If you’ve considered visiting Alaska you have probably stumbled across surreal photos of people standing and walking in the bright blue Mendenhall Ice Caves formed on the Mendenhall Glacier.
Located a short 12 miles outside Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, the Mendenhall Ice Caves are ever changing due to melting ice and glacier recession but an absolute wonder to explore. That said, accessing them is no easy feat.
Naturally, we couldn’t visit Juneau and miss the chance to the experience the ice caves for ourselves. Accessing the caves is possible in inly a couple of ways and not without having to work for it.
One of 38 glaciers that emerges from the 1500 square mile Juneau Ice Field, runs 13 miles long into the Mendenhall Valley eventually ending in the Mendenhall Lake where it is primarily viewed today.
The glacier itself is over 3,000 years old and easily one of Juneau’s most popular tourist stops. With a well established visitors center and an easy walking trail to the Nugget Falls, 90% of the visitors to the Mendenhall Glacier never get any closer than a viewing platform at the visitors center.
While it’s not easy to detect by visitors, the Mendenhall Glacier is receding rapidly meaning the face of the glacier and the surrounding areas are changing on a daily basis. While the glacier has been receding since 1500, the majority of the change has taken place since 1958 by a total of 2.5 miles.
People that work around the glacier and monitor its changes are hopeful that once it recedes out of Mendenhall Lake it will slow down and stabilize. However, once this happens the ice caves will likely no longer exist so it’s not a natural wonder you can put off seeing.
Due to the rate of glacial recession, the ice caves have formed by the melting glacial ice and flow of water around the side of the glacier. This melted water runs under and through the glacier regularly carving out new caves. As the glacier recession continues, the caves collapse and disappear.
While you might only see white from the exterior of the glacier, all glaciers are inherently a bright blue on the inside. This color, affectionately known as glacier blue, is the result of air being squeezed from the frozen ice and snow. Over time the ice absorbs every other color except blue.
This natural phenomenon leaves us with a frozen, bright blue cavern under the glacier where we are able to catch a small glimpse into the inner beauty of the glacier.
It is possible to visit the caves independently or on a guided adventure. Both have their pros and cons but safety is a definite concern and something to consider for your visit.
While both ways are beautiful and perfectly acceptable way to access the caves, there is something special about using the lake to access the west side of the Glacier.
In the summer, this requires a solid hour or more of paddling across the chilly glacier lake from the public access point to the beach on the west side of the glacier.
In the winter, you can hike your way across the lake.
If you are looking for a well rounded experience for visiting the ice caves, we recommend a combination tour option that involves paddling across the lake in a canoe, hiking up the west side of the glacier, a visit to the Mendenhall Ice Caves followed by a hike up onto the glacier.
Recommended Tour – Above & Beyond Alaska
This is a fully guided experience that not only provides a great adventure, but the chance to learn about the glacier and the caves too.
Alternatively, it is possible to rent kayaks in Juneau that can be used to paddle across the lake to the west glacier beach. Access to the caves is not marked and in some parts there is no apparent trail to follow. In the winter, you can also traverse the frozen lake on foot without a guide to access the ice caves.
If paddling is not your cup of tea, you can opt for the land option. Access to the ice caves exclusively on foot is possible via the West Glacier Trail. The trailhead for this hike starts in the same parking lot as the lake crossing. The beginning of the hike is well marked, as many people like to take leisurely walks in the temperate rainforest at the start of the trail.
Don’t be fooled, as the trail continues on, it gets increasingly more difficult with intense uphill areas that are often wet and slippery and covered with rocks and mud. Some areas on this part of the trail have a loose metal rope guide to assist in the incline. At this point in the trail and beyond, it is not marked clearly.
You will eventually reach a lookout over the glacier at this is where the West Glacier Trail officially ends. Suffice to say, it is not at the ice caves. You have to continue on without a trail, scrambling and sliding your way down near the glacier.
It is highly recommended to have a guide for this hike. This will ensure you know the current conditions of the ice caves, have all the right gear and someone who knows the trails with you. Every year dozens of lost or injured hikers have to be retrieved from the area.
If you choose to visit the Mendenhall Ice Caves independently, safety should be your biggest concern. It is possible to get lost and backcountry safety precautions should be followed. The path to the ice caves is very difficult and we do not suggest attempting it unless you are an experienced hiker or you have a knowledgeable guide with you.
No matter how you choose to visit the Mendenhall Ice Caves, safety should be a priority. The ever-changing conditions of a glacier environment make a visit here both thrilling and dangerous. In the summer you can expect dripping water, fast moving streams, falling rocks and unstable footing. On top of that, keep in mind that the weather in Alaska is ever changing and you might start with sun and find yourself adventuring in the wet, cold within an hour.
This means you should always carry the right kind of gear and don’t leave for a glacier visit without it. Rain gear is essential, including a jacket and pants. Ensure your boots are waterproof and warm; bring extra socks in case your feet get wet. Bring a variety of layers that can be added and removed while you are going to and near the glacier.
If you’re traveling independent, be sure to read the tips provided by the U.S Forest Service, the agency managing the area.
Remember that any visit to the Mendenhall Ice Caves and Glacier is at your own risk. Glaciers are always moving, shifting, calving and collapsing. The ice caves are located within a glacier, meaning the behavior of the cave cannot be predicted.
The assumed risk should be anything from minor injury to death whenever you enter an ice cave or set foot on a glacier. More information about the Mendenhall Glacier can be found at the Tongass National Forest Service site.
Our visit to the Mendenhall Ice Caves was in partnership with Travel Juneau. As always, all opinions are 100% mine.