Located just 12 miles from downtown Juneau, Alaska, Mendenhall Glacier is a 12-mile long glacier within Mendenhall Valley. Inside the glacier is a sight that few people have had the opportunity to see in person: the Mendenhall Ice Caves. Having been described as “otherworldly” and “surreal,” the magical Ice Caves are very difficult and dangerous to access due to their location. However if you can kayak over frigid, rough seas or ice climb over slippery, uneven terrain, then you can experience the stunning beauty of the Mendenhall Ice Caves hidden inside.
Federally protected as part of the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, a unit of the Tongass National Forest, the glacier originally had two names: Sitaantaagu, which means “Glacier Behind the Town,” and Aak’wtasksit, which means “Glacier Behind the Little Lake.” It was later renamed to Mendenhall Glacier in honor of Thomas Corwin Mendenhall. As a noted scientist, he was responsible for surveying the international boundary between Canada and Alaska with the Alaska Boundary Commission. Mendenhall served as Superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1889 to 1894.
Not for the faint of heart or the unadventurous, a trek to explore the Mendenhall Ice Caves is difficult, at best. There are two ways to get to the ice caves: by water and by land. Only experienced kayakers with cold-water paddling skills should attempt to reach the glacier by water. A number of reasons make this route extremely dangerous. Strong, cold winds cause choppy waters. Waves from collapsing glacier faces plummeting into the water below can capsize a watercraft or turn you off course. And nesting birds must be avoided near the landing area on the beach. Once safely to land, a 30-minute hike on the glacier presents its own dangers: slippery terrain, hidden crevasses, loose rocks. Not surprisingly, most people approach the glacier by land, which has its own set of obstacles. What starts with a 4 mile-long hike over “rough, steep, uneven, unmarked, and slippery terrain,” as the U.S. Forest Service describes it, to get to the glacier, continues on with another hike over 1,000 year-old ice that is slippery and laced with deep crevasses. Exercising good judgment and using extreme caution is a good idea! While surrounded by magnificent, photo-worthy views on all sides, pushing ahead is your best bet, as the strenuous hike could take 6-8 hours round trip to complete. This doesn’t leave much time to stop and smell the (ice) roses. So take it all in, snap some quick photos, and keep on trekking. It is wise to follow a GPS course or to pay careful attention to your route on the way in so that you can find your way out in the daylight. Getting lost while hiking on a glacier in Alaska is not something you want to do (in daylight or in the dark).
Once you arrive at the entrance to the glacier and prepare to enter the turquoise-painted world, be ready to get low. Some passes through the breathtakingly gorgeous caves are so small you’ll have to squat or crawl through them. If you are claustrophobic or just do not like small, tight spaces, this adventure probably isn’t for you. Once inside, you are surrounded by tons of melting and shifting ice overhead that creates a spectacular underwater-like world of wonder. Due to the constant melting of the glacier, there are places within the caves where freezing cold rain pours down from the ceilings. The inside of the ice caves is truly one of the most spectacular, overwhelmingly beautiful, unbelievably impressive sights you will ever see, but don’t underestimate the ever-present danger. With the ice above you constantly melting (albeit slowly), hikers must be aware that large chunks of ice can fall from the ceilings at any given time. People have been injured and/or killed due to ice cave collapses on Mt. Baker in Alaska and Mt. Hood in Oregon.
If you are up to the rigorous challenge of exploring the Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves, don’t delay. While global warming is responsible for creating the Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves, it is also to blame for them melting away. Since ice can only melt for so long before it’s all gone, the glacier and the ice caves are on borrowed time. Stunning side-by-side pictures reveal just how much melting and disappearing of the glacier has happened in the last 20 years. Every year that passes that brings warmer weather just contributes to the continuing melting of the glacier. And as the ice continues to thin and melt, travel onto the glacier and into the caves becomes increasingly dangerous. Traveling with a guide who knows the conditions and with the proper equipment (hiking boots, waterproof clothing, a change of clothing, crampons, ice ax, a helmet) will help ensure that you see every inch of this glorious sight and that you make it back safely to enthrall everyone with your unbelievable pictures!