There’s an easy way to do things and a hard way. When it comes to visiting Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier on an Alaska cruise, the easiest option is to take the shore excursion offered by the ship. But where’s the fun in that? For those of us who like to explore on our own and save money, there are other options worth considering. On a recent visit to Juneau, my husband and I decided to go with the least costly option – taking the public bus to Mendenhall Glacier. It turned out to be a great adventure.
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Related: Check out our post about things to do in Ketchikan, Alaska
About the Mendenhall Glacier
The Mendenhall Glacier is the top natural attraction in Juneau, Alaska. The 13-mile-long glacier is part of the Juneau Icefield and is located inside Tongass National Forest. The Mendenhall Glacier is an incredible site to see. It ends at Mendenhall Lake and you can watch it calve into the lake and see mini-icebergs floating in the water. A number of trails and viewpoints can be found around the glacier including one that takes you close to the toe of the glacier and the base of Nugget Falls. There’s also the possibly to see wildlife along the way – mountain goats, beavers, bears and salmon – depending on the season. The Juneau icefield measures 1,500 square miles and is an incredible remnant of the last ice age.
Getting to the Mendenhall Glacier
The Mendenhall Glacier is 12 miles outside of Juneau and there are several options for getting there if you are traveling by cruise ship. A taxi will cost about $35 one-way or if you plan ahead, you could rent a car for a single day. The Mendenhall Glacier Shuttle bus to Mendenhall Glacier is a convenient option near the cruise port that costs $45 per adult return. The least expensive option is to take the public bus to Mendenhall Glacier.
How to Take the Public Bus to Mendenhall Glacier
The public transit bus costs $2 per person, but you will have to do some walking. The bus leaves from the downtown transit center, which was about a half-mile from where our ship docked. The dropoff/pickup point for the Mendenhall Glacier is at the “corner” of Mendenhall Loop Road and Glacier Spur Road, which is about 1.2 miles from the glacier visitor center. There is a nice paved path that runs alongside the road from the bus stop to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. Make sure you have plenty of $1 bills, because you need exact change to take the bus to Mendenhall Glacier. Check the transit schedule here.
Recommended Things to Bring for the Bus to Mendenhall Glacier
If you plan to hike some of the trails around Mendenhall Glacier and especially if you are taking the public bus to Mendenhall Glacier, you’re going to need some things. You’ll be doing some walking. Make sure you bring a lightweight day pack to hold water, snacks, a rain jacket and sunglasses. We like the one below, because it weighs almost nothing, is inexpensive and it can be folded into a tiny square to go in a suitcase for traveling.
Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center
Entrance to the visitor center will cost $5 per person. There’s a nice view of the glacier’s face and the lake, a large aerial map of the glacier, an informational video and spotting scopes that let you get close up views of the glacier.
Trails to Get Closer to the Glacier
There are 5 trails to explore near Mendenhall Glacier. Here’s a link to the official brochure with detailed information on the site and each of the trails. We did the short hike to Photo Point (15 minutes return) and then continued on to do the Nugget Falls hike (1 hour return) and we highly recommend both hikes. There were great photo ops on both trails and it was wonderful to stand at the base of Nugget Falls and get close up to the toe of the Mendenhall Glacier. We also did the 30-minute Trail of Time hike. The trails were all in excellent shape and we loved the time we spent exploring the area around Mendenhall Glacier.
The Return Trip
To be honest, after all the hiking to get to the Mendenhall Glacier and then walking on the trails around the site, we didn’t feel much like hiking 1.2 miles back to the bus stop and another half mile from the central transit station back to the cruise ship. We could have called for a taxi at that point, but we would have been waiting around for the cab to come. We decided the extra walking would be good for us and started walking back to the bus stop. Tip: The return bus picks up at the bus stop across the street from where you are dropped off.
What We Saw on the Way Back to the Bus Stop!
As we walked along, a mother bear and her two cubs crossed the path and roadway not far in front of us. On the one hand, we were a little nervous to be on foot with a bear nearby. On the other hand, the bear paid absolutely no attention to us and was eager to get on her way. It was amazing to see a bear in Alaska. Tip: It’s a good idea to make lots of noise while you’re walking along the trails near Mendenhall Glacier. That way bears will hear you and take a wide berth. You don’t want to surprise a bear.
Summary – Taking the Public Bus to Mendenhall Glacier
The weather was fantastic on the day we stopped in Juneau and we enjoyed all the walking we did both to get to the glacier and to hike the trails at the site. All that exercise helped us manage our weight (there’s a lot of wonderful food to enjoy on a cruise). For active travelers, we recommend taking the public bus to the Mendenhall Glacier. If the weather is poor or you don’t want to walk quite as much as we did, we’d recommend taking the shuttle bus to the Mendenhall Glacier. It’s a short walk from the dock and takes you directly to the Visitor Center. Either way, you won’t regret seeing the Mendenhall Glacier. It is absolutely amazing.