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One of the must-visit destinations of the century is Mendenhall Lake in Alaska's Inside Passage Region. It may be important to visit the lake this century as it likely won't exist forever. The glacier-fed lake formed sometime after 1930 when nearby Mendenhall Glacier receded, exposing a deeply-scoured valley in its wake. Melt water from the glacier filled the valley to depths approaching 220 feet. The young lake now supports a variety of cold-water fish and a growing number of visitors to its scenic shores. The Mendenhall Glacier towers above the lake between peaks reaching 7,000 feet. Although there are no official figures for the lake's size, it covers a few hundred acres, and excess water flows out to form the Mendenhall River.
Entirely within the 5,815-acre Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, which is a part of the nearly 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest, Mendenhall Lake is easy to reach as it is only about 12 miles from the City of Juneau. The lake is a favored stop for cruise ships sailing the Inside Passage, and a visitor's center greets the many tourists who arrive each year. Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center serves a large portion of the Tongass National Forest, showcasing the wildlife and unique ecology of the region. Interpretive programs, outstanding views of the Mendenhall Glacier, and information on the wildlife inhabiting the region are provided. Here, the entire spectrum of natural and geological features located within the National Forest are shown in exhibits, including the rain forests, mountains, waterways, glaciers, muskegs and thousands of islands located within the protected area. The forest contains over 400 species of birds, animals, fish and shellfish, each inhabiting their own niche within the environment. Both the bald eagle and the brown bear, although endangered elsewhere, thrive in the Tongass National Forest.
Fishing is permitted in Mendenhall Lake with the proper licenses. The lake supports coho salmon, pink salmon, chum salmon, cutthroat trout and rainbow trout. Several of the outfitters who arrange tours and fishing trips into the national forest have information on fishing Mendenhall Lake. Some of these same outfitters and tour guides also provide boat trips and helicopter tours of the glacier, along with fishing the many freshwater streams in the area. A full-service campground suitable for tents, trailers and RVs is located near the Visitors Center, but is small and extremely popular. Reservations are necessary as this makes a great base from which to hike the many trails in the area. As with nearly everywhere in Alaska, precautions with food must be taken to avoid problems with bears. Other camping opportunities and even cabin accommodations are available elsewhere in the Tongass National Forest. Information on locations may be obtained from the nearest Ranger Station or the Forest Service website.
From the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center parking lot, several hiking trails reach out into the surrounding forest. Steep Creek Trail and Photo Point Trail are both accessible and easy to traverse, with raised boardwalks over creeks and opportunities to observe salmon and bears. East Glacier Loop Trail takes visitors to within half a mile of the glacier. The newly-renovated Trail of Time, which connects to the East Glacier Loop, is now handicapped accessible and has new historical signs. Recently completed, the new .8-mile Nugget Falls Trail allows hikers to view spectacular Nugget Falls-also known as Mendenhall Falls. The new trail is located above the high-water line year round. West Glacier Trail offers the added attraction of being able to view ice caves under the glacier itself.
Nugget Falls features melt water cascading over two drops, a stunning 377 feet to the lake below. Several other streams fed by melt water also enter the lake. Mendenhall Glacier is a young glacier, and has been melting since the end of the Little Ice Age about 1700 AD. Most ice that has been tested is less than 150 years old. The glacier gains about two feet of ice most years, but is receding about 25 feet at the same time. Change is a fact of nature with Mendenhall Glacier, and sometimes its natural processes can play havoc on the area surrounding the lake. Because several small lakes atop the glacier contain liquid water during the summer months, it is possible for one of them to grow large enough to break free of its surrounding ice dam and cascade into Mendenhall Lake. A recent flooding event created this way in 2011 caused major flooding of the area surrounding the lake and along the Mendenhall River. Observers continually watch for any such danger to become a threat, and park rangers will advise visitors when it is not safe to go into certain areas.
Most visitors who come to Mendenhall Lake arrive at Juneau by boat. Juneau, the capital of Alaska, is a tourism destination that can keep visitors entertained for several days just exploring the history and culture of this historic fishing and gold mining city. Those arriving via boat will no doubt see at the docks the statue of Patsy Ann, the deaf bull terrier that greeted every ship arriving at the wharf from 1929 to 1942. Although deaf from birth, Patsy Ann always knew when a ship was to arrive and would make her way to the docks to greet the crew. So famous and beloved a fixture of Juneau, locals claimed she'd had her picture taken more times than RinTinTin. Such are the local 'characters' for which Juneau quickly became known soon after its formation during the Alaskan Gold Rush. A city built on gold mining, Juneau now thrives as a tourism hub. Whale watching cruises, salmon fishing excursions, island-hopping trips, tours by air of the surrounding mountains, and trips into the nearby national forest all originate here.
A thoroughly modern city, Juneau offers a wealth of lodgings to suit every visitor. Many hotels, guest cabins, bed & breakfasts, motels and resort lodges can be found here. The city itself has lots of nightlife and several museums to highlight Alaskan and Juneau history. The Alaska State Museum is closed until 2016 as it is in the process of being moved to new quarters. But the Juneau-Douglas City Museum is only a short walk from the waterfront and offers exhibits of Alaska's mining industry and its history, the lives of pioneer settlers along the Gastineau Channel, and relief maps of the surrounding area. The Last Chance Mining Museum a few minutes away is a hands-on history of one of the last gold mining operations in the area. When the mine closed in 1944, it was the world's most advanced gold mining operation and contains the machinery, tools and structures of the original mine. Displays of antiques, minerals and a huge depiction of the mine's infrastructure and shafts expose the above-ground guest to what lies beneath their feet.
Falling in love with the area around Mendenhall Lake is easy. Finding a place to call your own in the immediate area may be a bit harder. Real estate is sometimes available in the city and its suburbs, but much of the area outside of the city is protected as national forest lands. There is no housing other than the campground at Mendenhall Lake. However, the lake is close to Juneau, so city dweller have easy access to the wilderness. So, plan your trip now: pour over the tour brochures and select favored activities and must-see sights. This is one bucket-list item that must not be missed.
*Few statistics are available for Mendenhall Lake.
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