Have you ever seen the beautiful blue ice of a glacier other than in a movie or a book? And why is it so blue? You’ll find answers to questions like these, along with some really impressive sights and history, at this most unlikely must-see destination…
Set in a cliff above the valley floor, the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center has huge curving windows that afford an elevated and panoramic view of Mendenhall Glacier. It is the first United States National Forest visitor center built in the United States, and was designed by Linn A. Forrest and dedicated in 1962.
Exhibits in the Center cover the history of Mendenhall Glacier, showing how it covered the valley when Joseph Whidbey, master of the the HMS Discovery, explored the area in 1794 to what is happening due to climate change today. They also depict the variety of wildlife in the area, including mountain goats, wolves, black bears and salmon in the nearby streams.
Here within the multitude of exhibits and a spectacular film, you will find the answers to questions such as “How does the Mendenhall Glacier move?” and “How does the glacier shape the ecosystem of the valley?” Rangers help you interpret information and point out wild life with telescopes. They’re also happy to answer any questions about the extensive area.
John Muir first named the glacier the Auke Glacier in 1879 after the Aak’w Kwaan of the Tlingit Indians. In 1892, the glacier was renamed Mendenhall Glacier to honor Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, a famous scientist who served on a commission that surveyed the international boundary between Canada and Alaska.
Aside from the history and facts you learn, don’t forget to touch the ice in the visitor’s center that is over 200 years old!
You will want to enjoy the center, but also you want to be outdoors, thrilled to being within reach of a natural wonder of Alaska and the Mendenhall Glacier itself. Experience the glacier and surrounding areas directly from the Visitor Center’s grounds!
There are several hiking paths around the Lake. The Photo Point Trail gives an unobstructed view of the glacier, where you may also see salmon in the creeks, and just maybe a bear fishing there too (to catch your own fish, try our Half Day Juneau Salmon Fishing Charter Tour!). There is even a trail to Nugget Falls, which takes about 20 minutes each way, and is well worth the easy walk, since it takes you closest to the glacier and the huge waterfall. Don’t forget to bring your camera for some of the best photo opps in this area! For a different perspective, consider our Mendenhall Lake Canoe Adventure to see the sights from the water.
As for the question about why glaciers appear blue… The glacier absorbs all the colors of the visible light spectrum except blue. Instead it transmits the color blue, so you are basically seeing a blue wavelength. Often the glacier appears white because its ice fractured with air pockets scatters the light spectrum.
Dip your feet into the base of the waterfalls, and feel the blue-white cold of this natural wonder! Whichever breathtaking Juneau excursions you choose, make sure to take in this historical and popular glacier — and of course, the amazing Visitor Center too!