After reading many forums and blogs, I’ve came to the conclusion that the Mendenhall Ice Caves has collapsed. At least that’s what I read anyway. I did some extensive research, but found very little information on how to get there. I cross referenced a few yelp reviews along with several maps, and decided that we were going to find out for ourselves. It has been said that the cave is constantly moving, since it is a part of the glacier. We had 2 options: either pay $1,600 for a guided tour (for 2 people), or take the do-it-yourself kind of adventure. I figured that if a company were offering guided tours, than some caves surely still exists. Otherwise, how do they justify charging $800? So, of course, I opted for exploring on our own.
I must first warn you that this is not considered as “light scrambling” as some have suggested. For avid hikers, like myself, I would certainly reconsider the word “light” and change that to moderate scrambling instead. Although it may have only felt that way, due to the constant rain, the slippery moss and the unmarked terrain was what made this hike difficult. This trail is only about 8 miles round trip, but navigational skills and some climbing experience is recommended. This hike may seem easy at first, but don’t let that fool you. The last section of this hike is definitely the hardest. Looking for cairns and neon ribbons are the key to finding the correct path.
Start off by parking your car at the end of Skater’s Cabin Road. This is the start of the West Glacier Trail head. You’ll be hiking through lush green, mossy landscapes, and will cross several bridges. Keep your eyes open along the river. If you’re lucky, you’ll see some salmon swimming their way upstream. We were fortunate enough to spot some salmon, and ended up trying to catch some with our bare hands. Let’s just say that the hand fishing was unsuccessful. Continue along the paved trail and you will pass a short section with hand cables. Keep following this trail until you’ve reached your first viewpoint. There will be a sign pointing towards a ‘view point’ on the right. Going straight will continue to the West Glacier Trail. The West Glacier Trail will only lead you up along side of the mountain. Avoid this trail at all cost. Once you’re up there, the descend towards the glacier is too steep to attempt.
Once you’ve made a right toward the first viewpoint, there will be a covered bench area. This is about 2.5 miles from the beginning of the trail head. When you’re sitting on the bench, look to your left, behind the trees. There should be an unmarked trail. This trail is known as the West Spur Glacier Trail. The first sections of this trail is easy to follow. As you continue, you will notice that the trail starts to fork in different directions. Notice the neon ribbons. Whichever side the ribbons are tied to, is the fork you’ll want to take. Once you’ve reached the end of the lush greenery section, the area begins to open up. You almost feel like you’re taking a U-turn, heading in the same direction you came from veering towards the left. This is the correct way. Continue on, while looking for the sign that asks you to stay away from the terns, gulls, and shorebirds that nest near the Mendenhall Lake. From here, keep following the cairns and ribbons and you will soon notice a big rock in front of you. When I say rock, it’s more like a mountain. You must navigate around the puddles of water and cross over the saddle. The glacier is just on the other side of that rock. This section is the most difficult part of the entire hike. When you’re looking at the mountain, there is a gully down the middle. Stay to the right of the gully. Do not take the section where you see running water dripping down the mountain. The moss here is extremely slippery, stick to the right side. You’ll know the perfect section to ascend when you see the steep staircase-like section on the rock wall. When you reach the top, it’s only a couple hundred feet before you see the glacier right in front of you.
Before you start heading down to the glacier, please take notice of your surroundings and the giant pile of cairn. This is your reference point for coming back. Because all the saddles along this rock wall look very similar on the opposite side, you’ll want to make sure that you’re crossing the saddle at the right point to be able to get back to the trail head. There is no right path on getting there. Just make sure that you get there safely. If it looks too steep, find an alternative route and go around. You’ll eventually get to the bottom, and once you do, you’ll want to cross over to the opposite side of the stream. The stream from the glacier runs into the Mendenhall Lake, so be careful crossing. We found a log lodged across the stream. Make sure to check for stability before you cross using the log. This is the last little hump before you arrive to these beautiful blue ice caves.
A word of Caution: If you’re going to attempt this on your own, please be prepared. I recommend crampons, gaiters, and ice trekking poles or a pick axe. Waterproof boots are a must, and make sure to bring some snow gloves. If you plan on hiking on top of the glacier, avoid walking across sections where you see giant cracks or melted ice. These are extremely dangerous sections and the glacier may collapse from underneath you, causing a fatal death. Please look out for crevices along the glacier. You don’t want to fall between one and get stuck. If you plan on hiking inside one of the caves, hiking under the glacier is just as dangerous as hiking on top. Again, if it’s melting or cracked, get out immediately. The glacier can fall at anytime either trapping you inside or crushing you to death. If you hear a cracking thunder-like sound, it means that a giant piece of ice is going to fall off the glacier. Again, get off and get out immediately.