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USA: Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau

Going to Juneau and not seeing the Mendenhall is like visiting Rome and skipping the Colosseum. The most famous of Juneau’s ice floes, and the city’s most popular attraction, flows 13 miles from its source, the Juneau Icefield, and has a half-mile-wide face. It ends at Mendenhall Lake, the reason for all the icebergs.

Naturalists estimate that within a few years it will retreat onto land, and within 25 years retreat out of view entirely from the observation area and visitor center.

On a sunny day it’s beautiful, with blue skies and snowcapped mountains in the background. On a cloudy and drizzly afternoon it can be even more impressive, as the ice turns shades of deep blue.

The river of ice is at the end of Glacier Spur Rd. From Egan Dr at Mile 9 turn right onto Mendenhall Loop Rd, staying on Glacier Spur Rd when the loop curves back toward Auke Bay.

Near the face of the glacier is the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, which houses various glaciology exhibits, including a fabricated ice face of the glacier along with a large relief map of the ice field; spotting scopes that let you look for mountain goats; and a theater that shows the 11-minute film Landscape of Change.

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Outside you’ll find several hiking trails. The most popular are the 0.3-mile Photo-Overlook Trail and the Nugget Falls Trail; the latter leads a half-mile to a huge belting waterfall that empties into the lake near the face of the glacier. For many the most interesting path is Steep Creek Trail, a 0.3-mile boardwalk that winds past viewing platforms along the stream. From July through September you’ll not only see sockeye and coho salmon spawning from the platforms but also brown and black bears feasting on them. This is Southeast Alaska’s most affordable bear-viewing site (though it can be partially closed due to heavy bear traffic in summer).

The cheapest way to see the glacier is to hop on a Capital Transit bus ($2). The bus, somewhat bizarrely, drops you 1.5 miles short of the visitor center. Follow the paved path north along the Glacier Spur Rd. More expensive, but easier, is the ‘blue bus’ operated by Mendenhall Glacier Transport/M & M Tours, which picks up from the cruise-ship docks downtown for the glacier, making a run every 30 minutes. The last bus of the day depends on the cruise-ship schedule.

One of the most unusual outdoor activities in Juneau is glacier trekking: stepping into crampons, grabbing an ice axe and roping up to walk on ice 1000 years old or older. The scenery and the adventure is like nothing you’ve experienced before as a hiker. The most affordable outing is offered by Above & Beyond Alaska. Utilizing a trail to access Mendenhall Glacier, it avoids expensive helicopter fees on its guided seven-hour outing. The cost is $219 per person and includes all mountaineering equipment and transportation.

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