The Mendenhall Glacier is a patchwork of dirty greys and vivid blues as it tumbles down the mountainside, a huge swathe of ice covering over 1,500 square metres of Alaskan wilderness. Jagged blocks of white and vibrant blue thrust upwards from the valley in a haphazard melee of rock and ice that glitters in the sunshine. Meltwater collects in brilliant blue channels that snake across the glacier and on either side, sheer cliffs rise high above the icefall. Waterfalls tumble down their slopes and the vast emerald expanse of Tongass National forest stretches beneath us far into the distance. The Mendenhall Glacier is a must visit destination on any trip to Juneau in Alaska. You can get to the glacier on a city bus or guided tour, however, for the best views of the glacier and surrounding mountains, splurge on a helicopter trip to the Mendenhall Glacier.
The Mendenhall Glacier is a thirteen mile long river of ice which disperses into Mendenhall Lake where in winter, vivid blue icebergs float serenely. It is one of many major glaciers that connects to the Juneau Ice field, a frozen landscape cradled high in the mountains. Whilst you will enjoy incredible views however you visit, on an helicopter trip to the Mendenhall Glacier you can appreciate the true size and majesty of the glacier and icefall.
Our helicopter trip to the Mendenhall Glacier
As the helicopter leaves its base in the valley and soars up into the mountains, jagged cliffs rise above bowls sheathed in snow. Eagerly we peer out of the windows, mesmerised by untouched snow cover and the granite spikes of Mendenhall Towers. The Towers are a dramatic ridge of seven peaks which rise over 1,500 metres above the icefield. Hard to believe this photo is taken in June!
As we start to descend towards the glacier, we get impressive views of huge ice slabs cascading onto the glacier in a haphazard jumble. Shades of blue and grey mix together like a brilliant blue slush puppy. We spot glimpses of crevasses and ridges in the ice and as we touch down on the glacier, we gaze in awe at the soaring icefall.
Ice walk on the Mendenhall Glacier
We clamber from the helicopter and hasten across the ice to base camp. A trio of tour guides wait to kit us out with crampons and poles. They briefly explain how to walk in them and soon we take our first baby steps across the ice. I step gingerly, expecting to fall but soon get the hang of things.
On the glacier it is eerily silent. The only sounds are those of helicopters ferrying tourists back and forth and the occasional sound of excited voices. Perhaps it is the magnitude of the surroundings that stuns people into silence. The colours are amazing – just look at the vivid blue of these pools of water!!
The hike is far from challenging as we stroll around a small section of glacier. We refill our water bottles in a glacial stream and pose for photos but our trip soon comes to an end. We hear the helicopters return as they fly over the ridge and descend onto the ice. The pilot swiftly whisks us back to Juneau airport past breathtaking views of Auke Lake and McGinnis Mountain and we return to sunshine. It truly is a spectacular way to visit the Mendenhall Glacier.
There is no need to worry about warm weather clothing. The helicopter tour company provide plastic boots, waterproof trousers, jackets and gloves. The bright red jackets look great against the backdrop of blue, especially with hair like this! On a sunny day, it can quickly get warm, so it pays to layer up so you can remove clothing if necessary.
Mendenhall Glacier location
Mendenhall Glacier is around 13 miles north of Juneau and getting there is no mean feat. You will need to fly to Juneau, the capital of Alaska, via Vancouver or Calgary.
Note, Juneau is inaccessible by car, unless you visit on the Alaska State Ferry which plies the waters of the Alaska Marine Highway. It stops off at 30 destinations over the 3,500 miles between Bellingham, WA and Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. You can find a full route map here.
Obviously, the other option is to get to Juneau on a cruise ship like we did. We travelled on Celebrity Eclipse on the seven night Hubbard Glacier cruise. (If you are unsure about an Alaska cruise, here are ten reasons why you should book a cruise now!) If you do visit Juneau on a cruise ship, it is highly likely you will have to book a guided tour due to time restrictions although you can take a taxi.
Book your guided tour from one of the quaint stalls on the dock, or if you have time take a city bus from downtown (opposite the cruise terminal) to the Glacier. You will need to walk the 1.5 miles to the Visitor Centre so must factor this into your timings. This bus costs just $2 but requires more effort on your part.
To obtain the most up to date information, pop into the Visitor Centre in Juneau on the docks.
Have you been to the Mendenhall Glacier and if so what did you think? Our journey was short and sweet but packed with amazing vistas which speak for themselves. For me seeing the glacier up close was considerably more appealing than seeing it from afar but I would love to know what you think.