Outdoors & Recreation

Trekking to the Ice Caves

Written by
Elizabeth Minton

Though they seem frozen still in the moment, the ice caves at Mendenhall Glacier are eternally transforming into new works of art each day. The handiwork of one of nature’s greatest forces compels me to visit these wonders each winter. Yes, I can see them in the summer by taking a long hike in the woods or kayaking across Mendenhall Lake, but winter is arguably the ideal time to visit the caves and witness their splendor. It is during this season that nature offers me the choice to walk, ski, ice skate, or bike across the frozen lake amongst sculptures of ancient glacial ice.   

The Mendenhall has been the most well-known glacier to captivate Juneauites and visitors for centuries. Droves of tourists travel to this glacier’s viewing points every summer. The glacier used to reside where the visitor’s center is today, but now it is a 1.75 mile trek across a glacial lake to access the face. The receding nature of the glacier is what causes the ice caves to be so distinct from year to year. 

There are only fleeting segments of time when making this trek is safe, although it is never without risk. The lake in front of the glacier needs to be frozen solid, necessitating at least several days of temperatures well below freezing. Every year people fall through the ice by going too early or traveling where the ice is thinner. In fact, just four days before I took my first trek out to the ice caves this winter, a man on a mountain bike fell through the ice while biking along the face of the glacier. Lucky for him, another person walking out to the caves that day saw him fall through, noticing just his head and helmet sticking above the shards of ice surrounding him. The bystander was carrying a rope and helped to pull the man out of the frigid water. Saving grace? That’s the last thing I wanted to happen to me, and I knew I could not count on another person with a rope nearby to pull me out if I were to fall in.

I waited another four days with temperatures continuing in the single digits and teens. When the masses began heading out to the caves, it was time for me to go as well. I packed my bag: camera, tripod, spare batteries, extra layers, shoes, ice cleats (an absolute must), as well as water and snacks for the journey. Some people opt to bring a helmet for protection from falling ice in the caves, but I didn’t have mine at my house at the time. I wanted to maximize my time at the caves so, with the distance to the caves increasing every year and the limited winter daylight, I planned to skate ski to the glacier.


Skiing to the face of the glacier.

I set off on a beautiful day with the sun poking through overcast skies. Skate skiing on the lake requires following the snow-packed path of other people who have already found their way to the caves—otherwise your skis slide out too far, leaving you doing embarrassing and painful split maneuvers on the slippery ice.

The gliding that day was peaceful and smooth. The chill on my face grew colder as I approached the glacier, but my body warmed up with each ski stroke and the increasing beat of my heart—I could not help but smile at the striking beauty looming before me. I made it! Standing at the face staring into the recent areas of calving is magnificent, but not a place I like to visit too closely or tarry for too long. Because of the regular calving and erosion that occurs there, the face of the glacier that touches the frozen lake is one of the most dangerous spots to be. When I see a dark, deep blue section of the face, I stay away. That is a sign of recent calving and likely an unstable area. This day, I’d prefer the face of the glacier not be my final resting place.

As I took in the view, I heard a loud crack that sounded like a terrifyingly close bolt of lightning. Then there was a rumbling whoop. In the more than 20 years that I have been coming out here, that sound has never lost its unsettling effect on me. It is a gentle, albeit humbling, reminder that the glacier is always moving. That unnerving feeling was enough to say to myself, “I’ve enjoyed the beauty of the face long enough.” I turned around and skied toward the trail to the ice caves. 

In the more than 20 years that I have been coming out here, that sound has never lost its unsettling effect on me. It is a gentle, albeit humbling, reminder that the glacier is always moving.

The entrance to the main caves is roughly a quarter mile back from the face, alongside the rocky glacial moraine. With several inches of snow on everything, the rocks were harder to identify, making the trail quite rugged. However, the snow was not deep enough for my skis to glide without getting scratched, so I changed them out for shoes and ice cleats and headed along the west side of the glacier to find the best caves. 


