Juneau's Epic and Intimate Alaskan Landscapes

Southeast Alaska resides in a temperate rain-forest region of North America. While most associate Alaska with ice fields, glaciers and snowy scenes, Juneau and the surrounding area host a much milder climate by Alaskan standards, including an average of 230 days of rain. It's a hiker's playground with lush green forests, flanked by rugged snowcapped mountains and distant glaciers.

Mendenhall Glacier and Ice Caves

No trip to Juneau would be complete without a visit to one of Alaska's easiest accessed glaciers, albeit this is changing quite rapidly due to the exponentially increasing rate of retreat of the glacier.  While the glacier itself can be seen from the visitor center to get up close you can either hike or kayak. I chose the hiking option with the best access to the glacier and ice caves via the West Glacier Trail.

The West Glacier Trail starts in on the western side of Mendenhall Lake in dense rainforest, and provides a unique glimpse of a post glacial environment. Markers along the way show how much the glacier is retreating and its locations in the past. The trail starts off gently through the lush rainforest - and most probably in the company of light to heavy rain. Investing in good rain gear here will ensure a happy hiker.

Thick carpets of moss line the forest floor.

As the trail continues, you'll notice the forest changing from older growth, dense canopy to newer thinner forest. It also becomes more rugged snaking over glacial striated bedrock to a peninsula which provides a stunning view back over the forest and Mendenhall Lake.

The last mile or so of the hike becomes extremely rocky and more barren, the ever imposing glacier becoming larger in your field of view.

A commanding view of the glacier from a rocky shelf.

Hidden from view just to the west side of the glacier lies quite an unassuming entrance under the glacier. It's here where fair warning should be given: anyone adventuring under and into the glacial ice-caves carries risk of collapse. These caves are highly dynamic, they do and will collapse as the glacier melts and recedes. The caves themselves are formed by an underlying stream and are constantly in flux.

Dense glacial ice filters all but blue wavelengths creating an eerie world.

Inside the caves is nothing short of extraordinary, it's a staggeringly beautiful world under the glacier, with deep blue hues formed by light filtering through the dense glacial ice. 

Mist, flowing water and melting ice all combine to form a highly dynamic environment.

Passing through the cave allows access on top of the glacier, crampons are an absolute necessity and allow you to traverse this epic landscape.

The only way to return is via the same way you ventured to the glacier, but the hike itself, caves and glacier traversing is very much worth the effort and is highly recommended should you get the opportunity.

Temperate Forests

Juneau and the region host an impressive amount of rainfall averaging 60 inches and up to 90 inches in some areas. Due to the rugged nature of the landscape, it also covers a number of varied micro-climates, meaning lush greenery and a range of forest types.


Juneau's Eagle River region - formed from the long ago retreat of the Eagle Glacier, is a stunning lush landscape with dense forests complete with thick moss covered trees. Abundant ferns forming verdant green undergrowth. 

Abundant coastal forests line the waterways here, with a serene beauty and yet again varied lush vegetation.


Wandering through the forests here is truly magical, with an atmosphere like no other. Even better thanks to Juneau's isolation, there's a good chance you'll have these amazing forests to yourself. Alaska as always amazes and inspires with its rugged and dramatic beauty.

Published: July 6, 2017

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Adrien PatanéExplorer

Denver

Hiker | Photographer | Explorer