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Mendenhall Glacier On Your Own: How To Visit Independently

Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier is one of the most popular attractions in Juneau, attracting thousands of visitors yearly. The glacier is in the Mendenhall Valley, about 12 miles from downtown Juneau.

It’s one of the most accessible glaciers by road and a breathtaking sight, with its blue ice and stunning surroundings.

Whether spending a few days in Juneau or arriving by cruise ship, visitors have several options for exploring the glacier. These include guided tours, but it’s also possible to explore the park on your own.

Visiting Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center

Exploring Mendenhall Glacier on your own is rewarding and allows you to stay as long as you want. Using a taxi or car or taking the Mendenhall Glacier Shuttle or Blue Bus Glacier Express gives more freedom than a tour.

Once there, explore the visitor center, hike to Nugget Falls, or see salmon in Steep Creek. For those who plan to visit the west side, exploring the glacier on their own can be hazardous, especially for those who are inexperienced or unprepared.

Visiting Mendenhall Glacier can be an unforgettable adventure, regardless of the weather and how the park is accessed.

Getting To Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center

Recently, the park has limited the number of summer visitors arriving by commercial transport. In 2023, the park depleted its tickets early, resulting in cancellations by mid-summer. Hopefully, the tickets will be distributed evenly across the 2024 summer months.

Mendenhall Glacier, Nugget Falls, and the visitor center
Mendenhall Glacier, Nugget Falls, and the visitor center

If you plan to visit the recreation area on your own, there are four ways to get there that give you unlimited park time. Here are the options:

Take The Mendenhall Glacier Shuttle

Mendenhall Glacier Shuttle or Blue Bus Glacier Express is a popular choice for visitors who want to avoid the hassle of driving and parking. Since pickup and drop-off are next to the port, this option is best for those with limited mobility.

The shuttle operates from May to September. In 2024, the cost has double from USD 45 per person to USD 90 for a round-trip ticket, including the park pass.

The 30-minute bus ride takes guests directly to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, where they can explore the exhibits and the glacier at their own pace. Since shuttles are constantly arriving and leaving, catching another one on the return run is simple.

On arrival at Mendenhall, know how long the shuttles run into the evening, and be prepared to wait for a bus during peak times.

Tour buses and shuttles at Mendenhall
Tour buses and shuttles at Mendenhall

Travel By Taxi

Expect to pay roughly USD 35 each way, depending on traffic, plus an entrance fee of USD 5 per adult. However, taxis often charge a lot more, so discussing the fare in advance is a good idea. We were charged an extra USD 12 pp. In 2024, that extra fee has jumped to USD 20 pp.

This option is only less expensive when traveling with more than three. Don’t use this option when visiting Juneau on your own. Sometimes, getting a taxi back can be problematic during busy times. We used a taxi when traveling with four and took the taxi’s business card to request a ride back.

While Juneau has rideshare services (Lyft), drivers aren’t authorized to drop off passengers in the park. Some drivers break the rules, while others drop passengers before reaching the visitor center.

Taking A Public Bus

Another option is to take the local bus operated by Capital Transit. At USD 2, it’s the most affordable option, but there are no bus stops near the Juneau cruise terminal.

Additionally, the ride takes an hour and requires a 30-minute walk from the drop-off point to the visitor center. After a long day in the park, you may be too tired to walk a mile back to the bus stop to return to the ship.

The bus is an affordable and convenient option for solo travelers or those on a budget who are okay with the one mile walk to and from the park.

Renting A Car

Car rentals are the way to go if traveling with four or more. There are many rental companies at Juneau International Airport, 9 miles northwest of downtown. Expect the trip to take 15+ minutes by taxi.

With a vehicle, traveling to Mendenhall, Eagle Beach, and Glacier Gardens is easier, providing freedom without a set schedule. Parking at the visitor center is complimentary but may fill up quickly during peak times.

The above map shows the driving route. If taking a shuttle, the bus follows the same route. However, the local publi bus takes a longer route with lots of stops.

A ticket machine by the parking lot allows park pass purchases for those not on a shuttle or tour.

Alternatively, getting a car through TURO can save on an expensive car rental. Typically, cruise guests pay around USD 70 for a vehicle for the day.

Guided Tours

Guided tours are also available for those who prefer to avoid arranging travel to the park independently. These tours usually include transportation and admission to the visitor center and may be combined with other activities such as whale watching in Juneau or the Gold Creek salmon bake.

Prices vary depending on the type of tour and tour operator. This option is ideal for those who want to learn more about the glacier and the surrounding area. However, on group tours, time at Mendenhall will be limited as they follow a set schedule.

No matter how you get there, Mendenhall Glacier is a compelling destination for anyone traveling to Juneau. With its stunning views, hiking trails, and informative exhibits, it’s a great place to learn about Alaska’s natural beauty.

Exploring Mendenhall Glacier

Guests can visit several areas at the visitor center to experience the beauty of this natural wonder.

Wildlife is plentiful, so see how many species you can spot. Black bears, porcupines, beavers, and salmon may be present near the visitor center. With binoculars, mountain goats are easy to spot with their white coats against the dark, windblown slopes above.

