Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska

The Most Amazing Stop on Your Alaska Cruise

Nicknamed the “Last Frontier,” Alaska has been a dreamed-of destination since the late 1800s when visitors arrived by stern wheeler and steamship. Today, its capital city, Juneau, plays host to a million visitors a year — over 90% of them arriving by cruise ship. The draw? Like magnates, the glaciers, rainforests, and wildlife lure us to adventures beyond our every day experiences.

And very little of what you can do as a visitor in mountain-enclosed Juneau (there are no highways into Juneau) is available elsewhere on the continent. In fact, it’s those mountains that are mainly responsible for Juneau’s most unique attraction — the Mendenhall Glacier, the ice caves and ice fields.

While glaciers cover almost 5%, or 29,000 square miles, of the state of Alaska, none are more accessible than Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier. We were surprised to find it just a stop off the highway, no tougher to find or visit than a theme park or shopping mall.

About Juneau’s Glaciers

Mendenhall Glacier & Nugget Falls in Juneau, Alaska.

Mendenhall Glacier & Nugget Falls in Juneau, Alaska.

Alaska’s glaciers are left-overs of the Little Ice Age that began about 3000 years ago and lasted until the mid-1700s. The state has so many glaciers because of two things:

  • The water along the coast never freezes, so warm air flows off of it inland.
  • The mountains stop the moist warm air, creating snow and rain. (Devil’s Point, at 8500 feet, is the highest mountain in the Juneau Icefield. There’s a 7000 foot drop over three miles on the North face and an 8000 feet drop over seven miles on the southeast side!)

In Juneau, this results in over 100 feet of snow every winter. At higher elevations, this snow didn’t melt over summer during the cold era, but packed down instead into solid ice due to the milder temperatures, creating glaciers. Whhen more snow falls than melts, glaciers are advancing. When less snow falls than melts, some of the existing glacier melts during the summer as well. So the glaciers retreat. When a big chunk of the end of a glacier breaks off, it’s calving.

Visit the Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska

Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska

While most visitors take a cruise ship, we arrived by water in Juneau, Alaska, with our own car by using the Alaska Marine Highway. Never heard of it? Neither had we! However, the Alaska Marine Highway is a designated National Scenic By-Way and All-American Road.

We boarded the Alaska Marine Highway ferry in Skagway and cruised through The Inside Passage alongside cruise ships. Then, we left the ship in Juneau at Auke Bay Ferry Terminal to explore the city by car ourselves, with the Mendenhall Glacier our first stop.

Getting around Juneau is easy, since it’s a city of just over 30,000 people. It is, however, the largest US capital by land area, so a lot of it is spread out. We just plugged the address into the car’s GPS and cruised on. Since most visitors arrive by tour bus from the cruise ships, there was lots of free parking available right at the entrance to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. And we only paid an admission of $5 each.

From ticketing, it was on to the shore and the glacier.

The biggest surprise was the cool air that met me, blowing off the glacier, smacking me in the face. I shivered, partly from the chill, partly from the view of the 13-mile long, icy-blue chunk of thousands of years-old ice.

The blue, I learned from the interpretive area signs, was because glaciers absorb all colors of the visible light spectrum except blue, which they transmit. And while I was disappointed that we visited on a cloudy day, that’s when the Mendenhall is the bluest. So, it turned out that clouds were good luck!

Hiking Trails Around the Mendenhall Glacier

Hiking to the Mendenhall Glacier

Hiking to the Mendenhall Glacier

No matter how active or athletic you are, there’s a perfect way to view the Mendenhall Glacier, or get close if you wish. Seven hiking trails take you around the glacier, starting with a 0.3-mile photo-overlook trail. That one, of course, is the most popular as its wheelchair accessible walkway makes it easily available to everyone.

Mendenhall Glacier Hiking Trails Map

We headed out on the Trail of Time through the Tongas National Forest. I appreciated all of the signs identifying plants we found, as well as the markers placed to show where the glacier had reached at various years in the past century.

When we reached the East Glacier Trail we headed off on the much longer route, ready to enjoy both the exquisite smells of the rainforest and better views of both the glacier and Nugget Falls. While we didn’t have time to walk it, Nugget Falls is the newest trail at Mendenhall.

The Nugget Falls Trail leads half-a-mile to the falls created by the creek flowing from the further inland Nugget Glacier. Even from a distance, the falls are impressive. Their two-tiers drop 377 feet (115 m) onto the freshwater pool at the face of the Mendenhall Glacier.

Nugget Falls on the Nugget Falls Trail at the Mendenhall Glacier.

Nugget Falls on the Nugget Falls Trail at the Mendenhall Glacier.

Extreme Adventures at Mendenhall Glacier

There are lots of opportunities for those who have extreme adventures on their Alaskan bucket list, too! I would have loved to visit the ice caves, but it was definitely not an option. Trekking out to the caves requires six to eight hours and appropriate hiking experience and fitness level.

The overland path to the caves begins at the West Glacier trail, then takes an unmaintained, unofficial path through the forest. Hikers are advised to use a GPS to ensure they don’t get lost.

Besides hiking, you can also visit the ice caves by kayaking through the icy water and then hiking 30 minutes, or so, to the caves. Again, there are lots of hazards and it’s for extreme sports enthusiasts only. I’ve included a photo below, though, to show you why people take the risks!

Ice Caves - photo by Andrew E. Russell - downloaded with a CC license from https://www.flickr.com/photos/25949441@N02/10856877375/in/photostream/

Ice Caves – photo by Andrew E. Russell – downloaded with a CC license from https://www.flickr.com/photos/25949441@N02/10856877375/in/photostream/

Visit Mendenhall Glacier

Whether you get to Juneau on a cruise ship, or via the Alaska Marine Highway, as we did, the Mendenhall Glacier should top your must-see list. Every year the glacier gets further away from the current viewing areas, so the sooner you plan your Alaskan adventure the better!

6000 Glacier Spur Rd
Juneau, Alaska

Website Visitor Information & Hours: http://www.alaska.org/detail/mendenhall-glacier-visitor-center

If you’d like to explore more under-the-radar spots like the Mendenhall Glacier in the U.S., I recommend this article at Passport Symphony.

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