How to get to the Mendenhall Ice Caves
Updated November 2020, How to get to Mendenhall Ice Caves was originally written in February 2016
Hands down one of the most magical things I’ve done in the world? Joining the ice worms under the surreal, icy blue world of a glacier. The network of cerulean ice caves is what makes Mendenhall Glacier so unique and special.
Mendenhall Glacier is a very popular tourist destination, conveniently located just 12 miles from downtown Juneau, Alaska, so if you happen to be in Juneau or are planning a trip there, a visit at least to the glacier is a must. But a visit to the Mendenhall Ice Caves will likely be one of the most amazing things you’ll ever see.
Don’t put off a visit to Mendenhall Ice Cave, its constantly shifting and changing, and will collapse every so often and reform.
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Mendenhall Ice Caves Quick Tips
- Glaciers and especially ice caves are constantly shifting, melting, and collapsing. You are choosing to go at your own risk as glacier travel can be extremely dangerous and even deadly.
- If you don’t have any glacier experience, I highly recommend hiring a guide. Beyond AK does take groups out to the ice caves but only if they are reasonably safe to access.
- There’s a chance that there may be no caves when you plan to visit. While this is unfortunate, you can’t predict these things. I visited in 2016, but I had heard in 2018 the cave I went in had collapsed, and by 2019 another cave had formed at a different location on the glacier.
- Dress warm and in layers, especially in the winter.
- Bring a waterproof jacket and boots as you will get wet inside the ice cave.
How To Get To The Mendenhall Ice Caves
1. Get To Juneau
2. Drive Toward Mendenhall Glacier In The Tongass National Forest
The glacier is located about 12 miles north of downtown Juneau. Head northwest on Egan Drive, take a right onto Mendenhall Loop Road which will turn into Glacier Spur Rd. Follow Glacier Spur until you see Mendenhall Loop Road (yes, again) on your left, turn left, and then continue on it. Take a right onto Montana Creek Road.
Where the road forks take the right onto Skater’s Cabin road. Follow Skater’s Cabin road to the parking lot at the end. This is the beginning of the ‘West Glacier Trail‘.
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3. Trek To Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves
From the end of Skater’s Cabin Road parking lot, start on the West Glacier Trail and follow the trail 4.5 miles to the glacier. This is a long trek and the trail is difficult, can be dangerous in areas, and is mostly unmarked, though there usually is some surveyors tape every so often marking the way.
It can get slippery so be cautious where you step, in fact, the last section that descends down to the glacier is quite steep and on loose scree that can be very slippery. This route includes bridges, hazards, loose rocks, inclines, declines, and even stairs. It’s not uncommon for people to twist ankles, suffer sprains, and even break bones on this trail.
Expect the hike to take about 3.5 to 4.5 hours on average, each way. It is advisable to get an early start, especially in the winter when days are short.
3.5 Option: Kayak/Canoe Across The Lake
It’s possible to bring a kayak (or rent one back in Juneau) and kayak across the lake in the summer and land just to the western flank of the glacier. Check out kayak and canoe trips here.
3.75 Option: If It’s Winter, Walk Across The Lake
In the winter, if the ice is thick enough it is possible to walk across the frozen lake from the Visitor Center. Do take care as people have fallen through the ice in the past.
4. Arrive At The Western Flank Of The Glacier
Walk north along the western flank of the glacier. Be careful as the rocks and ice can be very slippery here. This is a good place to pop on your crampons.
5. Start Looking For A Stream Coming From The Glacier
This will typically lead you to the entrance of an ice cave. When I visited in 2016 the opening to the ice cave was right off the western flank, but these caves have since collapsed. In 2019 there are ice caves that have reformed, but the openings to them always are changing so you may need to do some investigating on arrival to locate them.
6. Keep An Eye Out For An Opening
Glaciers are constantly shifting, changing, melting, moving, and sometimes growing. When I visited the opening was quite obvious. Other visitors report having to duck down or even crawl to enter. It just depends on how the glacier has shifted.
7. Head On In
Once you’ve located the entrance, follow the tunnel in. Depending on the ice you can go to varying depths into the glacier.
8. Enjoy the Mendenhall Ice Caves
The best way I can describe what being inside the ice cave is like is to say it’s what I’ve always imagined being trapped inside a sapphire would be like. The blues flicker and flash and appear to shift to different hues.
You can hear the constant movement of the glacier with the occasional groan and creak. It’s somewhere that I wanted to stay in forever and run out as fast as I could– it is an eerie feeling being under a glacier, but amazing at the same time.
Shop Various Mendenhall Glacier Tours
Where To Stay In Juneau
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What To Bring
- Hiking boots- It's a long hike to get out there and you want to be comfortable with good ankle support. Bringing a pair of rubber boots along will be handy as well as it can be wet going into the cave.
- Crampons- or ice cleats. You don't want to be slipping and sliding around on a glacier. Crampons will provide you with the most grip. Cleats will at least give you some traction. Depending on your plans Ice axes may be helpful, although not usually necessary for most visitors.
- Helmet- Just in case you slip and hit your head.
- Water- It's no brainer. It's a long hike.
- Snacks- Like mentioned with the water, it's a long hike.
- Layers and a rain jacket- Juneau is notorious for rain. Layers will keep you comfortable as it will be colder up on and in the glacier. You'll most likely get pretty warm on the hike over.
- Not comfortable going on your own? Hire a guide!
- Trekking on a glacier and inside ice caves is dangerous. Go at your own risk. Injury and/or death is possible.
- If at all in doubt, go on a guided trip.
Have Any Questions About Visiting The Mendenhall Ice Caves?
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