By Joy Sheehan
Hike the Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves before it’s too late!
Located just 12 miles outside of downtown Juneau, Alaska sits the Mendenhall Glacier. Hundreds of thousands of visitors gaze upon its beauty each year, but very few people actually see it from its most beautiful angle: the inside.
Inside the glacier is a series of ice caves that are simply otherworldly — like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia. Only all of Narnia is blue. And you had to hike a moderately strenuous 3.5 mile trail (each way) to get there.
However, the caves are quickly melting and collapsing. Get to Juneau as fast as possible if you have any interest in photographing yourself as a Smurf experiencing this surreal natural wonder!
Know Before You Go
Before you attempt this hike, you need to know that this trail can be dangerous, arduous, and is somewhat unmarked in certain spots. A few people each year come ill-prepared, get lost, slip and fall, sprain their ankle, or need rescuing. I highly recommend not hiking this one alone if you’re not an experienced hiker.
Expect the hike to take between 2–3 ½ hours each way. Start early and don’t underestimate the time. Plan it so that you’re not coming back in the dark! You should also know that you are not guaranteed access into the ice caves. Take note of the weather (beware on hot sunny days or rainy days) and always use common sense when it comes to your safety.
What To Bring
Dress in layers, bring snacks and water for the day, and keep in mind that you’ll get wet! This means safeguarding your phones and your cameras with protective cases! My Lifeproof NUUD Waterproof iPhone case saved me on this trip!
A warm top layer like a sweater, and a light rainjacket to change into will be wanted once you get closer to the cold wet glacier. Bring proper hiking boots or sneakers with ankle support, and wool socks. Chapstick with SPF, sunscreen on sunny days, and mosquito repellent are good ideas too.
Crampons for your shoes are extremely helpful if you want to walk on the top of the Mendenhall Glacier. Gloves to protect your hands while scrambling down the rocks during the last bit of the hike would’ve been handy to have.
And of course, please remember that this is an incredibly beautiful natural wonder in need of protection and safeguarding. Practice your Leave No Trace skills — and if you pack it in, pack it out.
How To Get There
The West Glacier Trail is on the Western side of the glacier starting at Mendenhall Lake. This out-and-back trail will bring you to the caves. You could also veer off at the “Viewpoint” sign on the trail, which will still bring you to the caves on a different route (the Cairn route).
If you choose to visit the ice caves independently (not on a tour), you can either drive your own vehicle, rent one in town, or take a taxi. If taking a taxi, tell the driver you plan on doing the ice caves hike at the West Glacier Trail off of Skater’s Cabin Road. If driving yourself, use the Google directions below.
Start on the West Glacier Trailhead. If you can, set up a GPS to track your course before you start the hike, as it’ll make finding your way back a whole lot easier. I also dropped a pin on my map on my phone when I started, and noted what time I started the hike and what time I arrived to the caves.
If you opt to take a guided tour, you’ll be shuttled by van from your pick-up point to the trailhead and brought back once the tour has ended.
The West Glacier Trail starts out in a forest and is fairly level to walk on for a while. It can get muddy and slick in some areas, and a good portion of the trail has uplifted rocks and roots. It begins to get pretty steep and you’ll have to go over bridges, switchbacks, stairs, and a large boulder with a knotted rope to aid in climbing up it.
You’ll reach a few scenic overlooks, and you’ll end the trail at the top of an area with shrubbery and exposed rock near the glacier. Again, not all of the trail is marked. Look for the colorful ribbons tied to bushes, or for cairns — rocks piled orderly on top of each other — that other hikers have created to help distinguish the route. The last bit is that loose rock scramble downhill to reach the cave entrance.
Exploring The Caves
Again, the last bit of the West Glacier Trail has you scrambling down a hillside of loose rocks and pebbles. Be mindful of your footing and go slow. The cave entrances are right in front of you — holes in the sides of the glacier with an icy bubbly blue hue inside. You’ll see a little stream running through them.
Caution : Once you enter the Mendenhall Glacier ice caves, you’ll want to stay forever and you will seriously contemplate adapting to the cold and taking an ice worm as your wife.
Fun Fact — Yes, ice worms actually exist! They spend their entire lives in glacial ice, only coming to the surface in mornings and evenings to feed on algae and pollen grains. Their bodies actually liquify if they experience temperatures of 41° F (5° C) or higher! So in retrospect, maybe choose a different wife species when you decide to stay here forever, unless you want to become a widow thanks to global warming. 😉
The Mendenhall Glacier Is Receding!
The Mendenhall Glacier is receding and melting quicker than it can accumulate snow and ice. The snowfall at the head of the Icefield is heavily relied on. But with increasing global temperatures, it’s not looking very hopeful for glaciers.
Granted, the total disappearance of the Mendenhall glacier would probably take centuries, but the ice caves inside of it are disappearing at a much faster rate.
I first visited the caves in July 2014 and two days later, a ranger informed me that the main entrance had melted and collapsed! Talk about timing! I returned to these ice caves in August 2017 and the difference was alarming. The new entrance was much smaller and the caves weren’t as vast or extensive. Water was still dripping and pouring from its “ceiling”.
Some predict that it could be as little as 10 years until they are gone completely!
Avoid future disappointment and start planning your trip to Juneau ASAP!