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Mendenhall Glacier: Southeast Alaska’s Great Wonder

Updated on April 8, 2017

Add This Glacial Wonder to Your Bucket List

Glacial view at Mendenhall Lake
Glacial view at Mendenhall Lake

If pictures could truly speak a thousand words, that would describe the untouched beauty of Mendenahll Glacier within Tongass National Forest. Even then, a thousand words is not enough. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of our country’s national parks in 2016, I can now scratch this wonder off my bucket list.

And quite an amazing glacial wonder it is . . . as I marveled at beautiful Mendenhall while walking along Nugget Creek Trail. Mendenhall is one of 38 glaciers flowing from the massive 1,500-square mile Juneau Icefield. Considered Alaska’s most accessible glacier, visitors can explore several walking / hiking trails throughout the park by a walk along the shore of Mendenhall Lake to see a thundering waterfall, or short hikes to explore forest trails leading to some of the glacier's most stunning overlooks.

Mendenall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska

These numerous trails allow visitors to see firsthand how the glacier has carved the local landscape while leaving footprints on soil that was once under ice just decades ago. A short walk along these self-guided trails exposes the unique beauty of Tongass National Forest and allows ever-changing glimpses of the glacier itself. Mid to late summer, wild sockeye salmon and bears are visible in Steep Creek, which flows through the area's trail system.

Trail options match all ability levels from the easy, paved pathways of Photo Point and Steep Creek to more challenging climbs of the East Glacier. A novice hiker myself, I journeyed along Nugget Creek Trail, a two mile walking trail round trip, moderate ability level with a paved to gravel path, and can be walked in about an hour. This particular trail allows visitors a variety of perspectives to view the glacier, which includes a walk out to the base of the extraordinary Nugget Creek Falls.

Extraordinary Nugget Creek Falls, at the base of Nugget Creek Trail
Extraordinary Nugget Creek Falls, at the base of Nugget Creek Trail

Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and National Park

A markerMendenhall Glacier Visitor Center -
6000 Glacier Spur Rd, Juneau, AK 99801, USA
get directions

SideBar: Mendhall Glacier – Its Formation and Increasing Retreat

Mendhall Glacier, located in Juneau, Alaska, is one of 38 large glaciers that flow from the 1,500 square mile expanse of rock, snow, and ice known as the Juneau Icefield. As glacial ice accumulates seasonally, gravity pulls the ice down valleys, slowly and steadily scouring the bedrock. This results in either grinding everything in the glacial path to powder or transporting huge boulders, called erratics, on a 13-mile journey to Mendenhall Lake.

In Southeast Alaska, maritime climate and coastal mountains create favorable conditions for glacial formation. Moist air flows toward the mountains, rises and releases snow and rain. Average annual snowfall on the Juneau Icefield exceeds 100 feet. Mild Southeast Alaskan summers cause winter snow accumulation to exceed summer snowmelt at higher elevations. Year after year, snow accumulates, compacting underlying snow layers from previous years into solid ice.

However, due to the accelerated melting of ice in today’s environment, beautiful Mendenall is shrinking. A neo-glaciation period (meaning when the glacier’s cooling caught up with warming) began 3,000 years ago and ended in the mid-1700s. At this time, Mendenhall Glacier reached its maximum advance and its boundary line rested almost 2.5 miles down valley from its present position. Mendenhall Glacier began retreating in the mid-1700s because its annual rate of snow melt began to exceed its annual total accumulation. The icefield's snowfall perpetually creates new glacial ice for Mendenhall Glacier. This ice takes 200-250 years to travel from the Juneau Icefield to Mendenhall Lake. Water depth at the glacier's boundary is 220 feet. At this rate, the glacier would take several centuries to completely disappear. In order for Mendenhall Glacier to advance, the icefield's snowfall needs to increase, the glacier's rate of melt needs to decrease, or both.

While the shifting changes of global warming do impact the life of Mendenall, glacial retreat has its positive effects as well. As Mendenhall Glacier retreats and uncovers bare rock, the wind carries seeds and spores of moss onto barren land. Alder, willow, and cottonwood tree seeds systematically grow in deglaciated landscapes. Glacier debris, poor in nutrients, depends on flowering lupine and alder to fix nitrogen in the soil, and all species add organic matter to the soil as they are overtopped and shaded out by other species. Spruce and hemlock ultimately rise to close the forest canopy, eventually creating an “old growth” forest. Encompassing almost 350 years, this sequence of plant succession provides habitat for an increasing number of plants and animal species. Coyote, porcupine, squirrel, snowshoe hare, and short-tailed weasel build homes on the valley floor. Migrating songbirds build nests in the deciduous shrubs in the young forest. In Steep Creek, beavers work to create ponds while spawning sockeye and Coho salmon provide a food source for black bears and eagles. Loons, gulls, and Arctic terns nest around Mendenhall Lake, while mountain goats favor the rocky terrain and alpine meadows on the surrounding peaks. All of this, of course, results in the delicate balance of nature.

A porcupine climbs this tree along Nugget Creek Trail, just one of many different types of wildlife that can be seen from mid to late summer. Wild sockeye salmon and bears are also visible here  and in the Steep Creek area.
A porcupine climbs this tree along Nugget Creek Trail, just one of many different types of wildlife that can be seen from mid to late summer. Wild sockeye salmon and bears are also visible here and in the Steep Creek area.

Yes, while there is this delicate cycle to keep nature in harmony, the slow but steady retreat of Mendenhall is also certainly a dramatic and persistent reminder of large and potentially disruptive shifts underway from our warming climate. Alaska’s melting glaciers represent an up-close and personal connection to climate change. Glaciers have always provided an array of resources for mankind, from recreation and aesthetic beauty to water for drinking, agriculture, or electricity. Today, the state of all our glaciers should compel us to consider the connectedness of nature, the fragility of ecosystems, and even the composition of the air we breathe.

Mendenhall Lake
Mendenhall Lake

One stop not to be missed before leaving the park is the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. The first Forest Service Visitor Center in the nation was dedicated here in 1962 to promote the “understanding and enjoyment of glacial phenomena." Today, the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center offers an elevated view of the glacier, as well as interactive geological exhibits explaining glacier formation. Be sure to allow time to watch the short film about the icefield, which plays continuously in the visitor center's theater.

If you are looking to explore any of our country’s national parks and have not added Mendenhall Glacier to your bucket list, I highly recommend it. While it may not be one of the Seven Wonders of the World, this glacial recreation area is still a wonder of its own and should not be missed.

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