Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier is one of the most well known glaciers in Alaska and an absolute must do when visiting whether it’s a port call on a cruise or a longer visit to Juneau on your own. This is the only glacier you can drive to in Southeast Alaska and has a wonderful visitor center and hiking trails.
I first visited Mendenhall Glacier in 1994 and have been many times since, both as a former Alaskan and a frequent visitor. It has retreated quite a bit since I first went to it 30 years ago, but still remains one of the most beautiful places in Alaska and is a favorite of Juneau residents, not just visitors. In Juneau it is referred to simply as “the Glacier”.
August 2023 Note: This summer increased visitors to the glacier beyond the permits available. If your shuttle or tour was cancelled, note that taking the public bus requires an additional 2 mile round trip walk to get there.
The glacier is the homeland of the Aak’w Kwaan (Tlingit People).
A bonus about visiting the glacier is that it’s a great activity on a rainy day as well as a sunny day, so grab rain jacket or umbrella and enjoy exploring this special place.
This article will tell you everything you need to know to visit the glacier from the perspective of a former resident and a frequent visitor as well as a tour guide. If you’re trying to figure out how to get to the glacier without a tour, let me save you some time and hassle and tell you that you should either book the tour or take the shuttle. Do not try to get there another way unless you’re staying in Juneau for a few days with a rental car. More details on both the shuttle and the tour options are below. If you’d rather listen to information about Mendenhall Glacier, check out Episode 13 of my podcast.
Mendenhall Glacier is located near the town of Juneau, Alaska in the Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska.
Is Mendenhall Glacier worth seeing?
Absolutely! Most visitors have glaciers as one of their must see experiences while visiting Alaska and the Mendenhall Glacier is a unique and easy place to see one.
While you cannot drive to Juneau itself, once you’re in Juneau this is the only glacier in Southeast Alaska you can drive to. While there are other ways to get to the glacier (like a kayaking or helicopter tour discussed below), it’s very straightforward to take a tour or a shuttle from the cruise ship docks.
Wheelchair accessibility at the Mendenhall Glacier
The visitor center is fully wheelchair accessible including plenty of room to move around the exhibits and in the theater where the film is shown. Wheelchair users can also access both the Photo Point Loop which goes down to the lake with excellent views as well as the trail to Nugget Falls. These trails are both wide, mostly flat and barrier free.
The East Loop Trail has a lot of stairs and steep sections as well as some rocks and roots.
If you are a full time wheelchair user, it’s extremely important to book transportation to Mendenhall Glacier that is wheelchair accessible. This is easy to do but must be arranged in advance as not all vehicles have lifts in Juneau (most do not). I recommend booking an excursion through your ship to guarantee this.
If you are driving on your own, there is ample wheelchair accessible parking in the parking lot.
How to get to Mendenhall Glacier from a cruise ship
If you’re in Juneau on an Alaska cruise and you want to visit Mendenhall Glacier, you have two options – a tour or a shuttle to the glacier. I’ll explain the pros and cons below as well as why I don’t recommend the city bus or a taxi or ride share.
How far is Mendenhall Glacier from Juneau’s cruise ship dock?
The Visitor Center is about 12 miles from downtown Juneau, where Juneau’s cruise ship docks are located. It’s about a 20-30 minute drive.
Mendenhall Glacier Tours
The easiest and most straightforward way to get to Mendenhall Glacier from your cruise ship is to book a shore excursion that includes a visit to Mendenhall Glacier. This will also give you a short tour of Juneau and a guaranteed seat on a bus at a guaranteed time.
You can also book a tour on the dock if there is still space available, but if it’s important to you to get to the glacier I recommend booking in advance.
The benefits of the tour are mainly having a guaranteed seat at a guaranteed time. Tours generally cost between $50-$80 per person. This includes the entrance fee for Mendenhall Glacier.
If you want to combine your visit to the glacier with Juneau’s other must do activity, whale watching, Juneau Tours offers a combo that takes you to both in one tour. This tour is not offered on ships and you do need to book in advance as this is a popular option.
Mendenhall Glacier Shuttle
If you want to get out to Mendenhall Glacier but don’t want to be on a tour, the Mendenhall Glacier Shuttle is the way to go.
I’ve taken the Juneau Tours Shuttle out to the glacier and highly recommend it as long as you’re ok with the possibility of having to wait in line (if you’re not, go for a tour instead). On busy days, it can take some time to get a shuttle, which operates every 30 minutes from the base of the tram and from the glacier visitor center parking area. On especially busy days, it runs every 20 minutes. The hours of operation vary based on the cruise ship schedules.
You can spend as much time as you like on your own schedule, just make sure to confirm with your driver when the last pick up is at the glacier to get back to town.
The Mendenhall Glacier shuttle costs $45 per person round trip and includes the entrance fee to the Mendenhall Glacier.
Can I take the city bus to Mendenhall Glacier?
You can take the city bus to Mendenhall Glacier. However, I don’t recommend it because it takes a long time (1.5-2 hours each way depending on your walking speed and where your ship is docked). It also involves a three mile round trip walk to the bus stop which is not doable for everyone. It does only cost $2 (cash only), so if you have lots of time and enjoy walking, go for it. The bus goes once an hour. Here’s all the info about how to do it.
Can I take a taxi or Uber or Lyft to Mendenhall Glacier?
A difficult thing for people to wrap their head around in Juneau is the limited availability and long wait times for on demand rides. Theoretically, Juneau has a few Uber and Lyft drivers, but I’ve never been able to successfully get a ride (I keep trying because I’m curious about this). Similar to other Southeast Alaska port towns (and lots of other places in Alaska) it’s still mostly taxis.
