North America’s fifth largest icefield sits in Juneau’s backyard, stretching across a 1,500-square-mile area that straddles the boundary between Alaska and Canada.
In few places can you experience every stage of the water cycle at once. But there’s magic in the Mendenhall Ice Caves, where water runs over rocks under blue ceilings inside a partially hollow glacier.
The Mendenhall Glacier is a 12-mile-long glacier in the Mendenhall Valley, located only 12 miles from downtown Juneau in Southeast Alaska. Federally protected as part of the Mendenhall Galcier Recreation Area, a unit of the Tongass National Forest, the glacier originally had two names, Sitaantaagu (“Glacier Behind the Town“) and Aak’wtaaksit (“Glacier Behind the Little Lake“).
The Ice Caves are inside the glacier, accessible only to those willing to kayak to, and then ice climb over the glacier. However, the glacier is retreating increasingly fast as global warming heats the oceans and temperatures rise.
Monitored since 1942 by the Juneau Icefield Research Program, the Mendenhall Glacier has receded almost two miles since 1958, while previously it had receded only 0.5 miles since 1500. The caves are in part a function of this increased glacial melting.
Glacial ice has a unique crystalline structure that absorbs and reflects light, giving the ice its blue appearance. The most intense blue occurs in crevasses and when ice breaks off, or calves, from a glacier’s face. The blue color fades as the ice is exposed to air and the crystalline structure breaks down. In Alaska, glacier viewing is often best on overcast and rainy days.
Commercial operators offer tours in the summer, including hiking, biking, rafting, canoe and kayak trips, and bus, van, taxi and shuttle tours. Thousands of visitors each year also take flightseeing tours by helicopter or fixed-wing planes. The U.S. Forest Service maintains several hiking trails near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, which provide a high-quality recreation experience emphasizing glacial phenomena, ecosystems, and protection of fish and wildlife. The center is open 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily, May to September. Admission is $3 for adults and free for children under 16.
Walk through an ecological timeline to get to the mighty Mendenhall where you will be introduced to glacier trekking and the natural history of the area! The trip begins with a drive from your pick up point to the Mendenhall Valley where the West Glacier Trailhead is located. At the trailhead you will be outfitted with a backpack that includes all of the necessary glacier gear, rain gear, and food and water. Afterwards you will embark on a three and a half mile trail hike through the temperate rainforest along Mendenhall Lake. The first mile of the trail is well maintained and relatively flat with the exception of a short uphill switchback section while the second two and a half miles is on an unmaintained strenuous trail. This strenuous trail is uneven and includes areas of mud, slippery bedrock, loose gravel, rock scrambling, and multiple short, steep up and downhill sections. Upon reaching the top of the most difficult section of the trail, the rock scramble, all of the effort you’ve invested instantly pays off as the Mendenhall Glacier and the surrounding peaks come into full view. From this point you will breathe in the scenery with every step as you make your way down an open slope of bedrock to the edge of the ice. nce you reach the glacier, your guide will help you put on your glacier gear and locate the safest entrance to get on the ice. Following a safety briefing the group will spend approximately 1 hour on the ice (dependent on group’s hiking pace) exploring accessible features such as crevasses, ice caves, moulins, melt water streams, pools and more. After glacier play time is over you will repack your backpack and head back to the trailhead. Make sure you save energy for the hike back! The return hike might be on the same path or a new path, either way, the return hike is just as challenging as the hike to the glacier. he Mendenhall Glacier trek and climb is suitable for most ages and abilities, but you need to be in shape: the trek lasts up to 6.5 hours, and covers about 8 miles (12.8 km) total. You’ll wear a backpack weighing up to 15 pounds (7 kg) that is equipped with mountaineering gear, snacks, water, and any extra clothing you bring. Professional guides will be present the entire journey to make sure you remain safe and enjoy your time exploring the glacier.
The day begins with pickup from your Juneau hotel or the port. When you arrive at the trailhead for the Mendenhall Glacier, follow your guides on a 3.5-mile (6-km) trail through the rain forest along Mendenhall Lake. While the first mile is on a well-maintained path with a few switchbacks, the rest of the trail involves hiking on bedrock and rock scrambling in steep areas. When you reach the glacier, you’ll be outfitted in trekking gear and receive a safety briefing. You’ll use crampons to make your way across glacial terrain that overlooks Mendenhall Lake. It may be the most physically challenging part of the hike, but it’s an unforgettable experience. Climb down to explore ice caves, and soak up great views of crevasses, streams, and other breathtaking glacial formations.
Afterward, head back down the trail and enjoy a relaxing ride back to your drop-off location. The ice caves melt as the glacier recedes and this, sadly, causes them to collapse. However, there is a silver lining concerning the rapidly melting glacier; as the ice melts away, land that has been covered for thousands of years slowly starts to appear. Apparently a lost forest is being uncovered slowly with stumps that date back as far as 2,000 years!
Daredevils risk their lives to see the magnificent Mendenhall Glacier caves, The most popular cave collapsed in July 2014. Adventurers first kayak to the 12-mile-long glacier and then ice-climb to the caves inside. Recently, rising temperatures have caused the caverns to shrink to 1/3 of their original size, resulting in dramatic shifts of color inside. Scientists have even discovered ancient trees that have been frozen for 2,000 years, unearthed by the massive, receding glacier.