In May 2018, we went on our first cruise. It was an Alaskan cruise and the first stop was Juneau, Alaska’s Capital. The excursions were pretty expensive, so we decided to take a self-guided walking tour. In other words, we went for a hike. We decided to try the West Glacier Trail and we were not disappointed. The trail took us right up to Mendenhall Glacier, unlike the trails from the glacier visitor center, which just takes you to a view point.
It was raining when our ship docked in Juneau at 1 p.m. I was a bit worried that we wouldn’t have enough time to complete the trail since we had to be back at the ship by 8 p.m. My All Trails App rated the hike as ‘moderate’, with a distance of 10 km. round trip. It was our first time ever hiking in the Alaskan back country so I had no idea what to expect.
We asked for some trail information at the port’s visitor center. They told us that there was no snow on the trail but there might be bears and that the best way to get to the trailhead was by taxi. The taxi ride was 20-30 min. long and cost us $36 U.S. The driver told us to keep an eye out for the ribbons that marked the trail. A couple of weeks ago, he had some tourists that were lost on the trail for 8 hrs. On that note, he wished us good luck and drove away.
With our bear bells on, we started into the forest. The path was flat and muddy from the rain. We crossed a couple of bridges past some rushing water. The trail started to climb uphill, lucky for us there were some metal railings. Then we came onto a fork on the road. One path led us close to the water, it had a sign marking the Ice Limit in 1942. The other took us further into the forest.
We decided to head into the forest. The All Trails App described the trail as a loop, so we could come around the other way on the way back. We hiked on, slowly we lost the easy dirt path to mud and rocks. We weaved in and out of the forest through some large boulders and finally we got our first view of the Mendenhall glacier.
The pink and orange ribbons started to appear, helping us find the path. They were absent in the beginning of the trail where the path was more obvious. It was like an Easter egg hunt. I was always relieved when I saw the next ribbon.
Finally we passed the tree line and the dirt path turned into gravel and rocks. We turned a corner and the view opened up to a mind blowing landscape. Mendenhall glacier dominated the scenery, surrounded by mountains and forests in the background. We hiked/slid down the steep unstable ground, eager to touch the glacier.
It was treacherous, not even the ribbons could find us a safe path down. But we finally made it to the bottom and we ate our sandwiches before exploring the glacier. We could see the tour groups, walking on the glacier. I wanted to take the tour so badly, but the price tag of $300-$500 U.S per person was a little steep. The West Glacier Trail was a good substitute.
We crossed the water running off the glacier, and walked right up to the massive chunk of ancient ice. All the ice caves had melted, so we just explored the edges of the glacier. It’s hard to explain the scale of the glacier. It was so big and the scenery around it is just as massive. I could only really grasp its scale when I see how small the tour groups look on it’s icy blue surface.
After half an hour of walking around the glacier and touching its cold surface, we decided to head back. I didn’t want to back track up the steep rocky hill, so we decided to try the loop. There were ribbons leading us along the edge of the lake. We were also helped by signs that marked the ice limit by year.
This part of the path had more slippery rock surfaces and shrubbery. I slipped once and hit my knee, proving that rocks are really hard. We relied heavily on the ribbons to guide us. We followed it even when it led us up some steep and slippery boulders. Finally we reached the first fork in the road that marked the ice limit in 1942.
I sighed sweet relief and we called for a taxi knowing that we would be done our first Alaskan hike in approximately 20 min. What an amazing experience. We started our hike around 2 p.m. and finished by 6 p.m. At 6:30 we were back at the port. We had sometime to walk around the town. But we were pretty satisfied with our experience on the West Glacier Trail. Nothing else we would buy in town could top it and that’s all I have to say about that.
West Glacier Trail – Tips
- make sure to ask the visitor center for some trail information. It’s always good to know what trail conditions are like before heading out.
- if you’re coming off the cruise ship, taking a taxi to the trailhead is the fastest option. Taxi #907-586-1111
- we saw plenty of locals hiking the trail but we had on bear bells just in case
- bring plenty of water and snacks, we had 3 litres of water to share between the two of us
- hiking poles are a good idea for the steep downhill
- there is a bathroom/outhouse in the beginning of the trail. bring hand sanitizer.
- download All Trails App or have a GPS.