Mendenhall Glacier in 2013
Mendenhall Glacier in 2013
Mendenhall Glacier in 2023
Mendenhall Glacier in 2023

I first visited in 2009, and comparing my photos to my 2023, the difference in terminus ice is quite shocking. Not only has the toe retreated but the thickness too. The above pictures show a ten year difference.

In this section, we will cover the visitor center and hiking trails, many offering viewpoints.

Visitor Center

Exhibit in the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center
Exhibit in the visitor center

The visitor center is a great place to start exploring the park. Here, we learned about the history and geology of the area through exhibits and presentations. Be sure to watch the short video called “landscape of change.”

The knowledgeable staff also provided information about hiking trails and glacial retreats. Through photographs, I was shocked to see how much of the glacier had melted in the last century.

Each day, there are ranger activities suitable for families and children. Pick up a ranger booklet, or use the Agents of Discovery app.

The visitor center is open year-round and has a wonderful gift shop, included in the USD 5 Park fee.

Black bear in the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center
Black bear in the visitor center

Hiking Trails

One of the best ways to experience Mendenhall Glacier is by hiking one of the many trails in the area. Choose from short, easy routes to moderate trails that climb into the rainforest for aerial views.

A day in the park won’t be long enough to hike them all, so choose one or two that appeal and fit your hiking ability.

The West Glacier Trail is a popular option that offers incredible views of the glacier and surrounding mountains. Rated as moderate, expect the 3.8 mile out-and-back trail to take a few hours.

Another great option is the East Glacier Trail, which is 3.5 miles round-trip and offers views of the glacier and Mendenhall Lake. It starts behind the visitor center and climbs into the spruce rainforest.

For those who prefer a more leisurely experience, several viewing points offer great lookouts of the glacier and lake. The Photo Point Trail is a short, paved trail that leads to a platform with a stunning view of the glacier.

Icebergs on the lake
Icebergs on Mendenhall Lake

When the conditions are right, house-sized icebergs grace the waters beneath the terminus.

The Steep Creek Trail, near the parking lot, offers a flat, easy path to see wildlife in addition to the glacier. The trail has an elevated wooden walkway, which leads to a viewing platform where salmon spawn in the creek in August. With salmon come bears in search of an easy meal.

It’s important to remember that black bears and other animals frequent these trail areas. It’s advisable not to carry food or flavored drinks that can attract wildlife.

Nugget Falls is another popular viewing point closer to the glacier and offers a chance to see a thunderous waterfall.

Visiting Nugget Falls
Visiting Nugget Falls

A day at Mendenhall is rewarding, whether you choose to hike a trail, visit the visitor center, or simply take in the views from a viewing point.

Activities Around the Glacier

For the adventurous, this Juneau glacier offers some bucket list experiences and unique perspectives from which to view the wall of ice.

Kayaking Or Canoeing

Kayaking or canoeing on the lake is one of the best ways to experience the Juneau glacier up close. Several guided tour companies offer this activity, which requires some experience and skill.

It’s essential to dress in layers, use gloves, and wear a waterproof jacket, as the lake can be choppy, and the weather conditions can change quickly. Tours take place rain or shine.

Ice Caves

Mendenhall ice cave
Mendenhall Glacier ice cave

Exploring the ice caves around Mendenhall Glacier provides a unique experience that should not be missed. The glacier melts and refreezes these caves, creating intricate and stunning ice formations.

However, it is essential to note that the ice caves are only accessible during certain times of the year and can be dangerous to explore without a guide.

To ensure the safety of all guests, I recommend arranging a tour with a reputable company with experience navigating caves.

Alternatively, helicopter operators offer dog sledding and flightseeing tours to this glacier. Most flightseeing excursions include a landing on the icefield and a short walkabout.

Herbert Glacier from a helicopter
Herbert Glacier from a helicopter

The Future Of Mendenhall Glacier

As Mendenhall Glacier continues to retreat, changes are being made to preserve the area and provide visitors with educational opportunities.

Since a mountain lies between Nugget Falls and the terminus (glacier’s toe), the ice wall will retreat out of sight one day.

Educational Programs

The park and visitor center offers a variety of educational and informational programs for all ages, including guided hikes, films, and interactive exhibits.

These programs are complimentary with a pass and give visitors a deeper understanding of the glacier and its importance to our ecosystem. Guided walks allow guests to ask questions and learn how to make changes to protect our natural resources.

A New Visitor Center?

There has been talk of building a new visitor center closer to the glacier’s west side, as the current center is situated quite far from the glacier’s face.

This would allow visitors to get a closer look at the ice mass and better understand the effects of climate change. However, there are concerns about the environmental impact of building a new center in such a delicate ecosystem.

Since the west side is inaccessible by road, accessing a new building on that side creates challenges. A new visitor center was met with a lot of opposition, but the city settled on expanding its recreational area.

Having visited the park multiple times over 14 years, I have witnessed the results of climate change. While Mendenhall Glacier continues its rapid retreat, visiting and learning how we can make a difference ensures that future generations can enjoy its wonder and beauty.

Mendenhall visitor center, glacier, ice cave, and Nugget Falls