Hiking in Juneau

Thursday, February 1, 2018 10:00 AM by Aaron Theisen


Those of us in the Lower 48 think of glaciers as remote and exotic entities, the sort of destination for which one sleeps in a brightly colored tent in base camp. But residents on the north side of Juneau can look out at the 13-mile-long Mendenhall Glacier over morning coffee; the city bus stops at the visitor center to the glacier.

Its proximity to town makes Mendenhall Glacier an appealing day hike, one of a score in the fjords and old-growth forests of the Juneau area.

Last August I joined a guided trip with Above and Beyond Alaska on the West Glacier Trail, a strenuous 7-mile roundtrip hike to the ice caves at the toe of Mendenhall Glacier. (Because of the potential instability of the ice caves as they gradually thaw and thin throughout the summer, it’s wise to visit them with a guide, who can suss out their stability before entering.)

A group of people hiking up a rocky mountainside with stunning views of trees and water in the background. After getting our group equipped—crampons, climbing harnesses, and helmets—in the parking lot, our guides navigated the braided, sometimes boggy, network of footpaths that trace the west shore of Mendenhall Lake.

Shouldering aside slide alder we climbed the bare bedrock above the lake, long grooves in the rock evidence of the glacier’s grinding advance millennia ago; markers along the trail show the glacier’s retreat, which has accelerated in recent decades.

Here we had our first glimpse of the scalloped and sun-cupped toe of the glacier, shepherded into the valley by a quartet of peaks—McGinnis Mountain, Mount Stroller White, Mount Wrather, Bullard Mountain. Below us, kayakers plied the lake, its green hue a result of flecks of minerals mixed into the water from the melting ice.

Reaching the mouth of the ice caves, we donned helmets while our guides probed the cave walls. Given the all-clear, we stepped into another world. Just above our heads, opaque waves of ice let in a pale light that illuminated the meltwater creek at our feet. Our guides pointed out the diminished form of the wall of an early-summer ice cave, noting that the cave in which we were standing would likely be gone by the end of summer; on this mid-August day, only a few frozen foundation pieces remained, these due to disappear by September.

The icy blue Mendenhall ice caves melting from roof of cave onto stone floor.

Back outside the caves, we cinched tight our crampons before kick-stepping our way onto the surface of the glacier. Here, between a moody sky mirrored in the blue-white expanse of ice, we looked upon a landscape both implacable and impermanent.

The icy blue and white Mendenhall Glacier full of grooves

The glacier on which we stood had carved the valley before us, scooping a lake out of its surface. But it also created the delicate ice caves that welcomed visitors for only a few short months each summer. In the distance, Alaska’s capital bustled.


Author: Aaron Theisen

An accomplished editorial and commercial photographer, Aaron Theisen has contributed to numerous regional and national sports and lifestyle publications, including PowderBackpackerBritish Columbia and Northwest Travel & Life. Aaron is co-author of Day Hiking Mount St. Helens (Mountaineers Books) and sole author of the forthcoming Day Hiking Western Montana's Glacier Country