The Mendenhall Glacier is just one of 38 large glaciers that form the Juneau Icefield, in southeast Alaska. This enormous expanse of ice covers over 1,500 square miles (3,885 square kilometers) and was known by indigenous people as the “home of the spirits.” The naturalist John Muir described Mendenhall as one of the most beautiful of all Alaska’s glaciers. It is also the most accessible, located only 13 miles (21 kilometers) away from Juneau by road. The maritime climate of this region ensures that an abundant snowfall exceeding 100 feet (30 meters) falls on the glacier each year. Over time the compacted snow turns to ice, and so renews the glacier.
Like all glaciers Mendenhall is always on the move, a frozen river sliding 5,400 feet (1,646 meters) down the Coast Mountains, at a rate of about 2 feet (0.6 meters) per day, scouring the bedrock. Ice in this impressive glacier takes 250 years to travel from the glacier’s summit to its terminus, which is 13 miles (21 kilometers) away at Mendenhall Lake. Here, great chunks of blue ice the size of buildings break off suddenly and unexpectedly from the glacier’s leading edge and fall into the water. The lake is renowned for its large, floating icebergs. The glacier is over 200 feet (60 meters) thick at its terminus, with more than 100 feet (30 meters) poking above the water and another 100 feet (30 meters) below the water’s surface.
The Mendenhall Glacier, along with the rest of the Juneau Icefield, began to form over 3,000 years ago and grew until the late 18th century. Since then it has slowly retreated, because the rate of renewal of glacier ice is slower than the rate of melting at its lower levels. Since 1767 it has receded 2.5 miles (4 kilometers). At its present rate, the glacier will take several centuries to completely disappear. The glacier is named after Thomas Mendenhall, a noted scientist who was responsible for surveying the international boundary between Canada and Alaska. More adventurous visitors can hire a helicopter for the most dramatic views of the glacier, or even take a dogsled ride on the glacier. Trails around Mendenhall Lake bring fabulous views.