Exploring ice shards strewn throughout the cave’s interior.


The path was well-worn from the feet of those before me, making the caves easy to find. My ice cleats screeched across the mixture of rocks and ice. The temperature had warmed up providing a slight break from the cold wind that breathes off the face of the glacier. I peeked my head into various small caves along the way, which were obviously not main attractions for prior visitors.

After less than 10 minutes of walking, I arrived at an incredibly well-worn set of tracks leading down into what spelunkers would call a slot canyon, but instead, it was made of ice. Magical. The blue glistened from within from the few bits of sun peeking through the clouds. I gasped in stillness, taking in the beauty. As I listened, I heard voices down in the cave and the screech of ice cleats. It’s always comforting to hear people in the caves and I feel somewhat safer knowing others have gone before me. However, the caves could still collapse at any time, always making any venture into the ice inherently precarious.

As I walked down the gentle hill toward the cave, my feet skidded on the scree. The ice cleats were not helpful here. I reached the entrance of the slot and shimmied around a giant icicle jutting out of the top of the ice slot. It went all the way down to my knees and was a foot in diameter at the top and roughly half that at the bottom. The 10-foot distance through the slot of ice then opened up to a 30-foot circular opening, surrounded by walls of ice but open to the sky above. 

While walking through this circular area, I saw it—the opening to the main part of the cave. The space between the ground and the glacial ice above was just a little more than a foot, so I bent down on my hands and knees to look in. Wow! Before me stretched one of the largest caves I had ever seen! The expanse went on as far as I could see to my left and right. The cave featured the deepest of blues with light glowing in from several holes in the roof of the cave. I took one last check of the ice cleats on my shoes to make sure they were pulled taut and crawled like a gorilla into the ice cave. 

A skylight in the roof of the cave provides a glimpse to the world beyond. It was extraordinary inside. The grandeur was even more impressive than I thought when first peeking in. After just four feet of crawling, I was able to stand up and walk around. The ceilings were well over double my height. The crunch of my cleats informed me that I was walking on ice rather than rocks, although it was not apparent given the dark and dirty bronze color of the ice floor—remnants of soil and rock resulting from a millennia of movement. The ceilings were a sapphire blue, truly what you would call glacier blue. To the left, the allure of glimmering white and light blue ice chunks that had fallen from an alternative cave entrance caught my eye. To the right, I witnessed a frozen stream that dove into the depths of the glacier. 


Majestic blue hues color the icy walls and ceiling of the cave.

That’s when I realized I had forgotten my headlamp. Shoot! The deepest parts of these caves are not accessible without artificial light because they are too far away from the exterior’s natural light. I pulled out my phone to take a quick selfie and to consider it as a possible light source. And then … it died. So frustrating! This is why I never rely on my cell phone during Alaska winters. Note to self—add an external battery pack charger to my pack next time I head outside and remember a headlamp.  

I turned my attention away from the deepest parts of the cave and walked toward a focused beam of light coming down from one of the holes in the dome of the cave. Along the way, I jumped over a small crack in the floor where water must have flowed through on warmer days. As I approached the hole, I noticed a tunnel system meandering through the four foot thick cave ceiling. The ceiling of the cave at this point was still over twice my height, so I was able to stand comfortably tall and observe. The hole closest to me was no more than a foot wide and covered in the same pitted texture as the cave’s exterior. The ice in the hole appeared a much more diluted baby blue and glimmered white near the top of the ice tunnels that exited the roof of the cave. Many people may not believe it, but the darker cloudier days are actually the best ones for viewing the glacier. The pits throughout the glacier are like windows that display the deepest blues in the ice. 


An ice tunnel meanders through the cave. 
Many people may not believe it, but the darker cloudier days are actually the best ones for viewing the glacier. The pits throughout the glacier are like windows that display the deepest blues in the ice.

