Mendenhall Glacier, not far from downtown Juneau, is is one of the few Alaskan glaciers with an “EZ-pass”: It’s surrounded by the Tongass National Forest, but you can easily get there by car, by air, by foot, and even by cruise ship.
This 13-mile ribbon of ice flows from the Juneau Ice Field, a 1,500-square-mile frozen plateau that feeds 38 major glaciers. Leftover from the last ice age, the ice field and its solid river offspring have been in a period of retreat, and the wilderness surrounding Mendenhall has found itself in a good news/bad news scenario.
The bad news is the ice, which has been steadily receding since the time of the Little Ice Age (a global cooling period between the 16th and 19th centuries) continues to shrink as the planet continues to warm. The good news is that the expansion of Mendenhall Lake – which was born in the early 1930s from the melting ice – as well as concentrated conservation efforts, have resulted in a stronger, more resilient ecosystem for the forest and its native fish and wildlife populations, such as mountain goats, bears, beavers.
Mendenhall is located on land owned by the federal Forest Service, which provides facilities, park rangers, a visitor center, and year-round exhibits and educational outreach. The trails from the visitor center – some lazy and looping, others more challenging – will get you up-close and personal with the glacier and its waterfall neighbor, Nugget Falls, raining down just next door.
Know Before You Go
Mendenhall Glacier is about 12 miles north of Juneau, five miles north of the Juneau International Airport. From the Juneau Public Library, bus route 3 can take you to the base of the West Glacier Trail.
The Visitor Center and trail are open year-round from 6 a.m. to midnight. All outside areas and trails are free. For the Visitor Center, exhibits, and facilities there is an entrance fee of $5, or you can get a season pass for $15. Kids under 15 are free.
There are several trails around the glacier and falls, so check the Forest Service website for details on how best to suit your trekking abilities. And be sure to take the Nugget Falls Trail (about 3/4 of a mile) for a better ice view.