Mendenhall Ice Caves

Mendenhall Glacier Cave - Mendenhall Cave


Useful Information

photography
Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska, USA. Public Domain.
photography
Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska, USA. Public Domain.
Location: Mendenhall Glacier, 20 km from Juneau, Alaska.
(58.4172, -134.5457)
Open: No restrictions.
[2020]
Fee: free.
[2020]
Classification: SpeleologyGlacier cave
Light: bring torch
Dimension:
Guided tours:
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography:
Address:
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

1942 begin of monitoring by the Juneau Icefield Research Program.

Description

photography
Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska, USA. Public Domain.
photography
Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska, USA. Public Domain.
photography
Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska, USA. Public Domain.

Mendenhall Ice Cave is the glacier cave formed by the outflow of Mendenhall Glacier, hence the name. The glacier is one tongue of the Juneau Icefield near Juneau and known as Sitaantaagu by the natives. But despite the name it is not an SpeleologyIce Cave, its a SpeleologyGlacier cave. And actually its not a cave, its actually a new cave every year. Its constantly shifting and changing, and will collapse every so often and reform.

Mendenhall Glacier is located very close to Juneau, and so it is quite popular. There is an impressive visitor center with view of the glacier, just north of town. Thats why the locals often call the glacier Sitaantaagu (Glacier Behind the Town) or Aak’wtaaksit (Glacier Behind the Little Lake). However, it has receded 800 m from 1500 to 1958, but since then to 2020 it receded 3.3 km.

As glaciers and especially ice caves are constantly shifting, melting, and collapsing, we suggest not to visit this cave without a guide. Even the way to the cave is dangerous. And as it constantly collapses and reform, it might change its location and it is quite difficult to find. If you are still not dissuaded, travel to Juneau, and visit Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. They have an exhibition on glaciers and glacier caves, and they can help you booking a tour on the glacier.

If you are a glacier pro or suicidal, you may drive to the West Glacier Trail. The trailhead is at the end of Skater’s Cabin Road in the Tongass National Forest. Its 7.2 km to the Mendenhall Glacier, and the trail is difficult, can be dangerous in areas, and is mostly unmarked. You should plan 3 to 5 hours each way. Alternatively you can kayak across the lake in summer or walk across the frozen lake in winter from the Visitor Center. Then walk along the western flank of the glacier and look for a stream coming from the glacier. Glacier caves are formed by such streams and are easily found by following it upstream. Unfortunately there is a stream in the cave which is more or less 0 °C and the cave is the same temperature and the rocks are slippery. Probably that's the point where you should rethink your plan of doing this self guided.

The minimum gear for any glacier tour is obviously hiking boots with with good stability and traction, if possible water tight, comfortable hiking pants, functional underwear, warm sweater or fleece pullover, warm hat, gloves, sunglasses and sunscreen. For walking on the ice crampons or ice cleats, ice pick (the big sort), and a long rope are advisable. And for the cave a helmet with headlamp is absolutely necessary. Its not that there might be falling ice, there will be falling ice. We also recommend a second dry set of underwear and trousers, if you get wet during your cave tour. Even functional underwear is cold when it is wet. And don't forget food and water for a full day trip.

There are numerous operators offering any kind of glacier tour, so we strongly recommend to book one. You will be in a group, there is a local guide who actually knows where the caves are, and you will be able to borrow necessary equipment. The tours are more or less day tours and cost between USD 200 and USD 400, depending on the length and details of the tour. We guess bad guides will not survive their first mistake alive, so we think you can trust all those companies to an extend. Its quite common to stop thinking when you are on a guided tour, please be aware of that and don't do it.