Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 8: Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier

Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.

It rains a lot in Juneau and when it does, outdoor adventures are rarely canceled-unless they happen to involve planes or helicopters.

Unfortunately, our plans involved both.

One morning we waited for three hours at the airport for the cloud layer to lift only to drive away disappointed. We had intended to fly to Icy Straight Point to explore the Tlingit village of Hoonah and then go hiking in the woods on a guided bear tour. On another day, we had also waited for the weather to clear so that we could join a helicopter tour of Mendenhall Glacier. This too was canceled.

We did manage to visit the glacier, however, and quickly understood why it is Juneau’s most popular tourist destination. The glacier is located just 12 miles from downtown and is easily reached by car or bus (but not, apparently, by helicopter). As you can see by the photo above, the very same weather which prevented us from flying to the glacier also prevented us from witnessing it in all its grandeur. It was painful to sit in the Visitors Center and watch a short film shot on a clear sunny day that truly illustrated the vibrant colors normally radiating from this beautiful place.

To give you a better idea of what we missed, I’ve included a Flickr photo shot by Michelle Kroll who managed to show up on a much nicer day than we had. (Incidentally, you can check out a live web cam here to see what visibility is like before making the drive out).

Mendenhall Glacier is still one of the best deals in Alaska, however. The Visitors Center is only $3 and the trails which slither up and around the glacier are absolutely free. I would have loved to spend a day hiking on the glacier and along the iceberg filled lake, or to have spent the money to explore it in helicopter, or within a kayak or boat. But instead, we spent the afternoon learning about the glacier from the dry environs of the Visitors Center.

This is where we discovered that this mammoth river of frozen ice is 13 ½ miles long, 1 ½ miles wide at its widest point, and up to 1,800 feet thick. Like so many other glaciers around the world, Mendenhall is also retreating. Every year 100-150 feet calves off and falls into Mendenhall Lake. It was actually quite alarming to see photos from just a few decades ago which show the glacier extended to where the Visitors Center sits and beyond. Today the glacier is nearly two miles away as the crow flies. One day, not too far in the future, the center itself will have to be moved or renamed.

Yesterday: Exploring Juneau
Tomorrow: Adventuring in the Wilds of Juneau