The Mendenhall Glacier is one of the world’s most extraordinary sites. Once described by John Muir himself as, “one of the most beautiful of all the coast glaciers that are in the first stages of decadence.” And of the Gastineau Channel he wrote, “The scenery all through the channel is magnificent, something like Yosemite Valley in its lofty avalanche-swept cliffs, especially on the mainland side, which are so steep few trees can find rooting.”
About 137 years ago the Mendenhall Glacier, previously known as the Auk Glacier, extended through the Mendenhall Valley, crossing over the wetlands by the Juneau International Airport, and fanning its large face almost kissing Douglas Island. It is amazing to see how far it has retreated since. No longer a coastal glacier, it appears it is retreating into the mountains heading back to its origins.
Visiting the ice caves is always a humbling experience. Standing next to something so massive, and so dangerous, yet so undeniably gorgeous is something that will never get old. Every visit is special and unique since the glacier is in constant movement. You can think of it as a frozen river flowing steadily down from the ice fields, while the face of it slowly gets chipped away. This means that the caves are constantly in motion too. Every experience creates opportunity to see new caves, while the old caves are lost, only to remain in pictures.
The Mendenhall Glacier typically grows several hundred feet in the winter as more snow piles and compacts down on the ice fields, pushing more ice downstream. In the summer, the Mendenhall Glacier recedes anywhere from 500-750 feet! And in recent years the amount it recedes seems more dramatic as the landscape around it becomes visible.
The ice itself is incredibly dense, as it has been compacted for hundreds of years creating a beautiful blue color that is unique to every glacier. The ice that is comprised is built on the elements specific to that area. Some glaciers will push out vibrant blue hues, others a turquoise tint from the chemical makeup. On a larger scale, some glaciers will reveal fossilized trees, or bones of long gone trapped animals. As glaciers retreat, they expose their secrets, and oh the secrets they keep are monumental.
Visiting the caves in winter offers a different experience compared to summer. You can get there in about 45 minutes by walking across the Mendenhall Glacier Lake from the Visitors Center, but ALWAYS at your own risk! It can be very dangerous since the water below is moving, flowing from the glacier, and Nugget Falls, down river. You never want to get too close to any ice bergs, or the face of the glacier itself because there tends to be a lot of movement which equates to thinner ice.
On today’s adventure, the ice was measured at nine inches thick. Six inches of ice can hold a semi-truck, so by those standards I felt safe. However, we kept up a good pace, never pausing for too long.
Once arriving to the face of the Mendenhall, my breath was once again taken away by the sheer size. You feel so small and so insignificant standing next to something as powerful, colossal, and hundreds of years old. You can’t help but admire its strength and presence.
The caves today were a tunnel; you could cross from one end to the other. This was much different from my summer excursion where the cave was in fact, a cave that you had to crawl into before it opened into 30ft ceilings. When entering the caves, be fast, and be quiet, and always remember you’re entering the belly of the beast in every sense. At any moment, the glacier can calve, crack, crumble and crush anything unapologetically in its path without warning. Truly an exhilarating experience!
What to Wear:
The Mendenhall Glacier is typically 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the rest of the Juneau area, so layers are key! In winter this can mean it will remain in the teens warming up into the 20's, or cooling down into the single digits.
- Long underwear
- Comfortable pants, yoga pants work well, or a snowpant
- Wool base layer
- Double Hooded Sweatshirt
- Down Jacket Outerwear
- Wool Beanie
What to Pack:
- Extra socks
- Extra sweater
- Cell Phone
**Always let someone know where you're going and what time to expect you back. Makes use of the buddy system, and take every safety precaution you can in order to have a safe and unforgettable experience.
Locals: When is your favorite season to visit the caves?
Visitors: Have you ever been? Are you up for it?!
Cheers for now!
DeArmond, R. N. The Founding of Juneau. College Place, WA: Color, 1980. Print.