Mendenhall Glacier

Juneau, Alaska

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Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska

 David and I had the opportunity to go on a small Alaskan cruise (Un-Cruise) two summers ago and this trip remains one of my all-time favorite vacations. We flew into Juneau a couple of days early to do some exploring before setting off on our adventure cruise. One of the excursions we took while staying in Juneau was to the beautiful Mendenhall Glacier. 

On a gorgeous morning at the end of May, we loaded up on a city bus and rode the 12 miles from downtown Juneau to the nearest bus stop for the Mendenhall Glacier. From the bus stop, we walked approximately one mile to the entrance to the park. This was a very easy walk and we enjoyed it. We saw beaver dams, thick alpine forests, mossy boulders, and scenic views all along the way leading up to the glacier. The weather was perfect.

We soon  arrived at the entrance of the U.S. Forest Service’s historic Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. There is an upper entrance with a ramp and lower entrance with elevators. The views from here were stunning! There are many viewpoints on the outside of the center where you can observe the marvelous river of ice, the alpine ridges, Mendenhall Lake and floating icebergs – all in the distance. 

The Visitor Center was very nice and was well worth a visit. There is an educational movie every 20 minutes (very informative), exhibits, rangers, maps, and a bookstore. One of my favorite exhibits contained photos of the glacier and its progression/recession throughout the years. There is also a glacier bear (taxidermy) which was very unique with its pale blue/silver color – most unusual. Mother Nature adapted this color change to camouflage these brown bears who live on the ice. Very interesting.

We looked at the area maps and picked a couple of trails to explore. We chose Trail of Time and Nugget Falls Trail – both of these trails were easy to walk, took us through a segment of the forest and meandered along the lake. We followed the trails through moss & lichens, skunk cabbage, blueberry & salmonberry bushes and beautiful flowering plants. Our goal was to end up at the base of Nugget Falls. 

After walking a half-mile or so, we started hearing the roar of the falls in the distance and were anxiously anticipating seeing it “up close and personal”. We soon did!

The sight of Nugget Falls cascading down the mountainside near the glacier was breathtaking. The sound was immense! We were dwarfed in comparison to the size, scope and power of these falls (see photo below). We approached the falls, got covered in the cool spray and took lots of photos. As we walked along the rocky beach – we had even better views of the glacier, ice caves, and small icebergs floating in the lake all around us. This was one of those special “pinch me” moments!

We took our time and explored the beach here for awhile. The weather and the scenery were both perfect and we knew we needed to treasure this moment and imprint these sights & sounds in our memory. We collected some small glacial rocks. We pulled icebergs (“bergies”) out of the water and played with them. We watched a group of canoers paddling out to the glacier. We watched small areas of the huge glacier “calving” and releasing more small broken chunks of ice into the clear blue, icy waters. We spotted turquoise blue ice caves at the glacier’s edge. This was Mother Nature at her best.

Experts tell us that by the end of the century, the Mendenhall Glacier will no longer be visible from the current Visitor’s Center. This 13 mile long glacier is melting at a rapid rate due to global warming. Decades ago, there was not even a Mendenhall Lake – this lake was formed due to the glacier ice melting and receding. I highly suggest that if this is something you would like to see, go sooner rather than later! You can visit on your own as we did – or book a guided solo trek,  a helitour, a guided walk or a canoe tour. It is truly a fantastic place to experience first hand. Photos and words cannot do it justice. See it for yourself!

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