There are scant few places where you can experience every stage of the water cycle at once. But there’s magic in the Mendenhall Ice Caves, where water runs over rocks and under frozen bright-blue ceilings inside a partially hollow glacier.
The Mendenhall Glacier is a 12-mile-long glacier in the Mendenhall Valley, only 12 miles from downtown Juneau in southeast Alaska. The glacier originally had two names: Sitaantaagu (“Glacier Behind the Town”) and Aak’wtaaksit (“Glacier Behind the Little Lake”). Inside the glacier are the stunning blue ice caves, accessible only to those willing to kayak to the edge of the ice and then climb over the glacier.
Sadly, this Juneau glacier is retreating increasingly fast as climate change warms the ocean. The Mendenhall Glacier has receded almost two miles since 1958, while previously it had receded only 0.5 miles since 1500. The ice caves are in part a function of this glacial melting. Images of the caves circulate the internet with such captions as “otherworldly” and “surreal,” but “shrinking” and “fleeting” could be used as well, as this glacier creates incredible ever-changing landscapes while we watch it melt away.
Update May 2020: The caves appear to have melted away for the time being, and maybe longer.
Know Before You Go
The Mendenhall Glacier can be seen from the visitor center on Glacier Spur Road. From there you can take trails to the ice caves. A guided tour is recommended to make sure the caves are accessible and secure, as they are known to melt and cave in. Ice cave tours usually run from July to September. The glacier is federally protected as part of the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, a unit of the Tongass National Forest.