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Hiking to Mendenhall Glacier via the West Glacier Trail

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The Stews returned to Juneau. Not only is it an amazing city, but the Mendenhall Ice Caves were the true draw for us. Last time we went to Juneau we weren’t able to get to them, so we had planned another trip specifically to go.

The Ice Caves are considered one of the best places in the world to take a ‘selfie’, and we figured living so close, we should check it out. (Ok, I know. A plane ride 1,000 miles isn’t ‘close’, but it is in the same state and I live in Alaska – let me pretend things in my own state are close!)

When we were doing research on how to get to the caves, however, there isn’t much out there. We scoured other blogs and hiking sites to figure out the best approach. Since we had such a tough time figuring it out, we tried to document our trail so others could attempt the same way we did.

This was by no means an easy hike – if you’re not a skilled hiker with some climbing experience, you can get hurt. State Troopers said this where most of their rescues happen, usually because of injuries like broken ankles or falls. Don’t attempt if you’re not good at outdoorsy-ing.

We started off our day at the West Glacier Trailhead. This is the best way to reach the ice caves.

Courtesy of Alaska.org, a map of the trails around the Mendenhall Glacier.

We were a bit worried regarding the weather – the morning was rainy, but by the time we started on the trails, it was actually perfect hiking temps.

What I Wore: Northface Outer Shell Jacket, Eddie Bauer Midlayer, Eddie Bauer First Accent Base Layer, Fjall Raven Pants, Keen Hiking Boots

What I Wore: Northface Outer Shell Jacket, Eddie Bauer Sandstone Soft Shell Jacket, Eddie Bauer First Ascent Base Layer, Fjall Raven Abisko Pants, Keen Hiking Boots

The first 2.5 miles follows the West Glacier Trail on a moderate hike through some beautiful forest. I always forget how wet Juneau is – it’s part of a rainforest – and the moss is everywhere. It almost makes everything look like a fairy wonderland!

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There were some really beautiful but tough spots to overcome though!

So glad they installed hand rails!

So glad they installed hand rails!

After 2.5 miles, the trail offers 3 options. Continue left to stay on the West Glacier Trail, go to the right to a bench and overlook, or go right then left down the West Glacier Spur Trail. [Note: The West Glacier Spur Trail isn’t a sanctioned trail. It is one that people have created to reach the glacier. Proceed with caution.]

Access to the spur trail isn’t necessarily hard to find, but you do have to be looking for it.

Matt at the start of the Spur Trail

Matt at the start of the Spur Trail

You know you’re on the right path when you see this sign:

Warning Sign: You know you're on the right way!

Warning Sign: You know you’re on the right way!

As I said before, a lot of people have to be rescued. They’re super serious about their warnings.

Immediately as you get on the trail, the route gets a lot tougher. There are sloping rocks you have to walk down (Tip: walk the edge near the plants. A lot easier to get footing on the moss).

What's also is crazy is the striations on the rock from the glacier receding. It used to be HUGE!

What’s also is crazy is the striations on the rock from the glacier receding. It used to be HUGE!

Once we got down the rocks, we made it to a gravel bar that features a nice lake and a beaver dam!

Beaver Dam

Beaver Dam

One great thing I most note is right about here, we started seeing markers put up by hikers to help guide along a safe route. The markers we saw were pink ribbons tied to tree limbs, and Cairns (rock stacks) where there weren’t trees available. This was wonderful and saved us a lot of time and headache in following a safe and known trail. So huge thanks to whomever put that out.

After crossing the gravel bar, we began a great climb up a rock face to get to the glacier.

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Like, a really steep climb

Going up wasn’t so bad, we just had to be careful where we stepped. Going down was more difficult, as it had been misting raining all day, so the rocks were really slick. Matt ensured my safety getting down by utilizing his knots and climbing knowledge and tying me to him so if I fell, he could stop me. It made me feel really safe during the descent.

Once we made it over, we finally saw the beautiful thing: The Glacier! Up close and personal, it is just such a cool thing and living in Alaska means I get to see them all the time! I recognize how spoiled I am.

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HI GLACIER

Another 15 minutes of hiking led us down to the glacier, where we ate lunch and tried to discover a way in. Unfortunately, the glacier is quickly receding due to temperature change and the fact that glaciers grow and shrink and it’s a natural thing.

The Ice Cave that is most popular and most easily accessible actually collapsed. There was no safe way into the cave, and if we would have tried to pass, we ran the risk of getting injured or stuck in an ice cave. Safety prevailed and we sadly ate our sandwiches and Clif bars beside the inaccessible glacier entry.

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No Entry. Super Sad. But we stayed safe.

Here’s an article from the Alaska Dispatch News about the collapse, and the picture below is from the article about what the entrance used to look like. It was definitely disappointing to have flown all the way to Juneau and made it so close to not get in. (It’s like waiting in line at a nightclub in Berlin and then the bouncer decides you’re too American and turns you away because you don’t speak fluent German and aren’t famous. I know, it’s happened.)

What the Entrance USED to look like

But, overall, it was a wonderful experience and an excellent hike and made Matt & I both feel like adventurers. I’m not sure if they have intentions to clear the entrance or just let the glacier do its own thing. But I am sure that anyone who was able to get photos inside before the collapse is really lucky, and has something that other people just can’t get now.

It was a 3.23 miles from parking lot to the glacier via the West Glacier trail. I’ve included a screenshot from My Garmin detailing the route we took. (Wanna be friends? I’m EmilySinAlaska!) For a more in-depth look at how we went, you can click below to link to my account for details on the trip. It only highlights our way in though – we exited the exact same way we went in.

Screenshot of the trail we took from My Garmin

Screenshot of the trail we took from My Garmin

Any places you’ve been that others can’t get too now? What are your thoughts on our disappearing landmarks?

Emily A. Stewart

Emily was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, but found her home in Alaska. Now she's back in Charlotte discovering all that the city and the East Coast has to offer.

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