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Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls - Juneau, Alaska

One of my stops on my Alaskan travels was to the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau. Given that I never see a glacier in my usual day-to-day life, I thought it would be neat to see. I took a shuttle bus to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center at the Tongass National Forest and discovered that there was much more to see than just a lot of ice. I learned how far the glacier has retreated over the years. There are hiking trails that bring you to waterfalls and scenic views, making a trip to Mendenhall Glacier a nice way to spend the afternoon. Among the sights that you can see while at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center that isn't a glacier is Nugget Falls, a 375-foot tall horsetail waterfall.

Mendenhall Glacier was named for Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, who served as the Superintendent of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1889 to 1894 as well as the Alaska Boundary Commission that surveyed the international boundary between Canada and Alaska. Naturalist John Muir first named the glacier Auke Glacier in 1879, but in 1892, this glacier was renamed to honor Mendenhall. 

The glacier is part of the 1,500 square mile Juneau Icefield, which sees an average annual snowfall that exceeds 100 feet. Mendenhall Glacier reached its point of maximum advance during the 18th Century CE when the end of the glacier reached almost 2.5 miles down the valley from its present position. The glacier started retreating because its annual rate of melt began to exceed its annual total accumulation of snow and ice. Still, the glacier has a 13-mile-long stretch down to where the glacier currently ends at Mendenhall Lake. As the glacier retreats, it scours the bedrock and exposes new features to the landscape, such as lakes and waterfalls. Flora and fauna settle in where ice once rested. Naturalists have estimated that within a few years, the glacier will retreat onto land, and eventually retreat out of view entirely from the observation area and visitor center.

I enjoyed my visit to the Mendenhall Glacier in July 2022, taking in much of what the splendor of the surroundings had to offer. While I did not get to walk on the glacier, seeing it was still quite memorable.

A view of the Mendenhall Glacier from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center.

The visitors center had a number of great displays and opportunities to learn. In 1935, the Mendenhall Glacier reached where the visitors center is today, over a mile away from where the glacier currently ends.

The glacier can appear to be dirty, but it picks up rocks and dirt over the centuries.

Nugget Falls, which was once covered by Mendenhall Glacier. There is a trail that leads to Nugget Falls and it takes about 45 minutes to hike round trip.

I decided to take a hike on the East Glacier Trail at first, which led to me this view of both Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls.

The East Glacier Trail spurs off of the Trail of Time, an easier hike where you can see markers of where the limit of the ice was in certain years. This is where the glacier ended in 1936, over a mile away from where Mendenhall Glacier ends today.

I took the East Glacier Loop Trail and became bear aware. I bought a bear bell for my backpack in Skagway, so that helped.

Among the sights to see on the East Glacier Trail were the nearby mountains. While I didn't climb any mountains, I climbed up some stairs and rocks along the way.

The East Glacier Trail was quiet compared to other places around Mendenhall Glacier. But I got treated to views like this.

A short side trail led me to AJ Falls. A pretty diversion, I'd say.

A small pond along the trail.

Plenty of moss too. This is a temperate rainforest, after all.

Somewhere below here is Nugget Falls, along with Mendenhall Lake peaking below.

Back on the Trail of Time for a bit, this is where the ice ended in 1937,

I took the hike over to Nugget Falls. Along the way, I spotted this memorial to Romeo, a beloved wolf.

I've reached Nugget Falls. It's a popular and easy hike.

Nugget Falls is a 375 foot high waterfall, with the bottom part of the falls spanning out like a horsetail. It's not really possible to see the entire waterfall from the beach at the end of the Nugget Falls Trail.

Mendenhall Lake as seen from Nugget Falls.

Mendenhall Glacier peeking in the distance. I think that over time as the glacier retreats, we may see another waterfall become exposed.

One last look at Nugget Falls.

Before heading back to downtown Juneau, I took a short walk on the Photo Point Trail.

And got one last look at Mendenhall Glacier before I had to go.

How to Get There:

Sources and Links:
Tongass National Forest - Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center - Mendenhall Glacier
Lonely Planet - Mendenhall Glacier | Juneau, Alaska
U.S. Forest Service - Mendenhall Glacier FAQs


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