Tag Archives: Glacier Lake

Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail: A Hiker’s Promised Land

Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail in Inyo National Forest, California has it all: from spectacular views of 14+ lakes, 14,000 ft. mountain peaks, and access to the southernmost glacier in the United States and the largest in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Palisade Glacier.  There are flowing rivers and waterfalls, rocky switchbacks, Golden Trout, Jeffrey and Lodgepole pines, Aspens, a gorgeous rock cabin built by Lon Chaney Sr. and glacier-fed lakes.  This trail is truly a nature lover’s paradise.

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Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail by Julia at XplorMor

John Muir once said, “The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.”  Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail gives life to these words.  From the moment your car leaves the 395 at Big Pine, California and heads into Big Pine Canyon, it’s clear another world awaits; the further into the canyon, the clearer the vision.  The road ends at the parking area for Inyo National Forest, and the trail head for accessing Big Pine Creek North and South Fork trails.

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Second Lake in Inyo National Forest by Julia at XplorMor

The trail is well-defined throughout its about 19 miles, except one mile in from starting at the Glacier Lodge trail head where signage is missing (Read more on Finding the Trail).  As the trail winds up Big Pine Canyon glimpses of a possible destination, Palisade Glacier, are seen through the trees and past the overlooks.  The trail to the glacier gains more than 4,000 feet in elevation with intervals of steep narrow rocky switchbacks and sharp drop-offs, yet the destination beckons an enticement of wonder and untouched natural landscape.  Many hikers do not reach Palisade Glacier as it requires extensive hiking and possibly an overnight stay in this rugged wilderness.  Regardless of whether the hiker follows the loop past seven lakes on a day excursion or ventures further overnight to the glacier, the scenery will not disappoint in this hiker’s promised land.

View slide shows and read more about Big Pine Creek North Fork Trail and Inyo National Forest.

Amazing Hike to Mendenhall Glacier

I recently heard a movie quote that made me think of this trek to Mendenhall Glacier. It was two pirates speaking about drinking from the cup of life, and how the opportunity was turned down. The first pirate said, “You could have lived for ever.” And the response he received: “But better to not know which moment may be your last… every morsel of your entire being alive to the infinite mystery of it all.  I have no say in it… Savvy?” I couldn’t agree more. The not knowing pushes you toward living and getting out there; a trek to Mendenhall epitomizes this sentiment.

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Trekking Mendenhall West Glacier Trail by Julia at XplorMor

After my solo experience in the ice cave on Mendenhall Lake and Glacier in the winter, I felt it best to make this trip with a professional and with the proper gear to better make sure my safety. I couldn’t have been more correct! Going with Above and Beyond Alaska proved well worth the fee as I was supplied with necessary equipment and a knowledgeable guide named Dawn, who not only provided insights on the terrain and its history but proved a great companion for the duration.

This is a quintessential Alaskan trail for viewing mountains, glaciers, lake vistas and waterfalls, but the trail is not for the faint of heart. It consists of rocky terrain off the beaten path and is mainly accessible during temperate weather between April and September. It is about 8 miles in length round trip, and is a moderate to difficult hike. There are rope climbs on stone outcroppings, narrow switchbacks, stone staircases, and slippery paths through creeks that pass steep drop-offs.

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Spectacular Views by Julia at XplorMor

The trail begins with an easy walk on a well-maintained path through Tongass National Forest surrounding Mendenhall Lake – a beautiful, lush Alaskan rain forest.  About a mile in, the trail starts to climb offering exceptional lookout points with expansive views of Mendenhall Lake, Valley, Glacier and Visitor Center.  Then towards the second mile marker, the trail crosses a rocky area with a flowing stream that falls into a beautiful waterfall and crystal clear pool.  Here the survey tapes and cairn markers are very visible as the foliage has not yet regrown to obscure the barren rocky landscape.  There is one metal disc marker dated “1951” that stood out on the trek.  This is where the glacier reached in that year, a good mile from where it is now; it has receded since the 1700s but the annual amount has increased in the past 50 years.

