Thinking about visiting Juneau, Alaska? Almost everyone visits the Mendenhall Glacier just 12 miles from Downtown Juneau. Over the last few years pictures have circulated on all types of media showing the Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves. While beautiful they are also very dangerous. Often when I am at the Mendenhall Glacier, I hear tourists asking, “How do I get to the ice caves?” I normally tell them if you have to ask, you shouldn’t go. Most of the time
tourists are just in town for a few hours, visiting the ice caves is really an all-day event. Time should go into planning, having the right gear, a guide or tour, and have knowledge about glaciers and cold weather travel. There are two routes to take to get to the ice caves. One is by land, the other is across the lake. I really can’t stress this enough, the average person should not go to the ice caves, they should not go alone, and if going bring someone that has been there before and knows the route, or book a tour with “Alaska Above and Beyond” (1-907-364-2333) http://beyondak.com/ or email at: firstname.lastname@example.org as they are the only company at the time this was written that have a glacier/ice cave tour.
If you decide to cross the lake, it is possible to rent kayaks in town from several different vendors. Some will even drop the kayaks off and pick them up for you. I would suggest going early in the morning as the lake tends to be flatter and in the afternoon winds can create lake chop with up to 2’ waves. The water itself can be right about 35 degrees, so cold water paddling skills and being able to self-rescue is a must. While heading to the west side of the glacier there is risk of glacial calvings, which can cause massive waves, and flying chunks of ice, if you are too close to the face of the glacier. Also be aware of icebergs floating in the lake, as they can roll at any time without warning.
Once on the beach at the West side of the glacier, be sure to pull your boat up a good 50’ as waves from calving ice can suck them back into the lake. Then be ready to hike about 30 minutes up the West side of the glacier. I recommend at least “Micro Spikes” for glacier ice travel, and trek type poles. In the area are loose rocks, crevasses, and very slippery ice. By water it takes about an hour to reach the West side of the glacier.
The overland route starts at the West Glacier trail head off of Montana Creek Road. It is unmaintained, and unofficial. It is about 4 miles one day, rough, uneven, steep, slippery when wet, and not really marked. I have seen up to 3 different routes people take to get to the ice caves, it is easy to get lost. I would suggest using some sort of GPS device so you know where you are, as the bushes and hillside make it hard to tell which way you are going. Often people have to call 911 as they get lost and turned around, or did not give themselves enough time and it becomes dark. Give yourself six to eight hours for the trek to the cave and back. Dress in layers, and bring extra clothes, the ice cave is cold. Hiking boots, Micro Spikes, and trek poles are all suggested equipment to bring with you.
The Mendenhall Ice Caves may cave in at any time, without warning. It could be a small part, or the whole thing. The entrance tends to be the most dangerous part due to it being thinner than the rest of the ice cave. I would suggest wearing a helmet, as it is possible while inside rocks are trapped in the ice can fall on you without warning. Ice caves on Mt. Baker and Mt. Hood have claimed the lives of several hikers, it’s only a matter of time before we have an accident at the Mendenhall Ice Caves. Be safe, know your limits, and remember Alaska is beautiful but dangerous.
Follow along with more of Brian Weed’s adventures at Juneau’s Hidden History.