Experience the Spectacular Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall, one of the most beautiful and accessible glaciers in North America, is just 13 miles from downtown Juneau and a few minutes from the airport. It’s a must-see destination for any Alaska vacation. You won’t believe your ice! A half-mile wide, with ice up to 1,800 feet deep, it’s little wonder this is Juneau’s most popular destination. Whether you’re in town for a day or week, there are many ways to experience the glacier.
If you’re on a tight schedule, a trip to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center provides fascinating information as well as excellent views of this ever-changing wonder. While there, be sure to watch a brief film about how the Mendenhall is part of the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Icefield. Take a short trek down Photo Point Trail to a lookout platform for an unobstructed view of the glacier’s face and a perfect photo opportunity. You could do this all in about 90 minutes.
If you can spend at least a half-day, there are many ways to get up close to this majestic glacier. Enjoy hiking trails that run along surrounding terrain, including a moderately easy and well-marked trail to Nugget Falls. Winding along Mendenhall Lake, the closest trail to the glacier itself, you’ll find a stunning 377-foot waterfall cascading into an iceberg lake with a magnificent glacier in the background — another amazing photo opportunity.
From July through September, take a walk along the platform boardwalks that run along Steep Creek Trail adjacent to the Visitor Center. There you’ll see sockeye salmon swimming and spawning as well as the occasional black bear fishing for a meal. (No worries, the bears rarely climb up on the platforms.)
The Trail of Time shows the power and long-term impact that the glacier has on the surrounding environment. As you walk away from the glacier you pass through changes in the landscape and vegetation that correspond to the length of time that has passed since the glacier's retreat.
With more time to spend, there are plenty of additional options as well. A more difficult trail, the East Glacier Loop, leads through ancient forests for views of a waterfall near the glacier’s face. This trail (2-3 hours) is a little steep but makes for a perfect outing for school-age children. More experienced hikers should try the West Glacier Trail, which follows the edge of the lake and glacier, providing access to the ice itself.
For another kind of adventure, kayak on Mendenhall Lake and enjoy paddling near icebergs and arctic nesting cliffs. Kayaks and gear can be rented from the Alaska Boat & Kayak Center. Due to the ice-cold temperature of the water, it’s only recommended for people who are physically fit and have experience kayaking. For the less experienced, there are guided canoe tours you can book through many cruise lines.
Guided Tours and Charters
The Mendenhall Glacier has plenty of activities you can do yourself but there are a number of fun charter tours that help you get the most out of your visit. Consider a day cruise that combines a visit to the glacier with a whale-watching tour of Auke Bay, for example. There are many helicopter tours providing spectacular aerial views of ice spires, deep blue crevasses, and meltwater pools. The helicopter tours land at the glacier site and offer everything from guided ice walking to dog-sledding. For the more adventurous, guided hiking tours will take you across the glacier’s surface and into the breathtaking ice caves. (Exploring the caves without a professional guide is highly unwise as the glacier’s ever-changing shape can make them dangerous.)
When to Visit
While the Mendenhall Glacier is accessible all year, the best time to visit is May through October. July can be hot but it’s best to check the weather to see if rain gear is needed. The Mendenhall Glacier is great in all weather. On a sunny day, it's beautiful, with blue skies and snow-capped mountains in the background. On a cloudy afternoon, it can be even more impressive as the ice turns a deep and mystical shade of blue.
By car: An easy drive from downtown Juneau, take Egan Drive and turn right at Mendenhall Loop Road which turns into Glacier Spur Road and ends at the Visitor Center. There is plenty of free parking on site.
By shuttle: For a fee, the Glacier Shuttle is quick and convenient with one leaving from downtown every 30 minutes. Pick up and drop off is located at the cruise ship terminal.
By boat: There are a number of day cruises which combine whale-watching and a visit to the glacier. They will drop you at the glacier following your tour, allowing you time to explore Mendenhall Glacier and its surrounding terrain on foot.
By air: Helicopter tours provide incredible views of the glacier and the larger Juneau Icefield. From this height, you can see why NASA chose this area as one of the places on Earth that "captured the emotional sensations that one might encounter while walking on the moon."