How to get to the Mendenhall Ice Caves
*Go at your own risk!
Hands down one of the most magical things in the world? Joining the iceworms* under the 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, 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.
*Yes, iceworms really do exist!
Don’t put off a visit to Mendenhall Ice Cave for too long! The ice cave is rapidly melting, collapses from time to time and with all the shifts in climate more recently the glacier could disappear all together in a few years.
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How to get to the Mendenhall Ice Cave
*Disclaimer: There is no way to guarantee access to the ice caves, it does collapse from time to time. Ask a park ranger at the the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center for the latest condition information.
1. Go to Juneau
You must get to Juneau first. You can arrive either by air or water. Juneau is not connected to the outside world by road.
2. Head 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 “Y”s 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‘.
3. Start the 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. It can get slippery so be cautious where you step. 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 broken 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: Rather than hike, kayak!
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.
3.75 Option: In the 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.
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.
6. Start looking for the entrance into the ice cave
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.
What to bring?
Hiking boots-– It’s a long hike to get out here 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.
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!
Beyond AK offers tours onto the glacier, including the ice cave. If you’re coming to Juneau on a short cruise ship stop they can arrange to pick you up and get you back to the ship before departure.
Have you been to Mendenhall Ice Cave?
Or an ice cave elsewhere? I’d love to hear about it!
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*Since people in general are stupid and sue happy: Go at your own risk. Glaciers are incredibly dangerous places, especially if you are inexperienced. You can fall into crevasses, glaciers can collapse on top of you, you can slip and fall and much more. I’m not responsible for you injuring yourself, maiming yourself, or dying, or for any belongings or items you may lose/break out there. Be careful. If you are bound and determined to reach Mendenhall ice cave but don’t have much confidence in your glacier trekking abilities it would be wise to hire an experienced glacier guide.