and is the third largest city in the state with a population just over 30,000. Although it is not directly accessed by road, Juneau is a major tourist destination and a favorite cruise ship port of call.
When you first step off your cruise ship in Juneau, Alaska, you encounter a downtown area with plenty of unique storefronts that will entice you to stop in and pick-up an authentic Alaskan keepsake. You may feel the need to try the some fresh seafood at the world famous Tracy’s King Crab Shack-with a water front view of the harbor. Or, you may be eyeing a couple of pints at the Red Dog Saloon while you are entertained by the ragtime music and historic motif.
Port of Juneau, Alaska
While all great reasons to stay in town, there is one giant reason why you should venture beyond the port to explore more of Juneau, and that is the Mendenhall Glacier!
The Mendenhall Glacier
Located about 12 miles from downtown, the Mendenhall Glacier sits at the edge of the Juneau Icefield, a 1,500 sq. mile area that is home to about 140 glaciers. This famous glacier is a must-see for anyone who stops in Juneau as part of a cruise vacation.
The Face on Mendenhall Glacier
Formed over a period of 3,000 years, the Mendenhall Glacier is composed of layers of unmelted snow that over time have been compacted to form glacial ice. The heavy compacting of these layers results in ice that is so dense, it absorbs all colors but blue. Photographers can capture the bluest hues of ice from atop the glacier, peering into one of the many crevasses.
Deep Blue Ice from Mendenhall Glacier
Currently, the glacier is about 12 miles long, and at its widest point, is over three miles wide. At its deepest points, the Mendenhall Glacier exceeds 200 feet worth of ice. The odds are that you will stay closer to the face of the glacier, or closer to the Mendenhall Lake. This portion of the glacier is about 100 feet tall (i.e. thick) and spans over a mile wide. Now that is one big ice cube!
Most travelers don’t realize that glaciers are constantly moving – they are either advancing (i.e., building additional layers of ice and growing) or receding (i.e., melting and shrinking in size). The Mendenhall Glacier is currently receding, resulting in the formation of the Mendenhall Lake in the 1950s at the face of the glacier.
Today, the glacier is some 2.5 miles farther north from Juneau than it was only 60 years ago, with the glacier continuing to recede and the size of the lake increasing each year. While it would take centuries for the Mendenhall Glacier to completely disappear, you probably want to make it a point to see this natural wonder sooner rather than later to capture its true massiveness.
Seeing the Mendenhall Glacier
The Mendenhall Glacier is visible from multiple points around the city, and travelers have several options to see and explore the surrounding areas of this impressive site.
If you are eager to see the surrounding wildlife and landscapes at the face of the glacier, then you can take public transportation or a taxi to the Mendenhall Visitor Center, an approximately 20-minute drive from the port. Here, you can explore more of the Mendenhall Lake and scenic vistas via various hiking trails.
The U.S.D.A. Forest Service has reserved over 5,000 acres as the Mendenhall Recreation Area, and hours can be spent hiking the numerous trails (of varying difficulty) to see the glacier from different vantage points. Picturesque landscapes are plentiful. At the very least, you need to walk the short Photo Point Trail, allowing for some once-in-a-lifetime selfies.
If you want to explore this area a little more, you can also hike to other great sites like Nugget Falls and possibly encounter some black bears, mountain goats, and other wildlife during your trek.
Exploring the Mendenhall Glacier
If you are a bit more adventurous, you can actually hike on top of the Mendenhall Glacier. Having walked on this glacier during our last Alaskan cruise, we highly recommend you consider this vantage point.
View from Above Mendenhall Glacier
Once on top of the glacier, you will begin to grasp the sheer size of this spectacular ice formation as surrounding mountain tops and snow are all you can see for miles. Get your cameras ready to capture photos of the glacier and all the panoramic views that you will encounter during your trek. Speaking with the guides, you can learn more about the formation of the glacier as well as its current conditions to fully appreciate this natural wonder.
On Mendenhall Glacier
Traveling Beyond the Port
Sure, Juneau offers some great city highlights in downtown, but if you are traveling to this Alaskan port of call on a cruise, take the time to experience the Mendenhall glacier – either by land, by air, or by ice. You will be glad you did!