Shattering sounds surprised me from behind. My nervous system instantly went into freeze mode before I reminded myself that there were others in the cave with me. They had crunched through a thin layer of ice over the area where water had previously flowed through the cave. This constant feeling of being slightly on edge and hoping the cave does not collapse or break off a chunk while you are inside is part of the thrill of visiting the caves, though it’s definitely not why I go. I am here for the beauty and grandeur. 

I kept exploring. When walking farther toward the left side of the cave, I had to meander around large boulders of ice. Some of these I could step over, and others were as tall as I am. These ice chunks had fallen from the collapsed alternative entrance to the cave. It was not a place that I wanted to spend a lot of time, even though the ice should have been more frozen with the colder temperatures than when the ice chunks originally crashed to the ground. These ice chunks were glimmering white in places where the sun was hitting them. I could see the dirt and rocks captured inside. I was once asked by a tourist, “Why don’t you vacuum the glacier?” They just didn’t understand. The “dirt” they see can be a boulder larger than a car. 

I snapped a few more pictures of the ice strewn about before my camera gave me a low battery warning. These cold temperatures are not gentle on any type of battery. I figured at this point, I needed to save my battery for whatever great pictures were to come. 

Looking around, I saw a several-foot-wide ice tunnel branching off from the far end of the broken entrance to the ice cave. This  tunnel varied between one to two feet tall, so I was back on my hands and knees crawling again. The colors were glorious. Bang! Ow! I crashed my head into the roof of the ice tunnel. That’s another reason a helmet would have been helpful in these caves. I crouched farther down to slither through the narrowing tunnel. The light coming from the end was shining brightly, especially in contrast to the deeper blue and dimly lit environment in the tunnel. I took a few more photos and then crawled out. 

The alternative entrance to the ice cave looked much more precarious from this side. In fact, it looked quite impassable with all the fallen chunks of ice. The entrance to the tunnel now looked tiny with little indication where it led. It was obvious to me now why former visitors entered the cave using the main entrance. I knew all too well that today’s main entrance would not be tomorrow’s.

With the daylight waning and my camera battery almost dead, it was about time to call it a day. Before heading home, I wanted to make one more pass through the tunnel and cave to take a video to share with friends and family. I hoped my battery would last. This last pass through the cave was equally as breathtaking as the first but definitely more hurried. The faster pace caused me to crash my head into the ice ceiling several times as I used my camera with one hand while wobbling through the ice tunnel on my knees and other hand. I’m sure I was a sight! 

As I walked out of the cave entrance, back through the circular unroofed opening in the ice, and then the ice slot I walked through at the beginning, I gazed around in amazement at the beauty of the area. It seemed as if the caves were whispering to me, “When are you coming back, Elizabeth?” I turned around to take one more picture of the ice cave area, and then my camera battery died. Perfect timing, at least I thought so at the time. 

I walked the trail back to where I stashed my skis and poles and shook off the fresh layer of snowflakes clinging to them. I enjoyed the sun gently setting as I was skiing back and when I was less than half a mile from my car, that’s when I wished I had an operational camera. The sunset transformed from a darkening of the horizon to pinks blushing over the white snow covering the lake. I was still happy that I got to experience it in person!


A vibrant sunset serves as a glorious ending to a day at the caves. Photo by Jack Stickel


To my delight, upon returning home, I talked with family who had gone out skiing and captured the glorious sunset picture. Now I can preserve that memory as well. As I look back at the pictures from my journey to the ice caves, I am already planning my next visit. The grandeur and mystique of the glacier and caves never loses its awe. On my list for next time? Explore the right side of the cave as well as bring an extra camera battery, power pack for my phone, helmet, headlamp, and some friends and family to share the memories.

No items found.

