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The Surreal Ice Caves Of Mendenhall Glacier In Juneau Alaska

Mendenhall Glacier is located 12 miles or nineteen kilometers from Juneau, the capital city of Alaska. The famous glacier and the ice caves are located in Mendenhall Valley. The glacier is about 13.6 miles (21.9 kilometers) long and is federally protected, along with the surrounding landscape, as part of the Tongass National Forest. It is our 14th stop in the series Off The Beaten Path.

Mendenhall Glacier and Lake in winter.

The Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, is comprised of 5,815 acres (2,353 hectares). The glacier itself, was originally known as Sitaantaago meaning The Glacier Behind The Town or Aak’wtaaksit The Glacier Behind The Little Lake.

The glacier was named Auke (Auk) Glacier by naturalist John Muir, for the Tlingit Auk Kwann band in 1888. It was renamed in honor of Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, the famous American autodidact physicist and meteorologist in 1891.

Thomas Corwin Mendenhall 1841 – 1924

Thomas Mendenhall was also the superintendent of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1889 to 1894.

Mendenhall Glacier extends from the Juneau Ice Field, its source, to Mendenhall Lake. The lake is iceberg filled and provides expansive views of the glacier from the water. The retreat of the glacier created the lake in 1929. The glacier has withdrawn an additional 1.75 miles (2.82 kilometers) since that year.

The surreal ice caves are inside the glacier, most easily accessible to those willing to kayak across Mendenhall lake. Visitors then have to climb over the glacier, to finally enter the ice caves. It is a near a 3.5 mile hike on the West Glacier Trail, to the ice caves.

Mendenhall Lake, mostly frozen over, and the Mendenhall Glacier

Weather and conditions permitting, tourists can then see an expansive dreamlike scene, inside the glacier.

The West Glacier Trail starts out in a forest and is fairly level. However, it can be muddy and quite slippery, in some areas. Later the trail will have uplifted rocks, roots and other obstacles. Further on, the path gets rather steep, with one having to traverse bridges, stairs and switchbacks.

In one portion of the trail, there is even a large boulder, with a knotted rope, to better help you to climb over it. In addition, at the end of the pathway, there is an abundance of loose rocks, one has to navigate to get to the ice cave entrance.

The Ice Caves

A visitor can alternatively decide to take the Cairn route. You will need to curve off at the Viewpoint sign on the trail to do this secondary path.

One may also take a helicopter ride to the glacier site. It is important to mention if you hire a guide, that you wish to visit the ice caves.

If you are not on a tour, you can rent a vehicle or take a taxi to the West Glacier Trail, off of Skater’s Cabin Road.

Before the 20th century, the Mendenhall Glacier had retreated only about 0.5 miles, since around 1500.

Melting ice on Mendenhall Lake near the start of the Mendenhall River with Nugget Falls in the background

The glacier has been regularly monitored since 1942, by the Juneau Icefield Research Program.

The melting of the glacier is what has in part, created these magnificent ice caves. The ongoing retreat of the Mendenhall Glacier, is constantly creating new vistas, inside these impressive caves.

Ultimately, as the glacier moves to extinction, the ice caves themselves will disappear.

Once inside the ice caves, one is treated to a frozen panorama of brilliant blue.

The Mendenhall Glacier in March, 1953

The best time to visit the glacier and the ice caves is between mid May and mid September. The weather will be far more pleasant and the surrounding landscape is then in full bloom.

The forest and lake area are easily accessible from the visitors center, by a number of maintained trails.

Nugget Falls can also be viewed, cascading down the mountainside near the glacier.

Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center

There is an abundance of wildlife in the forest that includes bears, beavers, mountain goats and when in season, salmon.

Many tourists begin or end the experience at the Mendenhall Glacier, by making a stop at the historic Forest Service Visitor Center. It is the first and oldest Forest Visitor Center in the United States. It was originally dedicated in 1962.

The glacier and the lake are easily viewed from the Visitor Center. There are interactive exhibits, telescopes, ranger talks, children’s activities and a bookstore.

Nearly 500,000 arrive at the Visitor Center every year. Most will come by cruise ship.

Mendenhall Glacier in the summer

The trail to the ice caves on the other hand, can be somewhat arduous. If you come ill prepared, you can easily become injured. It is therefore advisable, that you not attempt a visit to the ice caves by yourself.

The entrance to a glacier ice cave under Mendenhall Glacier.

The hike to the ice caves can easily take 2 to 3 ½ hours each way, depending on your physical condition and pace of your movement. One should start early and do not underestimate, the time you will need. You do not want to be making the return hike in the dark. That can become a dangerous experience.

Remember you cannot be guaranteed a visit to the ice caves. If the weather is inclement, it would be wise to either postpone or eliminate this part of your trip.

To be comfortable on your trip it is best to dress in layers, so you can remove or add clothing as needed. Keep in mind, you are going to get wet during the excursion, to both the glacier and the ice caves.

Bring along a light rain-jacket that can be worn or removed, depending on weather conditions. It is best to wear hiking boots, or walking shoes with full ankle support.

Water resistant gloves can make the trip more comfortable, as you scurry between the rocks, during the final portion of the hike to the ice caves. You can then easily use part of the terrain, to make the walk more enjoyable.

Mendenhall Lake and Glacier from the Visitor’s Center, summer 2006

One should also consider bringing along chap-stick with adequate SPF and sunscreen if it looks like it will be a clear day. You will be out in the sun for hours. Mosquitoes can also be an issue, so a visitor might wish to bring along, some type of insect repellant.

To prevent damage to your phones and cameras, it is a good idea to have them in protective cases, for the trip out to the glacier area.

It is important to plan ahead, so bring along extra water.

Location

The glacier is 12 miles from the city of Juneau and 15 ½ miles from the ice caves.

The Visitor Center is located at 8150 Mendenhall Loop Road Juneau, Alaska 99801.

The website is https://www.fs.usda.gov/tongass/ The phone number is (907) 789-0097.

Admission

There is no admission price to the glacier or the ice caves, outside the cost of getting there.

If one wishes to stop in at the Visitor Center, there is a nominal fee of $5.00 USD (United States Dollar).

How To Get There

Once you arrive in Juneau by either plane or cruise line, it is easy enough to arrange transportation to the glacier and ice caves.

Tourists can take a bus tour or taxi from downtown Juneau. Taxi service is available from the Auke Bay Ferry Terminal, just 7 miles away. From the Juneau Airport, the Visitor Center is a mere 5 miles. Here again, taxis can be used to traverse the distance.

The Juneau city bus, stops a close 1 ¼ miles from the Visitor Center.

Days and Hours of Operations

The glacier and ice caves are accessible throughout most of the year, depending on the status of the weather. As aforementioned, most tourists arrive during the 4 month period, from the middle of May to the middle of September. The trails and outdoor areas remain open all year.

The Visitor Center is open from 8:00 AM to 7:30 PM daily, May through September. From October to April, the facility is only open Friday through Sunday. The hours of business are from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

Lodging

Is readily available in Juneau, but should be made in advance to ensure accessibility. There is a wide range of hotels, B&Bs and hostels in the city.

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