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Travel Back to the Little Ice Age with a Trip to the Famed Mendenhall Glacier

Each year more than 500,000 visitors head to Juneau, Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier to appreciate its massive size and snap Insta-worthy photos of its mesmerizing blue ice — but did you know that it is truly one of the last remnants of the Little Ice Age?

The Mendenhall Glacier was formed over 3,000 years ago and is one of the larger glaciers in Juneau’s Icefield, a group of nearly 140 interconnected glaciers covering the mountainous region just north of Juneau. This particular ice field is the fifth largest in North America, straddling the Coastal Mountain range and spanning 1,500 square miles from Alaska into British Columbia.

Mendenhall Glacier Facts

Just how big is the Mendenhall Glacier? It is an impressive 12 miles long, 3 miles wide, and reaches 200 feet down at it deepest point. Its terminus (or toe, or snout, aka a glacier’s ending point) empties into Mendenhall Lake.

Originally known as Sitaantago (“the Glacier Behind the Town”), then Auke Glacier in by naturalist John Muir in 1879, this river of ice was renamed Mendenhall Glacier in 1892 to honor noted scientist and surveyor Thomas Corwin Mendenhall.

Visitors lucky enough to visit Mendenhall Glacier are hypnotized by its vivid shades of blue ice. This glacial ice is formed by layers upon layers of unmelted snow that compact down over time; the ice absorbs all visible light except the blue wavelength, which is transmitted back — giving the ice a bluish hue.

“By all means, move at a glacial pace…”

– Miranda Priestly, Devil Wears Prada

Glaciers are constantly on the move, either advancing or retreating, carrying ice and rock sediment along the way. Currently it takes 80 to 120 years for Mendenhall’s ice to make its 12 mile journey down to the lake.

Mendenhall Glacier has been retreating since the 1700s, with the effects of climate change hastening this process. The glacier has retreated about one-third of a mile in the last 15 years; naturalists predict it will retreat onto land and out of view of the surrounding observation area within the next few decades.

What does this mean for you? The time is NOW for you to come see and appreciate this iconic glacier in its present state.

This national treasure, 12 miles north of Juneau, is one of the most photographed attractions in Alaska as well as a must-do for first-timers to Juneau. Mendenhall Glacier today is also a worthy return for former visitors, as daily — and even hourly — changes in light and ice movement will offer you a literally different glacier with every visit.

Mendenhall Lake

This glacial lake in Mendenhall Valley was formed in the early 1900s by the melting ice from Mendenhall Glacier. It is currently 1.5 miles long, 1 mile wide, and 220 feet deep at its deepest point. It feeds into the Mendenhall River, and is a main source of fresh drinking water for nearby residents. Originally named McCush Lake by local miners, its pristine waters are expected to grow in the decades to come as the Mendenhall Glacier shrinks.

The lake and the surrounding Mendenhall Valley, while popular with tourists, is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. History abounds here too, as the glacier’s retreat has exposed an ancient forest with some stumps dating close to 2,350 years old.

Calling all Outdoor Adventure Lovers!

There are many ways to see and experience the Mendenhall Glacier, starting with the well-maintained trails located just off of the visitor center. A quick look at the Mendenhall Glacier Trail Map will reveal detailed information about the type and difficulty of the trails. The more popular trails include:

Steep Creek Trail — A 1/4 mile, elevated boardwalk trail gives you the best chance to see salmon and, if you’re lucky, an opportunity to watch a black bear trying to catch them in the creek.

Trail of Time — Approximately 1 mile long, this dog-friendly trail provides you with both interpretive signs and the best waterfall views.

Photo Point Trail — This easy, 1/3 mile paved trail is wheelchair accessible and leads you from the visitor’s center to a point out in the lake with breathtaking views of the glacier and Nugget Falls. As the name suggests, this is the perfect place to grab pictures of Mendenhall Glacier.

Nugget Falls Trail — Access this easy, 2 mile long trail from the Photo Point Trail. Enjoy a flat, unpaved walk right up to the front of Nugget Falls, then pause for a selfie on (or near) the rocks with this magnificent waterfall.

West Glacier Trail — Located on the opposite side of the lake and visitor’s center, this 3.5 mile, moderately challenging loop with a 567 foot elevation gain is the only trail that gives you access to the glacier itself, as well as any glacial caves that are present. Due to the glacier receding, it is vital that you go with a trained guide who can either lead you onto the glacier or along its edges, depending on safety conditions. You will want to wear hiking boots (and possibly crampons) for this one, and carry extra clothes to protect yourself from hypothermia should you get wet. Be aware that the glacier can hide crevasses under the snow, and shift or calve at any time. The glacier’s edges offer plenty of opportunities to see features like the crevasses, pools of water, and the ice vaults (jagged sections of ice). And did we mention the amazing panoramic views to be had from higher up on the mountain?

