Juneau Nature, Alaska

Surrounding Juneau, Alaska, are five mountains, spectacular glaciers, stunning waterfalls and pristine rainforests. And their wildlife includes bald eagles, brown bears, Pacific salmon, humpback and killer whales, sea lions, porpoises and so much more.

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1 Mendenhall Glacier and Lake near Juneau, Alaska

This panoramic view of Mendenhall Glacier and Lake from the deck of the U.S. Forest Service’s Visitor Center is breathtaking. But if you want a closer look, walk down the easy Photo Point Trail while enjoying the smell of the evergreens along the way. Those trees did not exist fifty years ago because, in 1948, the terminus or face of this glacier was located about where I took this photo.

Mendenhall Glacier Interpretive Visitor Center E Glacier Trail, Juneau, AK 99801
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2 Vegetation along Mendenhall Lake near Juneau, Alaska

This view of Mendenhall Lake’s vegetation is beautiful but it also tells a story. The ice-marginal lake was formed by the nearby retreating glacier. During this glaciation process, it exposes rock while depositing layers of sediment called moraine. Over time, mosses will be the first to grow over the barren zone followed by light-colored vegetation. Eventually, dark green trees will take their place. All of these rebirth stages are evident along this trimline.

Mendenhall Glacier Interpretive Visitor Center E Glacier Trail, Juneau, AK 99801
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3 Mendenhall Glacier Ice Blue Terminus near Juneau, Alaska

This dramatic blue wall of ice, with its deep crevasses and layers of sediment and rocks, began its journey down the Coast Mountains from the Juneau Icefield north of Juneau. That ice field, which stretches over 1,500 square miles, feeds over 140 glaciers, including this Mendenhall Glacier. We see blue because all the other colors are absorbed and then the ice crystals scatter the blue light.

Mendenhall Glacier Interpretive Visitor Center E Glacier Trail, Juneau, AK 99801
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4 Mendenhall Glacier Icebergs near Juneau, Alaska

Notice the large icebergs floating in Mendenhall lake at the base of Mendenhall Glacier. Watching them be created, a process called calving, is very exciting. Typically, there is a loud noise resembling an explosion followed by a massive sheet of ice and rock breaking off and sliding down the terminus. As they plunge into the lake, huge waves are created. The chunks are submerged, resurface and spin. When the water settles, the icebergs begin their journey towards the Inside Passage assuming they don’t completely melt along the way.

Mendenhall Glacier Interpretive Visitor Center E Glacier Trail, Juneau, AK 99801
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5 Nugget Falls Cascading into Mendenhall Lake near Juneau, Alaska

As the Nugget Glacier melts, forming Nugget Creek, the water rushes down a mountain within the Tongrass National Forest until it plummets 377 feet during two stages into Mendenhall Lake. The result is a spectacular roar of mist. From there, the fresh water joins with the runoff of Mendenhall Glacier and travel towards the Mendenhall River. This eventually empties into the Inside Passage of the Pacific Ocean.

Mendenhall Glacier Interpretive Visitor Center E Glacier Trail, Juneau, AK 99801
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6 Mountain Fog and Clouds in Juneau, Alaska

Most people mistakenly believe that all of Alaska is cold, especially in the winter. However, Juneau enjoys a mild, maritime climate thanks to its location on the Gastineau Channel, being nestled among five steep mountains and its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. But it also rains for two-thirds of the year. The wettest months are in September and October. So, expect to see almost choreographed displays of clouds and fog swirling around and often obstructing the mountain peaks with their dramatic waterfalls.

Glacier Spur Rd, Juneau, AK 99801
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7 Platform Over Steep Creek near Juneau, Alaska

Steep Creek is a fast moving but shallow flow of fresh water in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area that is ideal for salmon spawning. The sockeyes or red salmon arrive in mid-July. The coho or silver salmon appear in mid-September. Several platforms are available along The Trail of Time and East Glacier Trail to enjoy this annual event. Or you can watch the live “fish cam” at the nearby Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center.

E Glacier Trail, Juneau, AK 99801
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8 Sockeye Salmon in Red Spawning Stage near Juneau, Alaska

This sockeye salmon lived for years in the Pacific Ocean before traveling upstream to the fresh water of Steep Creek. During the spawning process they turn this red color. Shortly afterwards, they acquire white patches before dying, a reproductive event called semelparity. This lifecycle is essential to Southeast Alaska. The sockeye, along with four other salmon species, contribute about a billion dollars of economic benefit.

E Glacier Trail, Juneau, AK 99801
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9 Steep Creek Waterfall near Juneau, Alaska

The Trail of Time and East Glacier Trail are great introductions to the beauty of the Tongass Forest with its lush vegetation, dramatic waterfalls and a spectacular view of the Mendenhall Glacier. You can explore these easy walking paths on your own or, better yet, find a qualified guide who will explain the nuances of this beautiful wilderness. My guide was Skip Gray, just one of the several highly qualified staff from Gastineau Guiding.

E Glacier Trail, Juneau, AK 99801
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10 Tongass National Forest Rainforest Vegetation near Juneau, Alaska

Across 17 million acres of land, the Tongass National Forest provides a rare combination of glaciers, lakes, islands, fjords, waterfalls, mountains and beautiful rain forests. Its lush vegetation consists of western hemlock, western red cedar and sitka spruce that tower over a carpet of green moss. The U.S. Forest Service has created an amazing network of trails, campgrounds, wilderness cabins and education centers so you can enjoy this pristine natural asset and its wildlife. An excellent choice is the 3.5 mile West Glacier Trail beginning at Skater’s Cabin Road.

West Glacier Trailhead, Skaters Cabin Rd Juneau, AK 99801
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11 Pair Bald Eagles on Harbor Beacon near Juneau, Alaska

Gastineau Channel around Juneau, Alaska, is dotted with harbors to accommodate any sized vessel … from a large cruise ship to the smallest fishing boat. But the best fishermen at Auke Bay, particularly during low tide, are the American bald eagles. This pair perched on a navigation beacon was not a chance sighting. There are countless of these majestic birds feeding along the shore. It is very exciting.

13391 Glacier Hwy, Juneau, AK 99801
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12 Whale Watching Boat near Juneau, Alaska

A very popular excursion near Juneau is a half-day whale watching tour in Stephens Passage. The humpbacks spend their summer in Alaska feeding on krill and tiny fish. It is hard to believe that such a small food source can help these mammals reach up to 75,000 pounds. But they need the extra weight for their winter migration to tropical waters where they breed. Surprisingly, they do not eat during their journey which can be thousands of miles away.

Stephens Passage, Alaska
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13 Humpback Whale Tail near Juneau, Alaska

There are so many humpback whales near Juneau that most local tour boats guarantee a sighting. When that first cloud of mist blows high above the water, the tourists get very excited as the boat captain maneuvers within a hundred yards of these magnificent animals. Typically, you will be rewarded with a large tail emerging from the water before it dives deep and disappears. But keep your eyes open. You are also likely to see orca or killer whales, sea lions, porpoises, eagles, and other wildlife along the shores.

Stephens Passage, Alaska
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