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On the Tongass National Forest: An Alaskan adventure part two

An official U.S. Forest Service sign welcomes visitors to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
An official U.S. Forest Service sign welcomes visitors to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
Photo by Karen Sweeny-Justice

The Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska, an area of 16.9 million acres, is the largest national forest in the United States. The Tongass is also part of the largest contiguous temperate rain forest in the world. While most of the forest is accessible only by air or water, the Tongass surrounds communities like Juneau, Sitka and Skagway that are stopping points for cruise ships. In Juneau, shore excursions available through tour operators include stops on the Tongass at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.

The Mendenhall Glacier on the Tongass National Forest
Photo by Karen Sweeny-Justice

The Mendenall Glacier is accessible by road, making it an often crowded destination when tour ships dock in downtown Juneau. Listen to your tour guide when he or she announces how much time is allotted for the stop, as time is tight and late comers may risk missing their ride back to the cruise ship dock.

Mendenhall Glacier attracts over 400,000 visitors annually, and while the visitor center is a great starting point for information, the glacier itself draws visitors with cameras, phones and tablets all hoping for a fantastic photo opportunity. The glacier got its start some 3,000 years ago during a period known as the Little Ice Age. Since the Little Ice Age ended, Mendenhall Glacier has been retreating, and – perhaps due to global warming – the glacier itself is pulling out of Mendenhall Lake.

As part of a teleconference at a retreat held July 29, 2014, Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center Director John Neary noted that the retreat of the glacier appears to have sped up and he expects to see icebergs disappear from Mendenhall Lake in a few years.

It is the color of the glacier that both excites and surprises first time visitors. Multiple shades of blue, whites and grays combine to create a visual effect that is stunning and almost other-worldly. Follow the Trail of Time, a short half mile walk with an elevation gain of just 50 feet that crosses Steep Creek two times, and you’ll wind up on the shore of Mendenhall Lake opposite the glacier. Along the way, you’ll see outcroppings of lichens, mosses and ferns and trees that include Sitka spruce and western hemlocks. To your right as you’re viewing the glacier from the Trail of Time, you’ll see Nugget Falls cascading into Mendenhall Lake. Depending on how much time your tour has at Mendenhall Glacier, you may be able to walk the lakeshore trail to the base of Nugget Falls.

Keep an eye out for bears. Black bears return to Steep Creek in the summer to eat salmon as well as berries along the trail. Never get between a cub and its mother, and make noise if you come across a bear. Because bears are active during Alaska’s summer cruise season, no food or flavored beverages are allowed at the visitor center complex and trails.

The visitor center is located on the side of a steep hill and is handicap accessible through elevators at the base. Originally constructed in 1962, the building was remodeled by the U.S. Forest Service in 1999. A large observation window offers fantastic views of the area. Rangers and volunteers are on hand to present programs and answer visitor questions. Many of the exhibits are interactive; be sure to touch the slab of ice that is over 200 years old.

The bookstore, operated by Alaska Geographic, sells souvenirs, books and artwork.