Trekking to the Ice Caves

Outdoors & Recreation

Author

Elizabeth Minton

ELIZABETH A. MINTON a born and raised Alaskan, is a passionate outdoors enthusiast. She enjoys hiking, kayaking, rock climbing, cross country skiing, and anything else that will get her outside. She volunteers with search and rescue and guides backpacking trips when she has free time away from her day job as an associate professor of marketing. She is also a recent recipient of a Guinness World Record for the fastest time to set up a two-person tent with two people.

Though they seem frozen still in the moment, the ice caves at Mendenhall Glacier are eternally transforming into new works of art each day. The handiwork of one of nature’s greatest forces compels me to visit these wonders each winter. Yes, I can see them in the summer by taking a long hike in the woods or kayaking across Mendenhall Lake, but winter is arguably the ideal time to visit the caves and witness their splendor. It is during this season that nature offers me the choice to walk, ski, ice skate, or bike across the frozen lake amongst sculptures of ancient glacial ice.   

The Mendenhall has been the most well-known glacier to captivate Juneauites and visitors for centuries. Droves of tourists travel to this glacier’s viewing points every summer. The glacier used to reside where the visitor’s center is today, but now it is a 1.75 mile trek across a glacial lake to access the face. The receding nature of the glacier is what causes the ice caves to be so distinct from year to year. 

There are only fleeting segments of time when making this trek is safe, although it is never without risk. The lake in front of the glacier needs to be frozen solid, necessitating at least several days of temperatures well below freezing. Every year people fall through the ice by going too early or traveling where the ice is thinner. In fact, just four days before I took my first trek out to the ice caves this winter, a man on a mountain bike fell through the ice while biking along the face of the glacier. Lucky for him, another person walking out to the caves that day saw him fall through, noticing just his head and helmet sticking above the shards of ice surrounding him. The bystander was carrying a rope and helped to pull the man out of the frigid water. Saving grace? That’s the last thing I wanted to happen to me, and I knew I could not count on another person with a rope nearby to pull me out if I were to fall in.

I waited another four days with temperatures continuing in the single digits and teens. When the masses began heading out to the caves, it was time for me to go as well. I packed my bag: camera, tripod, spare batteries, extra layers, shoes, ice cleats (an absolute must), as well as water and snacks for the journey. Some people opt to bring a helmet for protection from falling ice in the caves, but I didn’t have mine at my house at the time. I wanted to maximize my time at the caves so, with the distance to the caves increasing every year and the limited winter daylight, I planned to skate ski to the glacier.


Skiing to the face of the glacier.

I set off on a beautiful day with the sun poking through overcast skies. Skate skiing on the lake requires following the snow-packed path of other people who have already found their way to the caves—otherwise your skis slide out too far, leaving you doing embarrassing and painful split maneuvers on the slippery ice.

The gliding that day was peaceful and smooth. The chill on my face grew colder as I approached the glacier, but my body warmed up with each ski stroke and the increasing beat of my heart—I could not help but smile at the striking beauty looming before me. I made it! Standing at the face staring into the recent areas of calving is magnificent, but not a place I like to visit too closely or tarry for too long. Because of the regular calving and erosion that occurs there, the face of the glacier that touches the frozen lake is one of the most dangerous spots to be. When I see a dark, deep blue section of the face, I stay away. That is a sign of recent calving and likely an unstable area. This day, I’d prefer the face of the glacier not be my final resting place.

As I took in the view, I heard a loud crack that sounded like a terrifyingly close bolt of lightning. Then there was a rumbling whoop. In the more than 20 years that I have been coming out here, that sound has never lost its unsettling effect on me. It is a gentle, albeit humbling, reminder that the glacier is always moving. That unnerving feeling was enough to say to myself, “I’ve enjoyed the beauty of the face long enough.” I turned around and skied toward the trail to the ice caves. 

In the more than 20 years that I have been coming out here, that sound has never lost its unsettling effect on me. It is a gentle, albeit humbling, reminder that the glacier is always moving.

