The Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska

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The Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska

The Mendenhall Glacier is one of the many glaciers flowing off of the majestic Juneau Ice Field—a dramatic, 1,500-square-mile expanse of glaciated ice and rugged mountain peaks located in the southeastern panhandle of Alaska.

A well-established visitor’s center is just 13 road miles from downtown Juneau, and it shouldn’t be missed. Built in 1962 on a prominent rock outcropping, it’s an outstanding interpretation center for glacier dynamics and history, and it provides excellent photo opportunities of the terminus of the glacier.

There’s a saying here, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.” What can be a pleasant summer day with temperatures in the 70s can change to a chilly 45 degrees and rain in a very short time. The spring and early summer months are generally the driest and provide the highest chance of clear weather, but that doesn’t always make for the best images. When autumn clouds and mist swirl in and around the glacier and surrounding evergreen forests, the conditions are ideal for stunning black-and-white work.

Bring rain gear, waterproof shoes and bear repellent if you plan on hitting the trails. This is bear country, and southeastern Alaska happens to be a mid-latitude rain forest. It’s a good idea to invest in a waterproof cover or shroud. Winter travelers should be prepared for harsh, bitterly cold conditions. But when the sun breaks out on a cold January morning, with the lake frozen over and deep, untouched snow blanketing the ground, this place is a photographer’s dream.

Photo Experience
The best way to photograph the ice field and its glaciers is by air. Several local companies provide daily flights up and over the glacier, with the helicopter flights actually landing on the glaciers, allowing for some extended photo time. The scenes you’ll see here are so vast that you’ll need a wide-angle lens. A polarizer is a must because the ice gives off a lot of scattered light, plus it will enhance your photos immensely. It also can be used during flight to cut the reflections on the inside of windows.

With so many different kinds of wild animals, don’t forget your telephoto zoom. Mountain goats and marmots are often seen on the trails and cliffs above the glacier and in the streams below, which see salmon and black bears from midsummer on. The U.S. Forest Service has developed an elevated platform, which provides excellent viewing of the bears with relative safety. Bald eagles are common here and can be seen flying around with a multitude of other birds. On rare occasions, brown bears and wolves can also be found.

Best Times
Early spring traditionally brings the nicest weather, although one drawback is that the glacier is still covered with the previous winter’s snow, and the deep blues that illuminate from the ice are subdued. The snows are usually gone by the end of June, when the Mendenhall’s true colors can be captured. The cooler temperatures in fall bring the colors of the lichen and grasses in the alpine, giving the high mountains a surreal look. And during the winter months, the lake freezes over and snow blankets the landscape, providing postcard-quality photos in every direction.

Contact: Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center,

Essential Gear…
Alaska is known as the Serengeti of the North. When photographing native wildlife, an extreme telephoto zoom is indispensable for capturing dramatic, up-close action. Lenses like the Tamron AF200-500mm ƒ/5-6.3 Di LD (IF) feature a broad telephoto range in a relatively lightweight package. This designed-for-digital lens coupled to a camera with an APS-C-sized sensor zooms out to a whopping 760mm because of the magnification factor! Contact: Tamron USA, (631) 858-8400,