While Alaska is famous for its Glaciers, the most popular Glacier is Mendenhall Glacier because of its accessibility. It is only 12 miles from downtown Juneau.
Glaciers and ice caves have always been an interest of mine, so having the opportunity to see them first hand was something I was never going to pass up.
Mendenhall Glacier is 12 miles long in the Mendenhall Valley. Due to climate change, the glacier is shrinking increasingly fast, having reduced 2 miles since 1958, whereas previous to that, only 0.5 miles since the 1500s. The ice caves are a result of the melting ice and these caves are ever changing as the glacier melts away. So you see, the ice caves are bittersweet. They are unbelievable to see, but the reason for their existence is at the cost of something much greater.
Five friends and I took a 20-minute taxi drive to the start of the ice cave trail. We set off up through the trees, along the windy path running in between the tall oak trees that blew vigorously in the wind.
We passed a couple who were walking back from the caves and they said to take a right when we got to where the path split.
A few minutes later we arrived at the parting path, but there was a sign there in the shape of an arrow pointing to the left saying ‘ice caves’. We all looked at each other wondering whether to take the word of the people we passed or to trust the sign.
After a few minutes of deliberation, we decided to take a right. The path started out perfectly, just a normal forest path, but slowly became thinner and thinner until there was no clear path left. We started fighting with the branches that blocked our route until the trail started to reappear.
We crossed over a bridge that looked like it had been made spontaneously with logs, that sat across a fast flowing downward stream. The water was overflowing so the path after the bridge was muddy. As we pushed on, the floor started to sink further and further down and became harder to pull your shoes out. My trainers were a bit loose, so as I tried to pull my foot out of the mud, it slipped off my foot. I hopped about holding onto the sparse hedge beside me. One of the guys came back to help me through the mud, but every time one foot went into the mud the other shoe would be left behind. After a 10 minute struggle, I finally reached the other side of the swamp, with my running trainers totally saturated with wet mud. To be honest, I was just relieved to have both my shoes still on my feet.
From this point, the path was very broken. One minute there would be a definite path, and the next minute we would be faced with a load of trees we had to climb through, not knowing if it was the right way. We had all dressed up warm because it’s Alaska, it’s cold, and we were going to be spending the whole day outside, but we were all boiling with all this climbing and jumping over things.
After following the path, it once again came to a stop, but this time it wasn’t blocked by trees or a log, it was blocked by was huge rock face. One of the guys said, “Well there is only one way, and that’s over”. We all looked at him as if he had lost his mind, but he pointed out where we could put our feet.
We all slowly started the climb up the rock face. The rocks were covered in moss, so were quite slippy at times. We all took a sigh of relief when everyone reached the top. We took a minute to look down and realised how stupid we were. If we had fallen, we would have been seriously hurt.
The ground was very marshy and wet so we had to be careful where we put our feet. As we walked over the top of the hill, I saw what could only be described as magnificent, the Mendenhall Glacier. We all stopped and stared at the wondrous Glacier. Unbelievable.
We headed down the rocky slope toward the Glacier very slowly. The ground was a mixture of mud lumps of rock, and lumps of ice. As the ice is covered in mud, it was very hard to tell what was ice and what was the rock. I slipped a few times, as did everyone else, which shook us all up a bit.
As we got closer to the opening the Glacier it got very slippy, so we all slowed down to about 0.5 miles an hour and very gingerly edged toward the cave.
As we turned a corner, the bright blue ice filled our peripheral vision and left me speechless. There was already a couple there who said that when they arrived they screeched in excitement, but as they made the noise, a block of ice fell down so they warned us to be quiet.
The turquoise blue was so beautiful. Of course, it was absolutely freezing inside the cave, but that was forgotten when looking around at the sensational ice.
We got our pictures and had a good mooch around the Glacier, slipping over left, right and centre and then started to make our way back. When comparing routes with the couple, we found out that we had gone the wrong way, and the people at the start of our walk who instructed us to go right, were incorrect.
The walk back was less treacherous. There was no rock climbing, no trees blocking the way, no mud traps. It was just a straight path right back to the start, and surprise surprise, we ended right back at the sign coming from the left, so we had done one great big circle.
We called a taxi and all collapsed on the grass while we waited. We all fell asleep in the taxi as we were absolutely shattered.
The hike took 5.5 hours in total. It pushed me to my limits and although I would not recommend going the way we did as it was dangerous, it sure was a lot of fun.
If you are in Juneau, you just have to see the ice caves. They truly are wondrous, and if you go with a good group of people, the hike there will be just as amazing as the sights you will see.