Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area: Juneau's magnificent playground

Posted: Sunday, December 15, 2002

On May 14, 1947, Regional Forester Frank Heintzleman designated 5,815 acres of the Mendenhall Glacier foreland as a recreation area, closing it to all occupancy and use other than recreational activities. Thanks to his inspired vision, this area is enjoyed every day by wildlife, wildlife watchers, hikers, skiers, runners, bikers, fishermen, horseback riders, school groups and leisurely strollers like me.

During the 1960s, gravel extraction left behind Dredge, Crystal and Moose Lakes. Water birds, fish and other creatures gather to breed, feed and rest on these and natural lakes in the area. I find it very exciting to see swans, loons with their young and numerous other interesting water birds on the lakes.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game built a number of structures in the 1970s to enhance the area for fish. Even though these efforts were not particularly successful, some of the work that was done can still be seen. Salmon still come up the Mendenhall River to spawn, and other species live in some of the lakes, so sport-fishing opportunities are good.

During the 40-plus years I have lived in Juneau, the succession of plant life has dramatically changed this area. Roads and trails used to crisscross areas dotted with a few small trees and bushes. Now, tall bushes and developing trees are taking over. Today, one gets around on an outstanding trail system that has been brushed and improved by the Forest Service using fee demonstration funds from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and helicopter tours. Volunteers from Trail Mix, SAGA and the Nordic Ski Club have also helped enormously with trail improvements.

In the 1970s, the Nordic Ski Club began brushing ski trails, starting with the Moraine Ecology Trail, which departs from the visitor center parking lot. In 1996, the club purchased trail-grooming equipment, and now, as soon as the snow is a foot deep, club volunteers groom trails in the Dredge Lake area, Mendenhall Glacier Campground, and Mendenhall Lake, when it has 8 inches of ice. Nordic skiers take full advantage of these trails as well as the cross-country ski trails at Eaglecrest. If you would like to join or know more about club activities and trail conditions, call Mark Scholten, 586-1721, or consult the club Web site at

If the ice freezes to at least 8 inches before any snow falls, ice skating on Mendenhall Lake is probably the grandest and most spectacular of any place in the world. Where else could the views and sometimes the ice conditions be any better? When there is snow on the lake ice, then snap on your cross-country skis for a thrilling experience.

Caution: It is very important to be sure the ice has frozen deep enough to be safe. Folks should always be careful to stay away from the face of the glacier, the mouth of Nugget Creek, and the outlet to the Mendenhall River where the ice is never safe.

There are five ways to access the recreation area. Three trailheads are along Back Loop Road: one at the end of Dredge Lake Road, another in a small parking area adjacent to the NOAA weather station, and a third near the east end of the Upper Mendenhall River Bridge. Another trail departs from the Steep Creek parking lot, and the Moraine Ecology Trail leaves from the visitor center parking lot.

Trail conditions vary depending on the weather and beaver activity. The trail through the middle of the Valley has flooded regularly, as beaver dams are plentiful in the area. However, numerous recent improvements by the Forest Service, Nordic Ski Club, Trail Mix crews and volunteers have raised trail levels just enough to make them great for walking, running, mountain biking and skiing.

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