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Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Tips

Nugget Falls and Mendenhall Glacier
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. Cruise passengers usually see glaciers like the ones at Glacier Bay from their ships.

Mendenhall is a major glacier just outside of the Juneau cruise port. It is part of the 16-million-acre Tongass National Forest, the largest natural forest in the United States. Tongass covers most of southeast Alaska and surrounds Juneau as well as most of the Inside Passage.

Cruise visitors to Juneau can get aboard 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 waters 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 and worth the time and energy for even slightly fit visitors. In fact, we saw a woman with a broken leg 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 wildlike.

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

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 see 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.
Scott S. Bateman is a professional journalist who has traveled widely throughout the Caribbean and the Americas.

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February 28, 2019

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