Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier & Ice Caves

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Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier & Ice Caves

Mendenhall Glacier is located 12 miles or nineteen kilometers from Juneau, the capital city of Alaska. The famous glacier and the ice caves are located in Mendenhall Valley.

The glacier is about 13.6 miles (21.9 kilometers) long and is federally protected, along with the surrounding landscape, as part of the Tongass National Forest. 

The Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, is comprised of 5,815 acres (2,353 hectares). The glacier itself, was originally known as Sitaantaago meaning The Glacier Behind The Town or Aak’wtaaksit The Glacier Behind The Little Lake.

The glacier was named Auke (Auk) Glacier by naturalist John Muir, for the Tlingit Auk Kwann band in 1888. It was renamed in honor of Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, the famous American autodidact physicist and meteorologist in 1891.

Mendenhall Glacier extends from the Juneau Ice Field, its source, to Mendenhall Lake. The lake is iceberg filled and provides expansive views of the glacier from the water. The retreat of the glacier created the lake in 1929. The glacier has withdrawn an additional 1.75 miles (2.82 kilometers) since that year.

The surreal ice caves are inside the glacier, most easily accessible to those willing to kayak across Mendenhall lake. Visitors then have to climb over the glacier, to finally enter the ice caves. It is a near a 3.5 mile hike on the West Glacier Trail, to the ice caves.

Weather and conditions permitting, tourists can then see an expansive dreamlike scene, inside the glacier.

The West Glacier Trail starts out in a forest and is fairly level. However, it can be muddy and quite slippery, in some areas. Later the trail will have uplifted rocks, roots and other obstacles. Further on, the path gets rather steep, with one having to traverse bridges, stairs and switchbacks.

In one portion of the trail, there is even a large boulder, with a knotted rope, to better help you to climb over it. In addition, at the end of the pathway, there is an abundance of loose rocks, one has to navigate to get to the ice cave entrance.

The melting of the Mendenhall Glacier is what has in part, created these magnificent ice caves. The ongoing retreat of the Mendenhall Glacier, is constantly creating new vistas, inside these impressive caves.

Ultimately, as the glacier moves to extinction, the ice caves themselves will disappear.

Once inside the ice caves, one is treated to a frozen panorama of brilliant blue.

The best time to visit the Mendenhall Glacier and the ice caves is between mid May and mid September. The weather will be far more pleasant and the surrounding landscape is then in full bloom.

The forest and lake area are easily accessible from the visitors center, by a number of maintained trails.

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