There are several taxi companies and in my experience you usually have to wait a long time (45 minutes to an hour) after calling for a ride. Taxis also drop off further away than buses from the visitor center and there is a steep surcharge per person to get dropped off at the glacier. It costs quite a bit more than the shuttle round trip, although with a bigger group it might work out financially, but it’s still a hassle.
So, while it is possible, I don’t recommend trying to take a taxi or ride share to the glacier. Go for a tour or the shuttle instead. Trust me on this and save yourself a big headache!
Visiting Mendenhall Glacier by Helicopter
For those who want to get up onto the ice and walk on Mendenhall Glacier, you’ll need to do that by helicopter. If you’re on a cruise, book through your cruise ship and book as early as you can because this shore excursion is popular and nearly always sells out!
If you’re not traveling on a cruise ship, then you can book it on your own.
The real highlight of landing on the Mendenhall Glacier is getting to go dog sledding in the middle of summer on the ice of the glacier! This is a truly incredible splurge if you’re looking for something really special and expensive on your trip.
Keep in mind that there is always the possibility of a helicopter trip being cancelled due to weather, but do not wait to see what the weather is going to be to decide to book as it will probably be sold out by then. Make your decision about whether or not to do it and then let fate (or weather) make the final call! You may also land on a different glacier (Herbert Glacier).
Expect this experience to take about 3 hours and cost around $650-$700 per person.
Visiting Mendenhall Glacier By Kayak
A kayak tour is a really unique way to experience Mendenhall Glacier. Paddle across the lake and get to hike around closer to the glacier than you would otherwise be able to. If you want to experience the glacier this way, you’ll need to be on a guided tour.
This is also a way to experience kayaking in very calm water, since you’ll be on a lake and not in the ocean. The water is still extremely cold!
You can book the tour on your ship or independently if you’re not on a ship, but make sure to book in advance! Expect this experience to last around 3-4 hours and cost around $300 per person.
Can I visit the Mendenhall Ice Caves?
A lot of people have heard about Mendenhall Ice Caves and like all glaciers, ice caves come and go and melt and collapse. At the time of this writing, there are not ice caves at Mendenhall Glacier you can safely access.
How to get to Mendenhall Glacier if you’re visiting Juneau on your own
If you’re one of the lucky travelers spending more time in Juneau on your own than just a day in port on a cruise ship, you have the same options for getting out to the glacier. If you have a rental car, you can just drive there and park. Although the visitor center is a very busy place in the summer, parking is no problem since most visitors are arriving by bus.
There’s a $5 entrance fee per person.
How much time do you need at Mendenhall Glacier?
It depends on what you want to do. An hour is enough time if you are just going to go to the Visitor Center and out on the Photo point trail to a great view of the glacier.
If you want to walk out to Nugget Falls, you’ll want to give yourself 1.5 to 2 hours.
If you want to add a longer hike, such as the East Glacier Loop trail, give yourself at least 3 hours and as much as 4-5 if you also want to go to Nugget Falls and experience the visitor center.
Most tours will give you 1.5 to 2 hours at the glacier, depending on the rest of the tour stops. Just ask how much time there is at the glacier and make sure it matches what you want to do. You can always choose the shuttle instead of a tour if you want to be flexible about the time.
Things to do at the Mendenhall Glacier
The Glacier has several great opportunities for visitors, whether you just want to take in a view, learn about glaciers and the habitat around this one at the visitor center, or go for a hike.
See the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center
The glacier has an excellent and spacious visitor center with frequent ranger programs and an excellent movie. Here, you can learn about the wildlife and plants of the Tongass National Forest in general and the Juneau area specifically as well as the unique habitat and features of the glacier, Mendenhall Lake and the Mendenhall River.
The visitor center has done an excellent job of sharing the impact of climate change on Alaska’s glaciers and the Mendenhall Glacier in particular. Don’t miss the movie which is excellent.
While you’re at the visitor center, explore the short trail of time as well as the Photo Point trail which takes you down to the shores of Mendenhall Lake for excellent photo opportunities.
Look for Salmon Running in Steep Creek
The Steep Creek Trail is a short boardwalk over the creek that is partially closed during the salmon run, but you can still see salmon in the creek when they are running. Look for the boardwalk near the shuttle bus stop.
Walk to Nugget Falls
Waterfall lovers will not want to miss this mellow, flat trail to a gorgeous roaring waterfall on the shores of Mendenhall Lake.
Nugget Falls is about a mile from the visitor center on a flat and wide trail. Give yourself an hour to walk there and back, plus however long you want to spent soaking up the waterfall (which might be awhile!).
Hike the East Glacier Loop Trail
Hikers will not want to miss the East Glacier Loop Trail! This is also a terrific way to leave crowds behind as the visitor center area does get very crowded on busy ship days. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to hike this loop (at least 2.5 hours) as it has some steep sections. It’s quite wet on this trail even when it’s not actively raining and waterproof footwear is a good idea.
The trail starts above the visitor center and is well signed. It’s a beautiful and at times steep hike through the rain forest, with lots of small creeks and waterfalls and views of the glacier and the Mendenhall Valley.
There are a lot of stairs on this hike as well as some rock steps, rocky sections as well as some roots and mud. The loop is just over 3.5 miles with about 900 feet of elevation gain.
The most important thing is to wear (or bring) a rain jacket. An umbrella can also be helpful if you have one. If you’re planning to hike, waterproof footwear and possibly rain pants are a good idea. You’ll also want to make sure you have sunglasses (even if it’s rainy!) as the weather often changes several times a day.
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite who lived in Alaska for 7 years and I still spend lots of time there every year. I've been a tour guide for many years in both Alaska and Washington and am a field editor for the Milepost. I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you along on the journey to experience your best adventure in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada!
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