Visit Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier during the summer months, and you’d be hard pressed to find a parking space, let alone a few yards of empty trail upon which to find the solitude you seek within Alaska’s wilderness. Mendenhall, like so many Alaska attractions, buzzes with tourists May through October as eager ice-seekers crane their necks for a glimpse of this accessible and beautiful natural wonder.
I don’t blame them; after all, Mendenhall Glacier is a Juneau treasure, and a top-of-the-list visit for our family during each visit. It’s just the crowds that sometimes overwhelm me; the sheer volume of humanity crowding the boardwalks and visitor center, all in the name of nature.
So we returned during winter.
Frosted spruce trees, muffled laughter from nearby sledding enthusiasts, sharp barking of a score or more local dogs frolicking in the snow; that’s what we came for. That and the ice.
Mendenhall Glacier is located 12 miles from downtown Juneau, and a short five miles from the airport, an easy morning or afternoon trip with kids. Operated by and within the Tongass National Forest (US Forest Service), Mendenhall boasts an acessible network of trails and an informative visitor center, open during the winter months on weekends.
It’s a completely different demographic during the non-summer months. Local residents bring their kids for some easy sledding or snowshoe practice, Nordic skiers find unlimited space upon the surface of frozen Mendenhall Lake, and photographers stand in awe at the massive wall of blue ice before them, spreading out from the equally-enormous Juneau Icefield, above.
Magical, that’s what it is, this marching across a lake toward an expanse of ancient snow and ice, hoping it stays within our view for many years to come. Icebergs poke their uneven heads from the lake, reminding us that we are indeed upon an active body of water. It’s heady, it’s wild, and it’s completely Alaska; that’s what we came for.
What can you do? Snowshoe, ski, or simply hike the well-traveled pathways that lead across the lake toward the glacier itself. NOTE: Icebergs and the glacier’s face can and do shift, and not with any regularity. Be mindful and keep your distance, for safety’s sake. Kids will enjoy sledding near the lake’s shoreline along the bumpy, hilly crests that lead down toward the lake from the parking area. If the lake is not your cup of tea, take any number of trails leading from the Mendenhall Visitor Center for some alternative views of the glacier and surrounding Mendenhall Valley. No snowshoes or skis? Try the Foggy Mountain Shop on Franklin Street.
Indoor Activities? We shouldn’t forget to mention the visitor center and its wall of windows facing the lake and glacier. Open Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. October through April, the visitor center offers a warm space to learn more about Mendenhall Glacier and the surrounding area. Admission is free during the winter, too, and once a month, the public is invited to attend a ‘fireside chat’ about all sorts of intersting topics. Find the complete list of upcoming events and current weather/ice conditions HERE.
Side Trips? You bet! We discovered the beauty and access of the glacier extends across Mendenhall Lake to the quaint Skater’s Cabin, a day-use shelter/picnic area providing ample views and access to all sorts of kid-friendly fun. Sledding, skiing, a bonfire, or ice skating; this is the place for a winter adventure to remember. And it’s less likely to be crowded, too. Find directions from the Mendenhall Visitor Center HERE.
Travel Juneau is your resource for all things capital city; find everything from hotels to car rentals to in-town activities. These folks are tops and L.O.V.E. winter visitors.
I’m glad we could be three of them.