The entrance to the main caves is roughly a quarter mile back from the face, alongside the rocky glacial moraine. With several inches of snow on everything, the rocks were harder to identify, making the trail quite rugged. However, the snow was not deep enough for my skis to glide without getting scratched, so I changed them out for shoes and ice cleats and headed along the west side of the glacier to find the best caves. 


Exploring ice shards strewn throughout the cave’s interior.


The path was well-worn from the feet of those before me, making the caves easy to find. My ice cleats screeched across the mixture of rocks and ice. The temperature had warmed up providing a slight break from the cold wind that breathes off the face of the glacier. I peeked my head into various small caves along the way, which were obviously not main attractions for prior visitors.

After less than 10 minutes of walking, I arrived at an incredibly well-worn set of tracks leading down into what spelunkers would call a slot canyon, but instead, it was made of ice. Magical. The blue glistened from within from the few bits of sun peeking through the clouds. I gasped in stillness, taking in the beauty. As I listened, I heard voices down in the cave and the screech of ice cleats. It’s always comforting to hear people in the caves and I feel somewhat safer knowing others have gone before me. However, the caves could still collapse at any time, always making any venture into the ice inherently precarious.

As I walked down the gentle hill toward the cave, my feet skidded on the scree. The ice cleats were not helpful here. I reached the entrance of the slot and shimmied around a giant icicle jutting out of the top of the ice slot. It went all the way down to my knees and was a foot in diameter at the top and roughly half that at the bottom. The 10-foot distance through the slot of ice then opened up to a 30-foot circular opening, surrounded by walls of ice but open to the sky above. 

While walking through this circular area, I saw it—the opening to the main part of the cave. The space between the ground and the glacial ice above was just a little more than a foot, so I bent down on my hands and knees to look in. Wow! Before me stretched one of the largest caves I had ever seen! The expanse went on as far as I could see to my left and right. The cave featured the deepest of blues with light glowing in from several holes in the roof of the cave. I took one last check of the ice cleats on my shoes to make sure they were pulled taut and crawled like a gorilla into the ice cave. 

A skylight in the roof of the cave provides a glimpse to the world beyond. It was extraordinary inside. The grandeur was even more impressive than I thought when first peeking in. After just four feet of crawling, I was able to stand up and walk around. The ceilings were well over double my height. The crunch of my cleats informed me that I was walking on ice rather than rocks, although it was not apparent given the dark and dirty bronze color of the ice floor—remnants of soil and rock resulting from a millennia of movement. The ceilings were a sapphire blue, truly what you would call glacier blue. To the left, the allure of glimmering white and light blue ice chunks that had fallen from an alternative cave entrance caught my eye. To the right, I witnessed a frozen stream that dove into the depths of the glacier. 


Majestic blue hues color the icy walls and ceiling of the cave.

That’s when I realized I had forgotten my headlamp. Shoot! The deepest parts of these caves are not accessible without artificial light because they are too far away from the exterior’s natural light. I pulled out my phone to take a quick selfie and to consider it as a possible light source. And then … it died. So frustrating! This is why I never rely on my cell phone during Alaska winters. Note to self—add an external battery pack charger to my pack next time I head outside and remember a headlamp.  

I turned my attention away from the deepest parts of the cave and walked toward a focused beam of light coming down from one of the holes in the dome of the cave. Along the way, I jumped over a small crack in the floor where water must have flowed through on warmer days. As I approached the hole, I noticed a tunnel system meandering through the four foot thick cave ceiling. The ceiling of the cave at this point was still over twice my height, so I was able to stand comfortably tall and observe. The hole closest to me was no more than a foot wide and covered in the same pitted texture as the cave’s exterior. The ice in the hole appeared a much more diluted baby blue and glimmered white near the top of the ice tunnels that exited the roof of the cave. Many people may not believe it, but the darker cloudier days are actually the best ones for viewing the glacier. The pits throughout the glacier are like windows that display the deepest blues in the ice. 


