A popular tourist destination in the summer, the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska is a truly magical place to visit in the winter, a treat typically reserved for the locals.
Every summer, thousands of tourists who make their way to Juneau by cruise ship or jet, cram themselves into buses and make their way to the Mendenhall Glacier, one of the most popular sites in Alaska’s capital.
And it is a very beautiful place to see in the summer. The Mendenhall Glacier – a mass of white and blue streaked ice, peppered gray with debris from the surrounding mountains – sits on the far of a deep blue glacial lake, cradled on either side by pine green mountains. On the near side of the lake is a visitor’s center, as well as a series of walkways to observe the bears stalking the salmon that have arrived to breed. There are a pair of paths – the West Glacier and East Glacier trails – that will take you closer to the glacier and to a handful of vantages points, and if you are particularly adventurous there is a difficult but rewarding detour from the West Glacier trail that will take you right up to the face of the glacier.
But for myself, the best time to visit the glacier is in the dead of winter. It’s a middle period between the seasons of tourists, so the only people you will find around are a handful of locals. I always wait for a sunny day after several weeks of frigid temperatures, when you can be pretty certain that the Mendenhall Lake is frozen solid, or at least has a very thick layer of ice. On days like this, you can take a direct path from the parking lot straight to the face of the glacier.
As you make your way across the lake, there can be many interesting diversions: royal blue icebergs, trapped in the winter ice; the groaning and creaks of the ice as it expands, contracts, and cracks; the dazzling spectrum of glitter that the sun reflects on the ice.
When you stand before the glacier, you become truly awed by it’s immense size and your relative insignificance, the luminescent blue of the glacial ice, and a thrilling and frightening sense of danger as you hear the glacier and lake moan and roar, and can feel the ice rise and drop under your feet.
The summer visitors have no idea what they are missing.