The glacier used to be called Sitaantaagu, which means "glacier behind the town," and Aak'wtaaksit, which means "glacier behind the little lake."
Just outside of Juneau, Ala. lies a series of glaciers that span the horizon. The 1,500 square mile range contains 38 individual glaciers of various sizes. One, the Mendenhall glacier, runs 13 miles long down the ridge, and from the outside looks just like any of its fellow glaciers. But, beneath its white and rocky gray facade, it holds one of nature’s most spectacular secrets.
These particular caves, known as the Mendenhall Ice Caves, may be one of the few places in nature where you can see the water cycle in action. Visitors can watch the ice melt and turn to meltwater, before refreezing and turning back into the glaciers.
The caves, while filled with and made up of ice and flowing water, are a result of flowing water themselves. Ice caves – though in this case “glacier cave” might be a more appropriate term – form when water flows through a glacier and melts a passageway through the ice.
The water initially flows in from the top or side surfaces of the glacier, through a hole known as a moulin. Then, as it seeks reentry back into Mendenhall Lake, the flowing water twists and turns through the glacier and creates a maze of hollowed out passages.
Due to the nature of water and the malleability of the glaciers, the ice caves can vary hugely in length and size. They also are subject to change. As meltwater continues to move through the passageways (even long after the initial flow of water has ebbed) the passages can widen, lengthen, and even sprout new directions. Occasionally, if meltwater stops flowing, they can also disappear.
Whereas the Juneau Ice Field, from which the Mendenhall Glacier and the Mendenhall Ice Caves emerge, appears as a vast white wasteland, the inside of the ice caves is a spectacular, brilliant blue. Known as “glacier blue,” this bright color happens when the air is squeezed from the ice and snow as it freezes. The ice, over time, absorbs all colors except blue.
The effect of standing inside the caves leaves one feeling more like they’re inside an aquarium than a freezing, subterranean cave. The blue also reflects down onto the terrain, giving the entire place an otherworldly, watery experience.
Though the glacier can feel like another planet, the Mendenhall Ice Caves are surprisingly easy to get to. Juneau is just a mere 10 miles from the glacier range, and tours are conducted year round. Regardless of if your schedule (or comfort level) allows for a winter or summer adventure, the glacier is open.
For those summer visitors willing to put some effort in, kayaks are available to rent in Juneau. The kayak trip will take about an hour of paddling across Mendenhall Lake but seeing the glacier rise above the surface, growing as you get closer is truly something to behold. If you’re looking for the same view in the winter, you’re encouraged to hike across the frozen lake.
For those who aren’t ready to commit to such a watery trek, there are much drier options. The West Glacier Trail, a well-marked path, leads right toward the glacier. However, just because it’s drier doesn’t mean it’s easier. The trail gets increasingly steeper as it nears the glacier, and in the rainy season can be slick and muddy. After an hour of either paddling or hiking, visitors will reach the glacier.
Then comes the ice climbing. Though they are not required, it’s recommended to bring a guide for at least this portion. The ice caves have no real path toward them, and without an experienced local who knows exactly where to take you, it can be easy to get lost, slip and fall, or end up in the wrong place.
Despite the harsh terrain and the exhausting climb, once you arrive at the Mendenhall Ice Caves it will all be worth it. Under the blue glow of the ice, it can be easy to forget one is tired and cold, as the otherworldly effects sweep you away.