North America's fifth largest icefield sits in Juneau's backyard, stretching across a 1,500-square-mile area that straddles the boundary between Alaska and Canada.
Mendenhall Glacier: Juneau's drive-up attraction
The Mendenhall Glacier is a tongue of ice stretching 12 miles from the Juneau Icefield to Mendenhall Lake. At its widest point, the glacier is more than 1..5 miles, with ice 100 to 1,800 feet deep. The Mendenhall is one of 38 large and more than 100 smaller valley glaciers in the Juneau Icefield. The larger Taku, Eagle and Herbert Glaciers are also nearby.
In 1879, naturalist John Muir named it "Auk Glacier" after a local Tlingit Indian village. In 1892 the name was changed to honor Thomas C. Mendenhall, superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Since the mid-1700s, the glacier has been retreating. Before 1765, the face of the glacier reached 2.5 miles farther down the Mendenhall Valley.
Glacial ice has a unique crystalline structure that absorbs and reflects light, giving the ice its blue appearance. The most intense blue occurs in crevasses and when ice breaks off, or calves, from a glacier's face. The blue color fades as the ice is exposed to air and the crystalline structure breaks down. Glacier viewing is often best on overcast and rainy days.
Commercial operators offer tours in the summer, including hiking, biking, rafting, canoe and kayak trips and bus, van, taxi and shuttle tours. Thousands of visitors each year also take flightseeing tours by helicopter or fixed-wing planes.
The U.S. Forest Service maintains several hiking trails near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, which provide a high-quality recreation experience emphasizing glacial phenomena, ecosystems and protection of fish and wildlife. The center is open 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily, May to September. Admission is $3 for adults and free for children under 16. Winter hours 10 am-4 pm Thurs-Sun.
Tracy Arm: Dramatic glacial fjord in Juneau's backyard.
A trip to Tracy Arm is an 8 hour round-trip boat tour that takes you just south of Juneau. It is within the Tongass National Forest and juts off the Stephens Passage waterway. The fjord triggers sensory overload. Steep granite walls tower over the water's surface. The face of the South Sawyer Glacier stretches six-tenths of a mile across.
The arm is filled by glaciers, icebergs and wildlife - whales, bald eagles and even the occasional black bear. In the spring, hundreds of harbor seals with pups dot the floating platforms.
The main attraction is the glacier itself as it calves off huge chunks of clear blue ice, which cascade into the water and become instant icebergs. The sound can be louder than a cannon shot. All watercraft are advised to stay a safe distance from the falling ice.
Glacier Bay: A National Treasure
Enter Glacier Bay and you cruise along shorelines that were completely covered by ice about 200 years ago when George Vancouver first ventured into Icy Straits in 1794. As the weighty glaciers continue to recede, the land experiences a natural phenomenon known as isostatic rebound. The terrain rises about an inch per year and fresh earth emerges along the shores.
A mélange of marine mammals travel the area's waters. Along the shore and in the surrounding country you may spot bear, goats, moose, and wide variety of birdlife.
Gustavus, the small community located at the mouth of Glacier Bay, is built upon land uncovered by the glaciers. About 400 residents live there year-round, while the population swells to about 1,000 in the summer. Gustavus has a grocery store, restaurant, volunteer fire department, golf course and a full range of visitor accommodations, from cabins and bed and breakfasts, to hotels and luxurious lodges. Innkeepers can arrange guided sea excursions, including kayaking, whale watching tours to Point Adolphus or fishing in salt or fresh water. Hiking, birding, biking, diving and flightseeing are also popular, as is visiting the Glacier Bay Lodge and Visitor Center.
Gustavus is located about 33 air miles from Juneau. Commuter air services provide year-round daily flights from Juneau. During the summer, Alaska Airlines provides daily jet service from Juneau.