If you’ve considered visiting Alaska you have probably stumbled across surreal photos of people standing and walking in the bright blue Mendenhall Ice Caves formed on the Mendenhall Glacier.
Located a short 12 miles outside Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, the Mendenhall Ice Caves are ever-changing due to melting ice and glacier recession but an absolute wonder to explore. That said, accessing them is no easy feat.
Naturally, we couldn’t visit Juneau and miss the chance to experience the ice caves for ourselves. Accessing the caves is possible in only a couple of ways and not without having to work for it.
How to Visit the Mendenhall Ice Caves
About the Mendenhall Glacier
One of 38 glaciers that emerges from the 1500 square mile Juneau Ice Field, runs 13 miles long into the Mendenhall Valley eventually ending in the Mendenhall Lake where it is primarily viewed today.
The glacier itself is over 3,000 years old and easily one of Juneau’s most popular tourist stops. With a well-established visitors center and an easy walking trail to the Nugget Falls, 90% of the visitors to the Mendenhall Glacier never get any closer than a viewing platform at the visitors center.
While it’s not easy to detect by visitors, the Mendenhall Glacier is receding rapidly meaning the face of the glacier and the surrounding areas are changing on a daily basis.
While the glacier has been receding since 1500, the majority of the change has taken place since 1958 by a total of 2.5 miles.
People that work around the glacier and monitor its changes are hopeful that once it recedes out of Mendenhall Lake it will slow down and stabilize. However, once this happens the ice caves will likely no longer exist so it’s not a natural wonder you can put off seeing.
What are the Mendenhall Ice Caves?
Due to the rate of glacial recession, the ice caves have formed by the melting glacial ice and flow of water around the side of the glacier.
This melted water runs under and through the glacier regularly carving out new caves. As the glacier recession continues, the caves collapse and disappear.
While you might only see white from the exterior of the glacier, all glaciers are inherently a bright blue on the inside.
This color, affectionately known as glacier blue, is the result of air being squeezed from the frozen ice and snow. Over time the ice absorbs every other color except blue.
This natural phenomenon leaves us with a frozen, bright blue cavern under the glacier where we are able to catch a small glimpse into the inner beauty of the glacier.
How to Get To the Mendenhall Ice Caves
It is possible to visit the caves independently or on a guided adventure. Both have their pros and cons but safety is a definite concern and something to consider for your visit.
Via Mendenhall Lake
While both ways are a beautiful and perfectly acceptable way to access the caves, there is something special about using the lake to access the west side of the Glacier.
In the summer, this requires a solid hour or more of paddling across the chilly glacier lake from the public access point to the beach on the west side of the glacier.
In the winter, you can hike your way across the lake.
If you are looking for a well-rounded experience for visiting the ice caves, we recommend a combination tour option that involves paddling across the lake in a canoe, hiking up the west side of the glacier, a visit to the Mendenhall Ice Caves followed by a hike up onto the glacier.
Recommended Tour: Above & Beyond Alaska
This is a fully guided experience that not only provides a great adventure, but the chance to learn about the glacier and the caves too.
Alternatively, it is possible to rent kayaks in Juneau that can be used to paddle across the lake to the west glacier beach.
Access to the caves is not marked and in some parts, there is no apparent trail to follow. In the winter, you can also traverse the frozen lake on foot without a guide to access the ice caves.
Via West Glacier Trail
If paddling is not your cup of tea, you can opt for the land option. Access to the ice caves exclusively on foot is possible via the West Glacier Trail.
The trailhead for this hike starts in the same parking lot as the lake crossing. The beginning of the hike is well marked, as many people like to take leisurely walks in the temperate rainforest at the start of the trail.
Don’t be fooled, as the trail continues on, it gets increasingly more difficult with intense uphill areas that are often wet and slippery and covered with rocks and mud.
Some areas on this part of the trail have a loose metal rope guide to assist in the incline. At this point in the trail and beyond, it is not marked clearly.
You will eventually reach a lookout over the glacier at this is where the West Glacier Trail officially ends. Suffice to say, it is not at the ice caves. You have to continue on without a trail, scrambling and sliding your way down near the glacier.
It is highly recommended to have a guide for this hike. This will ensure you know the current conditions of the ice caves, have all the right gear and someone who knows the trails with you. Every year dozens of lost or injured hikers have to be retrieved from the area.
