Alaskan Cruise: Juneau Part 1 (Mendenhall Glacier)

Continued from Tracy Arm Fjord Scenic Cruising


When we first booked excursions for our Alaskan Cruise on Ruby Princess last summer, we were planning on just going to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center so we could see a glacier.  But then I thought: “screw that…I want to walk on the glacier” knowing that getting to walk on the glacier was only accessible by helicopter and it would not be cheap.  Honestly, how many times in a southerner’s life would there be an opportunity to see walk on a glacier?  My mind was made.  I canceled our inexpensive visitor center excursion and booked Mendenhall Glacier Helicopter Tour.


Our actual flight path and elevation profile taken from my Garmin Forerunner 220 running watch (still remains my fastest “run” to this day)


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Our excursion was only an hour long.  It might be shocking to most people to spend that much on only an hour, but it was worth every single penny.  We were outfitted in boot covers and safety equipment at the Juneau airport, given a short safety briefing and seating arrangement, and then we were on our way!  The helicopter ride to the glacier from the airport was less than 15 minutes, and included flying past our drop point and up over the higher part of the glacier, then back down to a stable area where we could walk around.  We spent a half hour on the ice, and then got back into the helicopter for a 10 minute ride back to the airport.



My inner geologist feels compelled to share the geologic features that we saw during our flight and on the glacier.  Because that is what we paid for.  We are rock nerds, after all.  Use the diagram above as a reference for any terms I use below.  Don’t worry, it’s not too “sciencey”.



Lifting off from the airport we could immediately see the terminus, or mouth, of Mendenhall Glacier and the lake/river it has created, plus the sprawling city of Juneau.



The four images above were taken on the flight up to the top.  In the upper left image, we could clearly see the melting and evaporation zone, and crevasses.  Upper right shows a lateral moraine of the glacier and truncated spur/triangular facet in the rock of the mountain.  Lower left shows a cirque in an accumulation zone, meaning snow falls and accumulates but is not yet compacted into glacial ice.  Lower right shows what they call a suicide glacier, where a smaller glacier is terminating and falling onto Mendenhall Glacier.



The four images above show snow and firn, both uncompacted snow and compacted glacial ice.  This is definitely not where we landed, the crevasses would be too deep and too dangerous.



It wasn’t until we returned home and I was sorting through the pictures when I realized there were a line of hikers on the ice in one of my photos (highlighted in upper left).  They look like tiny ants!  The pictures in the upper right and lower left show medial moraines, the dirty zones marking the line where two glaciers joined to form the larger glacier.  And in the lower right we saw a meltwater river near the spot where the helicopter landed.



When we landed, the temperature was 32 degrees Fahrenheit and windy, so we were dressed warm enough for 30 minutes on the ice, but we would’ve been miserable staying longer than that.  Trust me, 30 minutes was the perfect amount of time to walk around, take pictures, and enjoy the surface features of the glacier.



There were five of us in one helicopter, and another five or so in another helicopter that landed with us.  So there were less than a dozen other people on the ice, not including the tour guides and pilots.  With a glacier this large and plenty of space to walk around, we definitely didn’t feel crowded, nor did we have to wait to take a picture with the Alaskan flag.



The tour guides helped point out geologic features to the non-geologists in the group, such as the crevasse with a melt pond in the images below.  The brilliant blue in the water comes from suspended rock dust, which alters the light refraction…well, it just makes it damn pretty.



I tend to wander off like a puppy on tours, so I followed the sound of surficial melt water that was disappearing down a moulin (glacier mill).  I’m not sure how deep the moulin was, but it sounded like it went down quite a bit.  I made sure not to jump around like an idiot so I wouldn’t break any ice.  I’m certain it was safe, but I was careful anyway.



I also wandered over to the nearest crevasse but couldn’t quite see down into it with the curve of the crevasse.  I didn’t want to get any closer, sorry.



But…I did lick the glacier.  Because that’s what geologists do.  We lick rocks and stuff.



Here are a couple spliced panoramas showing our full view from the landing site.




So, if given an opportunity to walk on a glacier……would you do it?


Up next: Juneau Part 2 (City Highlights)


In some of the photos above, you might notice me wearing a trench coat. That’s my travel cold/chilly/wet weather staple, SCOTTeVEST Women’s Trench Coat – 18 Pockets – Travel Clothing BLK M, that I always take abroad. My trench(es) have been all over the United States, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. I have it in black, mist (light grey), and my mother has it in sage. We LOVE them. For more information on these trench coats, visit SCOTTeVest’s website.