An ice tunnel meanders through the cave. 
Many people may not believe it, but the darker cloudier days are actually the best ones for viewing the glacier. The pits throughout the glacier are like windows that display the deepest blues in the ice.

Shattering sounds surprised me from behind. My nervous system instantly went into freeze mode before I reminded myself that there were others in the cave with me. They had crunched through a thin layer of ice over the area where water had previously flowed through the cave. This constant feeling of being slightly on edge and hoping the cave does not collapse or break off a chunk while you are inside is part of the thrill of visiting the caves, though it’s definitely not why I go. I am here for the beauty and grandeur. 

I kept exploring. When walking farther toward the left side of the cave, I had to meander around large boulders of ice. Some of these I could step over, and others were as tall as I am. These ice chunks had fallen from the collapsed alternative entrance to the cave. It was not a place that I wanted to spend a lot of time, even though the ice should have been more frozen with the colder temperatures than when the ice chunks originally crashed to the ground. These ice chunks were glimmering white in places where the sun was hitting them. I could see the dirt and rocks captured inside. I was once asked by a tourist, “Why don’t you vacuum the glacier?” They just didn’t understand. The “dirt” they see can be a boulder larger than a car. 

I snapped a few more pictures of the ice strewn about before my camera gave me a low battery warning. These cold temperatures are not gentle on any type of battery. I figured at this point, I needed to save my battery for whatever great pictures were to come. 

Looking around, I saw a several-foot-wide ice tunnel branching off from the far end of the broken entrance to the ice cave. This  tunnel varied between one to two feet tall, so I was back on my hands and knees crawling again. The colors were glorious. Bang! Ow! I crashed my head into the roof of the ice tunnel. That’s another reason a helmet would have been helpful in these caves. I crouched farther down to slither through the narrowing tunnel. The light coming from the end was shining brightly, especially in contrast to the deeper blue and dimly lit environment in the tunnel. I took a few more photos and then crawled out. 

The alternative entrance to the ice cave looked much more precarious from this side. In fact, it looked quite impassable with all the fallen chunks of ice. The entrance to the tunnel now looked tiny with little indication where it led. It was obvious to me now why former visitors entered the cave using the main entrance. I knew all too well that today’s main entrance would not be tomorrow’s.

With the daylight waning and my camera battery almost dead, it was about time to call it a day. Before heading home, I wanted to make one more pass through the tunnel and cave to take a video to share with friends and family. I hoped my battery would last. This last pass through the cave was equally as breathtaking as the first but definitely more hurried. The faster pace caused me to crash my head into the ice ceiling several times as I used my camera with one hand while wobbling through the ice tunnel on my knees and other hand. I’m sure I was a sight! 

As I walked out of the cave entrance, back through the circular unroofed opening in the ice, and then the ice slot I walked through at the beginning, I gazed around in amazement at the beauty of the area. It seemed as if the caves were whispering to me, “When are you coming back, Elizabeth?” I turned around to take one more picture of the ice cave area, and then my camera battery died. Perfect timing, at least I thought so at the time. 

I walked the trail back to where I stashed my skis and poles and shook off the fresh layer of snowflakes clinging to them. I enjoyed the sun gently setting as I was skiing back and when I was less than half a mile from my car, that’s when I wished I had an operational camera. The sunset transformed from a darkening of the horizon to pinks blushing over the white snow covering the lake. I was still happy that I got to experience it in person!


A vibrant sunset serves as a glorious ending to a day at the caves. Photo by Jack Stickel


To my delight, upon returning home, I talked with family who had gone out skiing and captured the glorious sunset picture. Now I can preserve that memory as well. As I look back at the pictures from my journey to the ice caves, I am already planning my next visit. The grandeur and mystique of the glacier and caves never loses its awe. On my list for next time? Explore the right side of the cave as well as bring an extra camera battery, power pack for my phone, helmet, headlamp, and some friends and family to share the memories.

No items found.

Author

Elizabeth Minton

Read This Next