Mendenhall Glacier is a glacier about 12 miles (19 km) long located in Mendenhall Valley, about 12 miles (19 km) from downtown Juneau in the southeast area of the U.S. state of Alaska. The glacier and surrounding landscape is protected as the 5,815-acre Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, a federally designated unit of the Tongass National Forest.
Originally known as Sitaantaagu ("the Glacier Behind the Town") or Aak'wtaaksit ("the Glacier Behind the Little Lake") by the Tlingits, the glacier was named Auke (Auk) Glacier by naturalist John Muir for the Tlingit Auk Kwaan (or Aak'w Kwaan) band in 1888. In 1891 it was renamed in honor of Thomas Corwin Mendenhall. It extends from the Juneau Icefield, its source, to Mendenhall Lake and ultimately the Mendenhall River.
Closer view of the glacier in the winter
The retreat of the Mendenhall Glacier and other glaciers in the area is believed by some to be a result of broader retreat and breakup of the Juneau Icefield. The Juneau Icefield is the fifth largest icefield in North America. For many populations near glacial areas these glaciers are a source of fresh drinking water. Once these glaciers are gone the people relying on this fresh water will be out of their familiar fresh water source. For example, Anchorage is one of the most populated cities in Alaska and many people in this city rely on the Eklutna glacier for their freshwater. If the recession of this glacier continues they will be out of their main source of water. However Alaska has been receiving record snowfall in the last decade. Snow is the main factor that causes glaciers to advance.
Although there are many negative effects of the recession of the Mendenhall Glacier and glaciers in general, there are also a few positive outcomes from it as well. With the retreat of the Mendenhall Glacier, the Mendenhall Lake has formed. The lake is a result of the run-off from the glacier and is increasing in size as the glacier continues to retreat. The lake began formation in 1931 and has continued to grow since then. The lake has its own unique ecosystem and is a popular location for sport fishing; fishers can find salmon and trout in the lake.
Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center
The United States Forest Service operates the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center as part of the Tongass National Forest, offering interpretive programs throughout the year for children and adults. The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and surrounding area offer stunning views of a lake-terminating, calving glacier. The center is open year-round and receives close to 500,000 visitors each year, many coming by cruise ship in summer. There are two accessible entrances – an upper entrance with a ramp and a lower entrance with elevators.
There are two small parking lots with access to several trails in the area. Photo Point Trail and the Steep Creek Trail are easy and accessible trails. Elevated boardwalks above Steep Creek provide salmon and bear viewing opportunities. Visitors can hike via the East Glacier Loop to an overlook within a half-mile of the glacier. Two routes traverse a series of wooden steps and a gradual elevation gain of 500' on this trail. The Trail of Time, which connects to East Glacier Loop, was recently updated to include new historical signs and handicap accessibility. You can also explore the recently completed 0.8-mile Nugget Falls Trail, which leads you to Nugget Falls, near the face of the glacier. Access to the area and trails is free. The West Glacier trail also offers the chance to view ice caves beneath the glacier.
Mendenhall Ice Caves
The Mendenhall Glacier is a 12-mile-long glacier in the Mendenhall Valley, located only 12 miles from downtown Juneau in Southeast Alaska. Federally protected as part of the Mendenhall Galcier Recreation Area, a unit of the Tongass National Forest, the glacier originally had two names, Sitaantaagu ("Glacier Behind the Town") and Aak'wtaaksit ("Glacier Behind the Little Lake").
The Ice Caves are inside the glacier, accessible only to those willing to kayak to, and then ice climb over the glacier. However, the glacier is retreating increasingly fast as global warming heats the oceans and temperatures rise.
Monitored since 1942 by the Juneau Icefield Rsearch Program, the Mendenhall Glacier has receded almost 2 miles since 1958, while previously it had receded only 0.5 miles since 1500. The caves are in part a function of this increased glacial melting.
Images of the caves circulate the internet with such captions as "otherworldly" and "surreal," but "melting" and "fleeting" could be used as well, as this glacier creates incredible new landscapes while we watch it melt away.
Mendenhall Glacier Ice Cave Juneau, Alaska
(Video credit: H. Scott Cohn)