Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area

We recently attended a presentation by John Neary, director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, detailing proposed changes to Juneau’s most-visited attraction. A long-time resident of Juneau, Neary is clearly passionate about preserving our backyard glacier and the wilderness surrounding it. His talk inspired us to learn a little more about the Mendenhall, so here are a few facts that you might not know about this natural wonder just down the road from downtown Juneau.

Mendenhall Glacier in 2010

Mendenhall Glacier in 2010 (source)

The Mendenhall Glacier is about 12 miles long. It originates at the Juneau Icefield, a mass of ice covering an area the size of Rhode Island and nearly a mile deep in places.

Visitor center in the 1960's

Visitor center in the 1960’s (source)

Built in 1962, the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center was the first US Forest Service visitor center in the country. The building once featured a restaurant serving pie and coffee, but that service was discontinued to keep the local bears from becoming habituated.

Mendenhall Glacier was originally named Auke Glacier after the Auk Kwaan clan of Tlingit Indians who were the area’s original inhabitants. The Tlingit called the glacier Aak’wtaaksit or “the Glacier Behind the Little Lake”. The glacier was later renamed in honor of Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, a noted scientist who was instrumental in defining the boundary between the United States and Canada.

The Mendenhall Glacier was featured in the documentary Chasing Ice, which sought to capture the effects of climate change through long term time-lapse photography of retreating glaciers. While locals lament the glacier’s retreat, this constant change makes the Mendenhall an ideal place to examine the effects of glaciers on the local environment. Looking down the valley from the glacier’s terminus, visitors can follow the timeline of plant succession as bare rock is colonized by alder and cottonwood trees. These plants in turn provide nitrogen and more organic matter to the soil, eventually allowing towering spruce and hemlock trees to take root and transform the once-barren land into an old-growth forest. If this sounds complicated, just come visit the Mendenhall Glacier yourself and you can see this process in action!

Mendenhall Valley is home to a wide range of wildlife including songbirds, eagles, salmon, beavers, coyotes, squirrels, porcupines, and of course, black bears. The Visitor Center and its nearby trails are designed to provide ample opportunity to encounter these animals with minimal interference with their daily routines.

Mendenhall Glacier in the 1940's

Mendenhall Glacier in the 1940’s (source)

While most people visit the Mendenhall Glacier in the summer, it is an equally amazing attraction in the winter. With enough cold weather in the winter months, the lake in front of the glacier freezes over and becomes a playground for Juneau locals. When the lake is frozen solid and has no snow on it, it turns into a giant natural ice rink for ice skaters to enjoy. Once enough snow falls to cover the lake, cross country skiers can ski a loop all the way around the lake. Another popular winter pastime is to walk a mile across the frozen lake to (cautiously) peer into one of the many deep ice caves at the glacier’s face.

Mendenhall Glacier from Skater's Cabin

Mendenhall Glacier from Skater’s Cabin

We hope you get the chance to come and experience this majestic sight in person!


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