Until last month when we went to Alaska I had never been to a glacier. I will never forget my very first view from the bus window as we were approaching the the park where the glacier flows toward the lake. “IS THAT THE GLACIER?!?!?” I asked jumping out of my seat. Looking back, I still don’t believe what I saw was real. It was like this huge river of ice that was flowing down the mountain but got stopped in its tracks by a sudden event. An absolutely amazing picture! The most surprising and delightful thing about glaciers is that they are actually flowing, but their movement forward is so slow that it is undetectable to the human eye.
The mighty and magnificent Mendenhall Glacier is Juneau’s most popular attraction and the most easily accessible Alaska glacier. Located just 13 miles from downtown Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier is only one of the 38 glaciers that flow from a 5,000 square mile stretch of ice known as the Juneau Icefield. The Icefield covers more than 1,500 square miles, and runs all the way from the Taku River up to the town of Skagway. Quite an amazing block of ice!
The glacier had come down to the falls until recent times, but it has been in retreat since the end of the 1700s. The retreat of the Mendenhall and other glaciers in Alaska has some negative effects for the populations living near the glacial areas. These glaciers are a source of fresh drinking water and once they are gone the people relying on this fresh water will be out of their familiar water source. On the positive side though, with the retreat of the Mendenhall Glacier, the Mendenhall Lake was formed and as the glacier continues to retreat the lake will increase in size. Mendenhall Lake is now populated by salmon and trout and is a popular location for sport fishing.
Nugget Falls rushes into the lake just in front of the glacier and huge blue icebergs can often be seen floating on the lake. Nugget Falls is a more than a nugget. It is a very large waterfall that drops 377 feet onto a sand beach near the Mendenhall Lake. The fall is accessible to the public by a circular 2 mile long trail that goes around the lake.
The trail starts next to the Visitor Center and is mainly graveled and easy to walk. The flat sandy/rocky beach area where the falls come down is good for walking around to view the lake and the glacier. We spent some time at the beach gazing at the Glacier and feeling the spray from the waterfall on our faces. We just loved standing there and absorbing it all for some time. The roar of the falls was quite impressive. Nugget Falls is one of the most beautiful places I have seen.
There are park rangers outside near the Visitor Center who are knowledgable and excellent in interacting with the people and educating them about glaciers. The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center can be accessed for a nominal fee. There are some exhibits and audio-visual presentations that may be worth watching, but we preferred to spend our time outside, admiring the gorgeous views of the glacier. We were lucky enough to be there in during an unusually warm and sunny day, so we took lots of pictures.
TIP: Do not plan to pack a snack or a meal for this trip as NO FOOD is allowed in the park. This is because there are bears around (though unfortunately we did not see any on the day we visited) and the food attracts bears. If you must eat, visit the Visitor Center and eat inside.
I envisioned Alaska as being like the rest of America, where you can reach amazing natural attractions within a few hours of driving, but I was wrong. In Alaska you don’t need to seek out amazing places; they come to you.