The only glacier in Southeast Alaska accessible by road, Mendenhall’s grand edifice plunges from the immense Juneau Icefield, dropping 4,500 feet over 13 miles. Its active face regularly calves big icebergs and brash into its lake. The glacier has been retreating for 300 to 400 years, since the Little Ice Age, and has peeled back another 1.75 miles since 1929. Punctuated by waterfalls and lush forest, the glacier’s rugged and crevassed reach anchors an extraordinary mountain vista. This natural setting—both summer and winter—is one of the most spectacular and interesting in the Alaska, and the visitor center is considered world class with museum quality exhibits that draw about 500,000 visitors a year. Spotting scopes will bring the glacier’s shimmering face close.
Best Viewing Spots
Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center
Start at the visitor center, with an indoor viewing area and a 15-minute film about the glacier’s dynamics. A paved, flat .6 mile trail leads to Photo Point with a head-on view of the face across the lake against a coastal mountain panorama. Five other trails feature short hikes near the visitor center, including the one-mile trail to Nugget Falls along the shore. The Trail of Time, a .5-mile paved interpretive walk, features signs marking the glacier’s recession. The 3.5-mile East Glacier Trail loop has 500 feet of elevation gain, offering a elevated views of the ice and surrounding terrain. The Mendenhall area is as good as it gets.
West Glacier Trail
For ambitious backcountry hikers, the 3.4-mile (one way) West Glacier Trail skirts the western shore of the lake, leading to a trail junction with a route to Mt. McGinnis. Another very rugged route extends further from the main trail toward the glacier itself, but is recommended only for experienced backcountry travelers prepared for route finding. The area is notorious for lone hikers getting lost or injured and then requiring rescue. The trailhead on the lake’s southwest corner off Skater’s Cabin Road beyond the Mendenhall Campground.