Probably the most visited, photographed, and inspected hunk of ice in all of Alaska, mighty Mendenhall glacier is front and center for AK Fam’s capital city visit next week. Easily accessible, beautiful to look at, and with a marvelous intrepretive center to boot, Mendenhall has been thrilling guests at her icy flanks since the visitor center was built in 1962, and likely long before that. Named after a superintendent of a U.S. Coast Geodetic Survey program in the late 1800’s, Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, President Harrison bestowed the name upon the glacier previously named “Auke” by noted naturalist John Muir, in 1892.
Situated 13 miles from downtown Juneau (seven miles from the Auke Bay ferry dock), Mendenhall glacier is but one of 38 or so other glaciers heaving their way down from the enormous Juneau Icefield within the boundaries of the Tongass National Forest. Grinding and groaning toward Mendehnall Lake, a distance of 13 miles, Mendenhall is as impressive today as it was in the 1700’s, when a slow retreat began due to an imbalance in melt rate (increase) to annual accumulation rate (decrease). While many lament the now-distant portions of the glacier, the leavings of this icy giant are nonetheless startling to look at, and definitely a teachable moment for kids.
Access to the glacier, fortunately, is easy, given its popularity among tourists to Juneau. If you’re part of a cruise to Alaska, either sign up for one of the packaged tours providing transportation to the glacier, or ask at one of the many kiosks around the cruise ship dock for transportation to/from the visitor center. Otherwise, rent a car, take a cab, or hop on the city bus (leaving plenty of time to walk the 1.5 miles from the stop to the visitor center, though). Everybody wants to see the glacier, so getting there is merely an exercise of choice and cash flow.
The Tongass NF/Mendenhall Visitor Center is open seven days a week during the summer, from 8 a.m. -7:30 p.m., and admission is a mere $3. Yes, it’s worth the minor cost to check out the great exhibits like the “ice cave” upon entering the center, and the cool “Recipe For a Glacier” display. Helpful Forest Service staff are well-versed in the common questions about the area, and always cater to a kid’s natural curiosity. The center itself is impressive; built on a rocky overlook with enormous windows that draw one’s attention immediately to the glacier, the building has a gift shop, theater (added in the 1990’s), and easily-accessed walkways suitable for strollers and/or wheelchairs.
Our favorite activity at Mendenhall, once AK Kid has received his fill of attention from staff, is to take a hike. Several walking paths and rougher trails exist in the visitor center area, and all show off interesting examples of glacier landscape and the plants that manage to survive in this chilly environment.
For an easy (and fast) look at the glacier, take the .3 mile Photo Point walk, just beyond the visitor center. This trail is paved and completely accessible, and offers one of the best vantage points of the glacier. Listen to the roar of water as it cascades from the glacier’s trimline to the lake, and ask kids to spot the ducks and seagulls floating around the icy waters.
At .5 miles, the Trail of Time is a wonderful walk for kids of all ages, and provides a self-guided tour brochure to motivate little (or not-so-little) legs. Grab one at the visitor center or trailhead and follow the progression of forest growth in this southeast Alaskan rainforest.
The fascinating Moraine Ecology Trail is 1.5 miles, and a great option for preschool and up, providing just enough workout with an abundance of interesting geologic evidence to pique the interest of everybody in the family. Take the trail at the north side of the parking lot and begin your deglaciating, noticing how trees, shrubs, and the very dirt upon which you walk were affected by Mendenhall’s appearance and retreat. That’s cool.
Have more time and/or hardy kids/teens? Oh yeah, take the East Glacier Trail, a day hike that packs punch, seeing as you’ll pass by that waterfall I mentioned above, and noisy Nugget Creek, where rock-seeking is super duper. Great photo ops here, parents. Your kids will feel as if they’ve stepped into another time, as perhaps they have, as they see up-close the glacial ice and dirty leavings. Steep parts to exist on this trail, but if one moves with caution, it’s doable for most families. Take snacks and water on this one, you’d hate to be caught on the return trip with nothing to munch on.
Be aware on all these hikes that weather does change often in southeast Alaska, so raingear, sturdy footwear, bug spray, and a hat are welcome backpack items. Black bears do frequent the visitor center area during th salmon runs (July/August in particular), so remember your bear safety info and all will be well.