|Mendenhall Glacier from Thunder Mountain|
Access: Free; trailhead can be reached by public transit
Can any other hike claim to combine such easy access from a populated area and such an unparalleled view of a massive glacier? There are certainly none that I know of; at least in the United States, Thunder Mountain may be the only hike that you can reach via public bus that ends with a view over the snaking Mendenhall Glacier descending from the Juneau Icefield as well as the multitude of peaks and islands that make up Southeast Alaska. Thunder Mountain is a tough hike that packs in some extremely steep segments- but for hikers willing to endure mud and switchback-less climbs up the side of a steep Alaskan mountain, expansive meadows and even more expansive views await.
Juneau, Alaska is the most remote state capital in the United States: it is not connected by road to any other part of the country or, for that matter, any other part of Alaska. Getting to Juneau involves a trip by air or water; the town is completely cut off on one side by the tortuous fjords and straits of the Inside Passage and on the side by the icy tongues of the Juneau Icefield. The Mendenhall is one of the many glaciers pouring out from the icefield, snaking 13 miles down a steep valley before terminating at a milky lake; the suburbs of the Mendenhall Valley lie less than three miles away. Thunder Mountain rises above the Mendenhall Valley, providing an unequaled view across the lake to the path of the glacier.
Thunder Mountain isn't only easily accessible by bus; it's also less than an hour's walk from Juneau International Airport. It's possible to get to the Heintzleman Ridge Trailhead for this hike by taking either Bus 3 or 4 (Mendenhall Valley) from either the valley, the airport, or downtown Juneau and getting off at the Alaska Department of Transportation; from the DOT, walk, northwest for 100 yards along Glacier Drive to a construction site parking lot; the Heintzleman Ridge Trail starts from the back of the lot and is labelled with a trail sign. I reached the trailhead by foot from the airport: after flying in on an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle, I dropped off my bag with Alaska Seaplanes, which provides $5/day luggage storage, and walked out of the airport. I followed Glacier Highway northeast to its junction with Egan Drive; then followed a trail east along Egan Drive until it reconnected with Glacier Highway. From here I continued on to reach the trailhead near the Alaska DOT on Glacier Highway, a little over two miles from the airport.
The trail, marked with pink tape, wasted very little time before becoming a rough, narrow, easy-to-lose route through the Alaskan rain forest. Mud was everywhere, both on the trail and off it, and often the only alternatives to sinking shin deep in mud was to tread on wet, slippery tree roots. After a short period of fairly flat hiking, the trail reached the foot of Thunder Mountain and began a steep climb. Some scrambling was necessary at first up a steep slope filled with tree roots and rocks; soon the trail became a little more reasonably steep but was still covered in mud. Following the pink trail tape, I ascended slowly up a ridge until breaking out into a meadow on a saddle about a mile and a quarter into the hike.
|Meadows on the Heintzleman Ridge Trail|
About half a mile and a few hundred feet of ascent from the meadow, the Heintzleman Ridge Trail merged with the white-blazed Thunder Mountain Trail, which ascended from Jennifer Drive in Mendenhall Valley. From the intersection, I continued an uphill ascent, soon passing a sign informing me that I had entered Tongass National Forest. From here on, the trail began passing through a mixture of forest and meadows, with occasional views of clouds and the glacier through the clouds. Finally, after two hours of uphill slog, the trail broke out of the trees for its first real views of the summit of Thunder Mountain and of Auke Bay and Mendenhall Valley. Just a bit further on, the trail finally broke entirely into the alpine: a final steep climb up the meadows of Thunder Mountain laid ahead and the suburbs of the Mendenhall Valley laid bellow.
|Approaching the summit meadows|
The next half mile of the hike was the most enjoyable: I followed the path along the meadow-filled flat top of Thunder Mountain, passing tarns and lupine filled meadows filled with the whistles of marmots. I made noise to declare my presence to any possible bears, which I had read frequent the summit meadows. Unfortunately, there wasn't much for views at first, as a series of clouds had just rolled in when I reached the summit.
|Lupine atop Thunder Mountain|
|Meadows atop Thunder Mountain|
|Marmot in the meadows|
|Mountain goat above the subdivisions of Mendenhall Valley|
|Foggy lake and glacier|
|Auke Bay and the Mendenhall Valley|
|Mendenhall Lake and Glacier|
|Rainbow on Thunder Mountain|
|Gastineau Channel, Douglas Island, and Lemon Creek|
An hour of stumbling and falling later, I finally arrived at the base of the mountain, where I crossed a creek and followed the trail along a set of boardwalks to Jennifer Drive. On my walk out to Mendenhall Loop Road, I turned around and saw the cliffs of the mountain I had just summited.
|Thunder Mountain from Glacier View Elementary, Mendenhall Valley|