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.
Mendenhall Glacier is a very popular tourist destination, conveniently located just 12 miles from downtown Juneau, Alaska, so if you happen to be in Juneau or are planning a trip there a visit at least to the glacier is a must, but a visit to the Mendenhall Ice Caves will likely be one of the most amazing things you’ll ever see.
Ice caves basically form in the same way as limestone caves. The berg or in the case of an ice cave, the ice, dissolves and a cavity or a lumen forms. Ice caves are always formed in glaciers and are carved out when the ice turns into meltwater leaving cavities to form.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
The Mendenhall Glacier can be seen from the visitor center on Mendenhall Loop 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.
These constant forces make a trip to the ice caves thrilling and dangerous. In the summer, expect dripping water, fast-moving streams, falling rock, and unstable footing. And, because the trek involves hiking on a generally unmarked trail, hikers unfamiliar with the area can easily lose their way back. More than a dozen times each year, lost or injured hikers have to be retrieved from the area. Travel Juneau always recommends that visitors hire an experienced guide who knows the current conditions of the ice caves, has all the right gear, and knows the trails.
While many people go to Mendenhall Glacier with a tour group or on a shore excursion, you can also get to the glacier on your own. You can take a taxi from Juneau, drive to the glacier with a rental car, or take the city bus to Glacier Spur Road and walk the rest of the way (1.5 miles).
HOW TO GET TO THE MENDENHALL ICE CAVES
1. Get To Juneau
2. Drive Toward Mendenhall Glacier In The Tongass National Forest
3. Trek To Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves
From the end of Skater’s Cabin Road parking lot, start on the West Glacier Trail and follow the trail 4.5 miles to the glacier. This is a long trek and the trail is difficult, can be dangerous in areas and is mostly unmarked, though there usually is some surveyors tape every so often marking the way. It can get slippery so be cautious where you step, in fact, the last section that descends down to the glacier is quite steep and on loose scree that can be very slippery. This route includes bridges, hazards, loose rocks, inclines, declines, and even stairs. It’s not uncommon for people to twist ankles, suffer sprains and even break bones on this trail.
Expect the hike to take about 3.5 to 4.5 hours on average, each way. It is advisable to get an early start, especially in the winter when days are short.
Option: Kayak/Canoe Across The Lake
It’s possible to bring a kayak (or rent one back in Juneau) and kayak across the lake in the summer and land just to the western flank of the glacier.
Option: If It’s Winter, Walk Across The Lake
In the winter, if the ice is thick enough it is possible to walk across the frozen lake from the Visitor Center. Do take care as people have fallen through the ice in the past.
4. Arrive At The Western Flank Of The Glacier
Walk north along the western flank of the glacier. Be careful as the rocks and ice can be very slippery here. This is a good place to pop on your crampons.
5. Head On In
Once you’ve located the entrance, follow the tunnel in. Depending on the ice you can go to varying depths into the glacier.
6. Enjoy the Mendenhall Ice Caves
More about route options here
WHAT TO BRING :
Hiking boots- It's a long hike to get out there and you want to be comfortable with good ankle support. Bringing a pair of rubber boots along will be handy as well as it can be wet going into the cave.
Crampons- or ice cleats. You don't want to be slipping and sliding around on a glacier. Crampons will provide you with the most grip. Cleats will at least give you some traction. Depending on your plans Ice axes may be helpful, although not usually necessary for most visitors.
Helmet- Just in case you slip and hit your head.
Water- It's no brainer. It's a long hike.
Snacks- Like mentioned with the water, it's a long hike.
Layers and a rain jacket- Juneau is notorious for rain. Layers will keep you comfortable as it will be colder up on and in the glacier. You'll most likely get pretty warm on the hike over.
Not comfortable going on your own? Hire a guide!
Ice caves, moulins, and crevasses come and go throughout the year and are not always safe and available to access, so we truly recommend you to go with a guide.
Keep it in mind!
There are thousands of such unbelievable beautiful places on Earth and this one is available to everyone. Just be safe and feel free to explore it!