Monday, August 24, 2015

Mendenhall Glacier- West Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier
7 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Free; trailhead can be reached by public transit

In a state where glaciers routinely exceed the size of Rhode Island and the volume of some of the smaller Great Lakes, the Mendenhall Glacier isn't much to boast about. A mile wide and a mere thirteen miles long from its source in the frozen sea of the Juneau Icefield to its terminus as Mendenhall Lake, it is dwarfed by giant Alaskan glaciers such as the Hubbard, Bering, or Malaspina. But even in a state with such impressive amounts of ice, no glacier is as easily accessible from an urban area by road than the Mendenhall; and no trail gets more personal with the blue ice than the West Glacier Trail. This is one the most popular trails in the Juneau area and is a worthwhile hike to see a glacier up close.

I hiked this trail at the end of my Juneau trip, experiencing the blue ice on a day of mixed sun and rain. The trailhead is at the end of Skaters Cabin Road; if you're driving from downtown Juneau, take Egan Drive north to the Mendenhall Loop Road, then follow the Mendenhall Loop road north (counterclockwise) to Montana Creek Road, turn right, and follow Montana Creek Road until it becomes Skaters Cabin Road; then continue to the ample trailhead parking at the end of the road. I took the Juneau Capital Transit bus to reach the trail; both bus 3 and bus 4 pass by the trailhead. I got off the bus at the Montana Creek stop along Mendenhall Loop Road and then walked along Montana Creek and then Skaters Cabin Road to the trailhead; this added a little less than a mile to the hike each way. Skaters Cabin Road was not far from the shore of Mendenhall Lake, so I popped over to the lake to get some initial views of the glacier and of the surrounding mountains.

Mendenhall Lake and Glacier
From the trailhead, the broad, well-marked trail headed off into the rain forest. A few spur trails branched off the right side of the trail, leading to the shore of Mendenhall Lake and views of Nugget Falls. The first mile of the trail was very pleasant, featuring a lot of very mossy trees and some well-built bridges across tumbling streams with no elevation gain.

Rainforest along West Glacier Trail
Creek along the trail
After about a mile of flat hiking, the terrain changed very suddenly: the trail made a sudden switchback as it began to ascend a rocky hill. The trail had reached the end of the floodplain next to the lake and began to ascend the rocky peninsula that jutted out from Mount McGinnis. The trail began a steady climb of a few hundred feet through increasingly rough terrain in the next half mile or so, with some sections featuring steel handrails for safety. As the past couple days had been quite rainy and much of the terrain consisted of slippery rock, the trail was a little treacherous and unpleasant in spots. After a period of alternating between uphill and flat, the trail crested the rock peninsula and came to a poorly marked intersection: the trail ahead headed downhill and to the ice caves of the Mendenhall Glacier, while the trail that switchbacked sharply to the left was the main West Glacier Trail. A wooden sign marked the intersection, but it was easy to miss it and head directly down the ice caves spur. I skipped the ice caves as I was somewhat short on time and because I have little experience wandering around glacier ice on my own.

I took the sharp left at the intersection to continue on the West Glacier Trail. Shortly after the junction, I passed a small clearing with the first nice view of the Mendenhall Glacier on the trail. I stopped here for half of my lunch, as it was already midway through the afternoon, to enjoy the view. Under cloudy skies, the ice of the Mendenhall Glacier was remarkably blue.

Mendenhall Glacier
As the trail continued, it became progressively less pleasant to hike; steel railings became a bit more common and the trail became much narrower. For the most part, the trail remained in the forest but from time to time, it did break out for views of the glacier or of Mendenhall Lake and Nugget Falls, which looked impressive from a few miles away.

Nugget Falls and Mendenhall Lake
Then the rain returned and made the last mile of the hike mildly miserable. The trail continued onwards, sometimes rocky, often slippery, featuring some bridges over streams but requiring one rock-hop to cross a larger braided stream. The trail was never very steep but the ascent did still feel like quite a bit, possibly due to the terrain of the hike. The last third of a mile was the worst: the trail became rock, requiring a scramble over a 20-degree slippery rock surface before following a series of rock ledges with only occasional trail tape to mark the way. At least the views were equally rewarding: halfway up the rockiest stretch, the trail broke out onto rock ledges that had views over the lake and Mendenhall Valley all the way back to Auke Bay.

Mendenhall Lake
Glacier meets lake
At one final sharp turn, the trail approached the east edge of the ridge and provided a stunning view over the terminus of the Mendenhall Glacier. Here, the blue ice came down to meet the water beneath towering snowcapped peaks with emerald slopes. After taking a turn left and following the top of the ridge, the trail came to a viewpoint to the north of an enormous section of the Mendenhall Glacier with incredible rock spires and ice rising above it. While the trail tape continued onwards, I stopped here, having had enough of the slippery rock on the trail and hoping to avoid slipping badly while out hiking by myself. The viewpoint put me a few hundred feet above the glacier; how much was hard to tell. The glacier was so large that it was difficult to gain a sense of scale: it was only when the red helicopters bearing tourists from Juneau flew over my head and landed on the glacier that I could get a sense of how much blue ice filled the valley. I sat at the viewpoint for an hour; the rain stopped, the clouds rolled out and then back in, the ice fluctuated between shades of blue, the harsh rock of the mountains played peekaboo with the mist.

Blue ice
After finally breaking away from the view, I turned back and returned to the trailhead, working my way quickly but carefully through the rock scrambles to beat the return of the rain. I was lucky I didn't stay longer: while the weather held up until I got back to the bus stop, it began raining shortly thereafter and had not yet stopped when I boarded my flight back to Seattle early the next morning.

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