Getting to Mendenhall Glacier from Juneau
The Mendenhall Glacier is about 13 miles from downtown Juneau Alaska. You can reach it in various ways from Juneau:
- Taxi. While we thought this would be a reasonable cost, it ended up being expensive as taxis need a special permit to drop people at the glacier. They charge an extra cost for this. We had a language barrier with our taxi driver and what we thought was going to be a reasonable fare ended up being close to $100 one way. We would not recommend this option
- Tour companies offer round-trip travel. The drivers provide context about the glacier and various areas as you pass them by.
- The city bus is the least expensive way to get there. While you can catch the bus right in Juneau, you have to walk about 1.5 miles from where the bus lets you off to get to the visitor center. The walk is along a flat boring sidewalk and is very easy to do in nicer weather.
- By car. If you are lucky enough to have a car, this is a fast, inexpensive option for getting to the glacier.
Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center
The visitor center is well worth a stop when going to the Mendenhall Glacier.
It explains how the Mendenhall, which is just one of the 38 glaciers that have been spawned from the Juneau Icefield, receives about 100 inches of new snow each year. Like all glaciers, it forms when the amount of new ice exceeds the amount that melts or is calved away as icebergs. By the time the glacier reaches a depth of 60 meters, the weight overcomes friction and the glacier begins to flow downhill. The Mendenhall, for example, flows at a rate of about 18 to 20 feet per year.
This ice is formed as new layers of snow compress the snow beneath. The pressure of the new snow squeezes the air (which accounts for 80 percent of snow), out of underlying layers. And since glacial ice contains only 20 percent air, the addition of 100 inches of new snow would, all else being equal, add about 25 inches of new ice to the glacier per year. All else, however, is not equal. The reason, of course, is that warming temperatures are melting ice faster than new ice can be added. This means that the glacier is retreating. It has retreated by about a mile over the last hundred years and is now retreating at a rate of about 30 feet per year. You can see the difference in the first picture below from 2021 and the second picture from our trip in 2011.
Hiking at the Mendenhall Glacier
Seeing the glacier from the visitor’s center is amazing. But hiking in the area gives one a better up-close look at the glacier and the surrounding area. Although the rain limited our hiking ambitions, we did take a short, half-mile walk to the outdoor viewpoint and a longer two-mile round trip walk to the base of Nugget Falls. The falls originate from meltwater at the base of the glacier (that serves to lubricate the flowing glacier) and flows in a sub-surface stream through an ice cave.
We also planned to hike the 7-mile West Glacier Trail and visit one of these ice caves and to get a nice view of the glacier. Although the trail can be rugged and hard to follow, we were up to the challenge. But the rain was hard enough and the trail muddy enough that we decided it best to wait till we return with hiking boots and the proper clothes. We could, however, see the remnants of one of these ice caves with a short walk from the visitor center—the powerful Nugget Waterfall which originally formed within one of these caves, before the ice around it melted. We also saw more of the temperate rainforests through which we hiked at Glacier Bay.
One can also hike on the glacier itself, but we were not properly equipped for glacier hiking.