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Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Tips

Tourists stand by Nugget Falls and see Mendenhall Glacier in the background. © 2018 Scott Bateman
Tourists stand by Nugget Falls and see Mendenhall Glacier in the background. © 2018 Scott Bateman
Mendenhall Glacier is somewhat in a category by itself for Alaska cruise passengers because it’s a rare chance to see a huge glacier up close and on foot.

Yes, hikers in Alaska can visit glaciers on foot as part of a land tour, but they usually need expensive transportation such as helicopters to get there. A helicopter visit often costs $300 to $500 per person. Otherwise, cruise passengers usually see glaciers like the ones at Glacier Bay from the decks of their ships.

Mendenhall is a major glacier 13 miles north of the Juneau cruise port. The glacier, which is inland and not viewable from a cruise ship, is part of the 16-million-acre Tongass National Forest. Tongass is the largest natural forest in the United States. The forest covers most of southeast Alaska and surrounds Juneau as well as most of the Inside Passage.

Mendenhall Glacier Tours


Cruise visitors to Juneau can board the Glacier Shuttle next to the Mount Roberts Tramway. Shuttles go back and forth every 30 minutes on most days. The cost was $45 per person round trip at the time of this writing, although it has been climbing steadily in recent years. Taxis charge a similar rate.

Shuttle drivers will offer a narrated trip that takes about 20 minutes to reach the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. It has a gift shop, food, exhibits and restrooms as well as a nice view of the glacier.

Visitors have three main choices for viewing the glacier depending on their time, fitness and mobility. Other than the visitor center, the quickest viewing point is by the edge of Mendenhall Lake between the visitor center and the glacier. The view is somewhat distant.

The second viewing point is the most popular and most photographic: Nugget Falls.

Visitors will see signs pointing toward Nugget Falls to the right of the visitor center. The falls are an easy 1.3-mile hike on a flat trail. They are worth the time and energy for even slightly fit visitors. In fact, we saw a woman with a broken leg in a cast who hobbled the entire way.

The falls aren’t tall, but they are powerful and fun to visit. The location still means that visitors will have to view Mendenhall Glacier across part of the lake, but they are closer than the visitors center.

More energetic visitors can take the longer east and west glacier trails for closer and better views of Mendenhall as well as a chance to see more wildlife.

Glacier Ice Caves


Anyone who wants to stand on the glacier can take a rugged eight-mile hike with a guide or canoe to get there. These excursions cost more than $200 and sometimes more than $300 per person.

Mendenhall is well known for its ice caves. The caves often form when water flows through a glacier and melts out a passageway in the ice.

Anyone who takes a guided excursion all the way to Mendenhall Glacier will walk on the glacier and possible view the caves. But excursion operators don’t guarantee whether anyone can enter the caves because of weather and other factors.

Other Ways to See Mendenhall Glacier


Although a shuttle is the most common way of getting to Mendenhall, excursion operators have come up with several other more adventurous ways of seeing it.

They include getting there by canoe, kayak and raft via Mendenhall Lake. Some of them also include travel time on Mendenhall River, which has some mild class II and III rapids.

Other tours combine a glacier visit with a whale watching tour, a Juneau city tour or a dining tour at the top of Mount Roberts.

One excursion operator offered a combination of whale watching and the glacier for about $150 per person. A Mendenhall Lake kayaking excursion with views of the falls cost $220 per person.

So cruise visitors on a tight budget can see one of the top shore excursions on an Alaska cruise for less than $50 per person. More adventurous visitors can spend much more.
Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.

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September 23, 2019

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