If you choose to visit the Mendenhall Ice Caves independently, safety should be your biggest concern. It is possible to get lost and back-country safety precautions should be followed.
The path to the ice caves is very difficult and we do not suggest attempting it unless you are an experienced hiker or you have a knowledgeable guide with you.
Ice Cave and Glacier Hiking Safety
No matter how you choose to visit the Mendenhall Ice Caves, safety should be a priority. The ever-changing conditions of a glacier environment make a visit here both thrilling and dangerous.
In the summer you can expect dripping water, fast-moving streams, falling rocks, and unstable footing.
On top of that, keep in mind that the weather in Alaska is ever-changing and you might start with the sun and find yourself adventuring in the wet, cold within an hour.
This means you should always carry the right kind of gear and don’t leave for a glacier visit without it. Rain gear is essential, including a jacket and pants.
Ensure your boots are waterproof and warm; bring extra socks in case your feet get wet. Bring a variety of layers that can be added and removed while you are going to and near the glacier.
If you’re traveling independently, be sure to read the tips provided by the U.S Forest Service, the agency managing the area.
10 Tips for Visiting the Mendenhall Ice Caves
- Allow an entire day to visit the ice caves. It is not uncommon for the round-trip to take 8 hours or more depending on conditions. Most of the way is unmarked and unmaintained.
- Ask yourself, are you really fit enough for this? You will be required to scramble over rocks on steep, slippery terrain over several miles for several hours.
- Wear Waterproof hiking boots to keep your feet protected and dry.
- Bring crampons and hiking poles for walking on the ice.
- Bring a safety helmet and actually wear it. Rocks are always falling in the ice caves as the ice is melting and gives way to them.
- Dress in layers of high-functioning outdoor fabrics. You’re looking for moisture-wicking, quick-drying clothes. Do not wear jeans or cotton clothing. They retain water and do not dry quickly.
- Pack high-protein snacks and a minimum of 2 liters of water per person.
- Bring a warm hat and gloves. It will be cold near the glacier and in the caves.
- Cell service is not guaranteed so make sure you tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back.
- Hire a guide who knows the trails and can get you to the ice caves and back safely.
Remember that any visit to the Mendenhall Ice Caves and Glacier is at your own risk. Glaciers are always moving, shifting, calving and collapsing. The ice caves are located within a glacier, meaning the behavior of the cave cannot be predicted.
The assumed risk should be anything from minor injury to death whenever you enter an ice cave or set foot on a glacier. More information about the Mendenhall Glacier can be found at the Tongass National Forest Service site.
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14 thoughts on “Visit the Mendenhall Ice Caves & Glacier Before They Melt (Juneau, Alaska)”
Great story, we were hoping to walk across the lake this winter but it may not freeze in the mild weather.
Hi! Does anyone know about any guided tour to the caves in the winter?
Hi Paulina, I would recommend checking with our recommended company in the article regarding winter tours to the ice caves. Cheers!
I’d love permission to use one of your photos (especially the one above the 10 tips) and a link to your article in my Christmas newsletter. I’m in Juneau and have taken photos of one of the small caves accessible by kayak, now long gone, but I haven’t photographed the big stuff–and I just did photos with an old cell phone. Thanks for your article and the great tips.
Thanks for your kind words, Mary. Please email us directly in regards to your request. Cheers!
I’m putting you guys and this trip on my itinerary for next summer! We are beyond excited!
Great to hear! Juneau is a real treasure to visit and you’ll love the ice caves.
The Ice caves are so Awesome. Did you do a bit of post editing or its all natural! Wow!
The ice caves are spectacular sapphire blue! The photos are natural, it really does look like that!
Thanks for the article, I am going to Alaska next month, the Mendenhall Ice Caves are on the list of things to do!
Def don’t miss them and be sure to give yourself AT LEAST 4 days in Juneau!! It’s incredible and there are so many cool things to do there!
What a cool spot … when I get to Alaska, I can’t wait to capture this place with my camera!
It’s an incredible place and we highly recommend taking the time to see more of Juneau and it’s surroundings!
Nature is amazing. Mendenhall Ice Caves just the place where I want to visit now Great Read.