Ice Caves Under Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall, the famously 12 mile long, 150 foot deep and half mile wide glacier melts as you watch it, and moves as much as 60–70 feet per year. The massive glacial geography and its changes over time are a sight to be seen. But it’s real beauty lies beneath. Beneath the seracs of “ice peaks” all over the glacier. Beneath the trails that wind the non-touristy western half of the glacier. Under the white outer-coating of the glacial ice itself–a beautiful if only superficial “cover”–one finds a brilliantly colored world of ice caves unlike anything I’ve found anywhere else in nature.

Neither raging nor deep, there are two waterfalls that slip down the side of adjacent Mt. McGinnis in Juneau, Alaska. These gentle streams belie their real impact on the glacier. As one follows the flow of water down the mountain, it slips under the edge of the glacier where, over thousands of years, it has carved massive caves through the ice. Known by most of the locals but far, far off the tourist track, these caves were an extraordinary experience–the kind that will live with you for the rest of your life. There’s simply nothing else like it.

The path to get there is not so much difficult as it is technical–requiring balance and calculated movements more than muscle or raw perseverance. Park at the head of Western Glacier Trail. Hike the trail out to the viewing platform atop the small knoll. There’ll be a sign pointing to it. But instead of continuing along Western Glacier Trail, you’ll take the unmarked trail from the viewing platform down towards the glacier. This path is technical and moderately arduous, but not overly long. It’ll wind through Juneau’s beautiful rain forests and take you through some areas where you will need to climb over large rocks (no climbing gear is needed–the rocks are easy, just tall). From here, you’ll begin the final descent onto the glacier itself. You WILL need ice cleats or, at minimum, crampons. Climb the glacier for a while and behold the majestic beauty of the ice upfront. You can see holes that go all the way through the glacier with constantly streaming flows of water–a reminder that the massive ice is moving and melting all the time. But before you leave, do not miss the ice caves beneath the glacier. Climb the left side of the glacier along the edge, and follow the sound and sight of the waterfalls coming down Mt. McGinnis. There are other ice caves to be found, but this is the only one I had the time for on my journey. But at several hundred yards deep before the cave opening gets to be so small you can no longer go any deeper inside, it won’t leave you disappointed.

Originally published 17 Jun 2012 at

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