We’ve launched our podcast Cruising in Alaska. On this first episode we talked to John Neary, who works for the U.S. Forest Service and is the director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
He’s been in Juneau for 36 years, but spent 30 of those years working in the back country.
“I really got a nice taste of what Alaska has to offer,” he said.
Part of his job is to accommodate about half a million people that visit the glacier each year, with just 20 parking spaces!
“If it weren’t for our tour operators who use buses to bring people out it would be like Yellowstone National Park, just one constant traffic jam,” he said. “I think I saw more people on one day in the glacier than 30 years in the backcountry.”
The best part about seeing the Mendenhall Glacier is that it’s pretty rare to get a mega ship right up to the ice. Most things on a cruise ship you’re getting the seventh floor view a few miles out. Which is a wonderful way to see the Tongass, but it’s better to see the glacier close up to be able to get a sense of how the glacier fits into the landscape.
“Here you have a chance to feel the wind coming off it and the sounds that are coming around you,” Neary said. “You’re going to get the full experience.”
Here are some insider tips from the director for visiting the glacier:
Don’t eat your sandwich right in front of a bear
It sounds obvious, but for some people it’s not. These are real animals, and that means there is real danger involved. Mid-July and end of August have the best chances of seeing a black bear, because the salmon are in the streams, Neary said.
It always looks a little different
“I live a mile away and still every time I go I take a picture because it looks a little different every time,” said Serene Hutchinson from Juneau Tours. Neary agreed and said in the low light you get to say every texture of the glacier.
The glacier is receding
“This is a glacier that melts more than it calves,” Neary said. “The glacier is just kind of deflating more than moving backwards up the valley. It isn’t as dramatic as the collapse of the glacier. That means it might not be so obvious when you visit the glacier that it’s getting smaller, but gradual melt contributes significantly to the recession of the glacier.”
You might not have the time or the resources to go to the ice cave
The glacier has receded completely out of the valley where the original internet famous cave was. Neary said the stream that came off the mountain that formed the cave can never form the cave again. Those ice caves were really popular, but it might be hard to get on the glacier if you’re a cruise passenger unless you do a helicopter tour.
Groups of five to eight people are best
It can get crowded on certain days at the glacier. Smaller groups work best for navigating around the site. If you want to avoid the crowds, stay away from coming on a Monday or Tuesday, because those days are the most crowded.
Consider alternate trails besides Nugget Falls
Nugget Falls is the most popular trail in the Tongass National Forest. Timing matters. It takes about an hour and half for the average person to walk leisurely on the trail. Steep Creek trail is the best option for seeing bears since it goes along the salmon run. The Trail of Time is another good trail since it has a lush rainforest floor. East Glacier trail is good for people who want a bit more of a challenge. This trail takes two to three hours depending on fitness level.
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