For sheer geologic eye candy, Alaska sure does deliver. From craggy rock faces to striped glacial moraines, the Last Frontier is flush with opportunities to observe the world’s shifting, grinding perpetual motion up close. For those who venture to Alaska’s capital city of Juneau between December and March, snowshoeing provides access for a different view, one with color and texture the summer visitors won’t see, especially near mighty Mendenhall Glacier.
One of a few glaciers accessible by road, Mendenhall sits a mere 10 miles from Juneau, and is a “bucket list” attraction for the nearly one million visitors who come to Alaska each year. Part of the enormous Tongass National Forest, Mendenhall is also an endpoint for the equally vast Juneau Icefield, a swath of compressed snow and ice made up of 38 glaciers spanning 1,500 square miles. Thus, space for recreational pursuits is unparalleled, as is the scenery.
Typical winters in Juneau and the Mendenhall Valley can swing between snowy and rainy with a few days of brilliant sunshine intermixed. This “panhandle” section of Alaska is located in a temperate rainforest, and as such, weather patterns are often far from ideal for those used to fluffy powder and bluebird days for skiing or snowshoeing pursuits. But Southeast’s scenery and wild places easily cause one to forget about the damp, gloomy skies in favor of uncrowded trails and wide-open spaces to strap on snowshoes and take to the mountains.
Getting here is easy. In about two hours, a flight from either Seattle or Anchorage whisks visitors to Juneau; remember, this is one of two United States capital cities inaccessible by road (the other is Honolulu, HI). Rental cars are readily available at the Juneau airport, and lodging is plentiful during this typically quiet season. Mendenhall Valley is about 10 minutes from the airport and nearby lodging, and 20 minutes from downtown Juneau, like all Alaska National Forests, full of nature-based opportunities to get outdoors.
For those interested in a rambling tour of the glacier, including a bit of history about its recent retreats, start by a trip to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, located at the end of Glacier Spur Road. A small entrance fee (around $2) gets you access to exhibits, a bookstore, ranger information, and films about this mountain of ice. Open all year, the visitor center is also a great place to check on trail conditions, as the Tongass National Forest Service staffs the facility to ensure safety of all guests who venture out on trails or across the frozen lake.
The Trail of Time is a 0.7-mile out-and-back trek that leads from the visitor center along the fringe of Mendenhall Lake. Changes in landscape are evident, even in the winter, as the glacier has retreated so much, many Juneau residents remember how old they were when the Mendenhall was visible from certain locations along the trail.
The glacier itself empties into Mendenhall Lake, which generally freezes solid anywhere between November and December, depending upon the year. Once that happens and snow falls, the lake’s surface buzzes with skiers, snowshoers, and skaters eager to capture a few moments feeling tiny beneath Mendenhall’s crystalline face. Even from several hundred yards distant, the glacier captures the landscape, and is well worth the hike across the surface.
Note: Do be constantly aware of changing ice conditions; while bergs may appear solidly encased in the lake’s frozen surface, they are indeed unstable and should be avoided. Likewise with the glacier itself, as the formation is constantly shifting and could break off at any time. Stay back at least 200 hundred yards, and heed all warning signs posted by USFS personnel.
Those wanting a longer snowshoe experience can try the Dredge Lakes trail system, which connects to other trails like Moose lake, Old River, and the Moraine Ecology Trail. With a trailhead just behind the Tongass National Forest District offices along Glacier Spur Road, the Dredge Lakes trails travel several miles through post-glacial vegetation of willow, alder, and cottonwood forests. Watch for signs of beaver activity, even in the winter, as North America’s largest rodent chews, then drags trees and branches toward waterlines. Be prepared for an out-and-back trek, and take all necessary essentials like food, water, and extra clothing, as temperatures and weather can fluctuate without warning.
On the way back to town, stop by the Alaskan Brewing Company’s headquarters for a tour and sample of this eco-friendly brewery, then swing into the Hanger Pub and Grill for a basket of fish n’ chips or a burger, complete with a view of the Gastineau Channel and the harbor.
For lodging, we like the Silverbow Inn, a quaint, renovated 1914 property that also happens to be located above the Silverbow Bakery and Wine Bar. Winter rates are reasonable, the staff, friendly, and access to downtown Juneau’s historical attractions is simple.
Juneau is more than cruise ships. It’s a glimpse into the unique landscape of Alaska, and a winter snowshoe trip might just pique your interest for a return, next year.
Erin Kirkland is a freelance journalist, author of Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children, publisher of AKontheGO.com, and managing editor of Outdoor Families Magazine. She lives in Anchorage, Alaska.