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Mendenhall Glacier by Julia at XplorMor

Once at the glacier, it is important to be properly prepared with the right gear such as cramp-ons, ice-axe, harness, helmet and gloves in order to continue the trek on the ice. With this equipment, it may be possible to climb onto the glacier however other factors like the climate also limit its accessibility.  The glacier and its ice caves change with the weather; if the temperature rises, the ice thaws and drips, wearing away at the glacier mass and its stability. Additionally, it must be clear that any activities around the glacier may be extremely hazardous and should be taken at one’s own risk. I would never recommend to go into or too close to an ice cave, since they are very slippery, lead to the unknown, and may collapse without any warning. I would also not suggest walking on the glacier or into its caves or crevasses unless you are with someone familiar with glacier trekking such as a professional guide.

And, on a rare, wonderful occasion Mendenhall Glacier may offer an opportunity to discover and access an ice cave – one of Mother Nature’s temples.  Let the blue guide you into the mystery, but stay aware of your surroundings as danger is ever present in an impermanent world.

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Ice Cave Entrance by Julia at XplorMor

The smoothness of the ice is amazing. I love to run my hands on the surface, even rest my cheek, feeling the curves, the cold and the sleek wonder. It’s utterly breathtaking, and for me overwhelming – I actually tear from the giddy, overpowering excitement. I sat on a rock in the middle of the stream, legs crossed, hands in my lap, eyes as wide as a child’s when seeing Santa. I enjoyed listening to the water flow, gazing, mesmerized by the neon blue glow.  Pure AWE.  This is my sanctuary.

For more information and photos from the XplorMor Expedition visit Mendenhall West Glacier Trail, and Tongass National Forest for current general information.

Mendenhall Glacier Trek and Mother Nature’s Sculptures

I’m going to lead into the Mendenhall Glacier Trek with a hefty warning, as the sign at the trail head reads: “Use at your own risk.”

This is relatively the case for any location, but out on the ice, near a calving glacier, it is especially true. I proceeded at my own risk, determining that for me the risk outweighed the reward; the reward being an incredible venture out to an incredible natural wonder. I will also say that for my next attempt, I will go with a guide from Above and Beyond Alaska so I have the proper equipment and knowledge to proceed more safely.

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Mendenhall Lake with a powdery white Winter blanket

This trek to Mendenhall Glacier actually happened in Winter 2012. I’m letting you know as Mendenhall Lake and Mendenhall Glacier will not be the same when you choose to hazard out.  With the changing seasons, the ice has melted and reformed and melted again… leaving a different landscape. Who knows… it may be even more spectacular the next season.

Mendenhall Lake freezes during the winter months, providing a seemingly more direct access to the glacier than the trails circumventing the lake and mountains. It is not as quick as it looks though; I expected a short jaunt out, but it took about two hours trudging through the snow, sometimes sinking in the powdery surface. Keep in mind this distance will only increase as the glacier recedes.  Snow shoes and water/snack probably would have been a good call, but we were ill prepared as it was not our intention to trek the lake. We had only driven to the Mendenhall Visitor Center area to take in the view, but the brilliant blue sky and sparkling white ground begged otherwise. As we looked out across the lake, people could be seen in the distance walking in either direction, not many but enough for us to feel we could do it too.

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Ice sheet thins in the warm weather

I had never been so close to a glacier.  The size was infinitely more than I even imagined. I kept referring to the icebergs as “Mother Nature’s Sculptures to Behold”. It was incredible to see them frozen in place in the snowy crust of Mendenhall Lake. We had watched them break off the glacier and float in the lake only months earlier. Now we were able to walk up and gaze into their spectrum of blues. The colors and hues did not seem real; they were as though a giant painter had come and spread her canvas out before us.

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See the people in the photo? These are giant shards of ice!

Then I reached the ice caves. I had seen glacier caves on the NatGeo TV channel and in the magazine, but never dreamed I would enter one in person. The ice formations are other-worldly and all shades of blue from palest light to deepest dark. Spectacular color! There was something in this experience of “getting out there” that altered me… I was exhilarated, enthralled and excited. In this sensory overload I realized my explorations of the planet would need to continue in order to feed a new addiction. Thanks Mendenhall!

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Bluce Ice Cave in Mendenhall Glacier

For more on accessing Mendenhall Glacier and being aware of the safety issues read “Allure of Mendenhall Glacier Masks the Dangers of its Face”, written by Klas Stolpe for  the Juneau Empire.

Click to read more information and view further photos from the XplorMor Expedition to Mendenhall Glacier.