If you yearn for a more adventurous experience, you can find it in these alternatives:

Dog Sledding — dog sledding, or “mushing,” is the official sport of Alaska, though locals have used this method to transport people, food, and supplies for centuries. Suit up and hop on the back of the sled, place each foot on the sled’s rails, and use your body to help steer the sled behind the muscular pull from a team of Huskies or Alaskan Malamutes. The thrill of sailing along on the ice and snow in the silence of the forest is simply magical.

Kayaking take to Mendenhall Lake in a kayak to paddle past icebergs, spy wildlife, and get a prime spot in front of the face of the glacier itself. You will get a workout and be treated to jaw-dropping views of Mendenhall Glacier, Nugget Falls, and the Coastal Mountain Range. This option requires you to be in good health and very attentive, as glacial calving and rolling icebergs can cause 1 to 2 foot choppy waves.

Ice Caves — Glacial caves form as glacial water melts and creates underwater channels; they are not permanent, lasting for only a few days, weeks or, occasionally, months. When they are present, you can step inside one and see the blue auras surrounding you… providing you with a surreal, once-in-a-lifetime experience. As with any direct contact with a glacier, it is best to be in the presence of a trained guide who can assess safety, as the caves can collapse at any time.

Whale Watching — board a boat in nearby Auke Lake for your chance to get up close to humpback whales and orcas, as well as other marine life. Watch in delight as these majestic mammals surface for feeding while your naturalist guide brings you up to speed on all things whales.

Helicopter Tours — One of the pricier alternatives, but totally worth it as you get to see Mendenhall Glacier, the lake, and Tongass National Forest in a way that very few people get the chance to. You will be treated to bird’s-eye views that are some of the best ways to observe the deep, blue crevasses below and soak in the magnitude of the Mendenhall Glacier Recreational Area.

Alaska’s Incredible Wildlife

Wildlife abounds in the temperate rainforest of Mendenhall Valley! The lake is home to sockeye and Coho salmon, beavers, seals, and sea lions, while bald eagles and arctic terns make their nests in the nearby trees. Black tailed deer, porcupines, and more line the shores. Sure-footed mountain goats can be found higher up on the slopes. And, being in black bear country, you have a good chance of spotting one — especially when they come down to the lake to catch salmon in the springtime.

Picturesque Views

From the Mendenhall Glacier and Lake to Tongass National Forest and a lively downtown scene, Juneau offers photography buffs a plethora of photo opportunities at every turn. Capture the vivid blues of the glacier, get incredible shots of wildlife, and chronicle the city’s unique culture through photos of its food, people, and architecture.

Popular Locations

No trip to the glacier would be complete without a stop at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. This center, dedicated in 1962 and expanded in 1999, was the first-ever visitor center built in the National Forest System. Within the center you will discover the history and science of the glacier through state-of-the-art displays, interactive exhibits, films, and informational talks. You might even be able to touch a piece of 200 year old ice! The observational windows give you sweeping views of the glacier and surrounding area, and there is a large bookstore and gift shop on site. Ramps and elevators make the Mendenhall visitor center accessible for everyone, and restrooms are available. Operational times for the center will vary, but the surrounding grounds and trails can be accessed year round.

Located to the right of the glacier is Nugget Falls, a 377 foot waterfall of melted ice from Nugget Glacier that descends, in two drops, onto a sandbar in Mendenhall Lake. These falls are said to have either been covered by Mendenhall Glacier or deposited into it before Mendenhall Glacier started retreating.

Just off the coast of the Mendenhall Peninsula lies Auke Bay, a popular neighborhood in the foreground of Mendenhall Glacier. It boasts the pristine waters of Auke Lake that is a paradise for bird lovers; more than 90 species of birds pass through here including mallards, bald eagles, cormorants, sandpipers, and a wide variety of gulls. People flock here for the whale watching, boating, fishing, and ample photo opportunities.

Tongass National Forest is a MUST for nature lovers! Covering over 16 million acres, it is the largest National Forest in the U.S. Its temperate rainforest climate covers most of southeast Alaska, and its remoteness provides sanctuary for many endangered animals and flora. It is your best bet for experiencing the “wild side” of Alaska.

Back in Downtown Juneau, Alaska’s capital city nestled on the edge of the Inside Passage, the streets are bustling with sightseeing opportunities galore! Walk along the pier and head down Front Street to enjoy at drink at the Imperial Bar, the first ever bar in the city. Afterward, head over to Heritage Square to learn more about the natives at Sealaska Heritage Institute. If historical buildings are your thing, pop in at St. Nicolas Russian Orthodox Church on Calhoun or check out the House of Wickersham atop “Chicken Ridge.” You can also take advantage of one of the walking tours to learn more about this fascinating city.

How to Get to Mendenhall Glacier from Juneau?

The glacier is a scenic, 20-minute ride from Juneau’s port; you can get there using a taxi, bus, or ride share. Many excursions will have transportation included in their tour package.

Are you ready to experience Mendenhall Glacier for yourself?

Call us today to book your Mendenhall Glacier experience, as tours frequently sell out in advance of a cruise’s arrival into port. Don’t miss your chance to get up close and personal with this national gem!

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