Building a trail at Mendenhall Glacier that'll make it easier to reach Nugget Falls in warmer months has moved about as fast as, well, a glacier.
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But that soon may change.
Plans are underway to build a trail that will start near the visitor center and end at the falls. Officials are hopeful that work will begin this spring and be finished by the summer of 2009.
"It's always been in the plans, but nothing has ever happened out there," said Matt Phillips, a landscape architect with the Forest Service.
A 1996 management plan called for a trail, but a lack of funds from the U.S. Forest Service, the federal agency that oversees the park, prevented any construction, according to Phillips.
Ron Marvin, the director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, said there's been talk of building a trail since at least the 1980s.
The project is moving now thanks to the tentative approval to fund half of the estimated $270,000 trail by the Alaska Trails Initiative, a part of the state's Department of Natural Resources.
User fees collected by the Forest Service at the visitor center will make up most of the difference, and officials are hoping tour operators who bring busloads of tourists to the glacier each year will kick in some money.
Nugget Falls is easily accessible during the winter when Mendenhall Lake is frozen. But in the summer, when the ice is gone and the lake's level fluctuates, getting to the falls can be a tall order when waters are high. Hikers have to brave a wet, rocky and sometimes dangerous trail to get there. And for tourists fresh off their cruise ships with only a limited time to spend at the park, it's almost impossible.
"They got one day in town, so if the water level's high they aren't going there," Marvin said.
Laurie Craig, a naturalist with the Forest Service, said almost 400,000 visitors came to the glacier last summer and the falls are one of the most popular attractions because they are easily visible from the visitor center.
"That is probably the most common question we are asked: How do we get to the waterfall and can I do it in the hour that my bus has dropped me off?" Craig said. "People are dying to get out there."
They are also hurting themselves. Forest Service officials said sprained ankles, broken bones and deep cuts are common side effects for people trying to get to the falls when the water is high. They said the new trail, which will be flat and wheelchair accessible, will make it safe for everyone to enjoy the falls.
Officials also said that the trail also will be environmentally friendly. Phillips said the path will be tucked away from the shoreline and won't be an eyesore. It also will be built to keep people away from the nesting sites of Arctic terns, seabirds whose habitats are sometimes disturbed by people trying to get to the falls when water levels are high.
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