Nugget Falls

Mendenhall Glacier / Tongass National Forest, Alaska, USA

About Nugget Falls


Hiking Distance: 1.5 miles round trip
Suggested Time: 45-60 minutes

Date first visited: 2011-08-31
Date last visited: 2011-08-31

Waterfall Latitude: 58.42695
Waterfall Longitude: -134.53711

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Nugget Falls (also known as Nugget Creek Falls or Mendenhall Glacier Waterfall [or “the waterfall by Mendenhall” as I’d like to refer to it]) was by far the waterfall highlight of our Alaskan Cruise through the so-called Inside Passage.

What made this waterfall so special to us waterfallers was that it was the perfect excuse to see the beautiful blue ice terminus of Mendenhall Glacier while also offering us a chance to see giant black bears fishing for sockeye salmon.

Juneau_093_08312011 - Nugget Falls and the Mendenhall Glacier
Nugget Falls and the Mendenhall Glacier

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the brown bears, but there were plenty of people who said they did see it (call it bad timing and bad luck on our part).

Still, just the chance to experience all of this from a waterfall visit was what put us in a real good mood at this place.

Aside from that, Nugget Falls itself was no slouch.

While we’ve been to other glaciers where thinner mountain cascades (some of which had names) would spill towards the glacier, this particular one had legitimate size and volume.

Juneau_054_08312011 - Nugget Falls with people and icebergs at its wide base
Nugget Falls with people and icebergs at its wide base

Its shape reminded me a lot of the inverted fan shape like say Norway’s Friaren except we got to stand directly in front of Nugget Falls while turning our heads to the left to get a close look at the impressive Mendenhall Glacier.

From what we could tell Nugget Falls was probably close to 100ft or so tall.

In the literature, the falls is said to be 377ft suggesting that there were higher tiers, but we couldn’t see them.

The falls also fanned out and was said to be about 100ft across its base.

Hiking to Nugget Falls

Juneau_148_08312011 - The busy trail leaving the visitor center vicinity for the Nugget Falls with Mendenhall Glacier as the conspicuous backdrop
The busy trail leaving the visitor center vicinity for the Nugget Falls with Mendenhall Glacier as the conspicuous backdrop

The walk to the Nugget Falls was a very easy and flat 1.5 miles round trip as part of the East Glacier Loop.

It’s said that this hike could be done in a leisurely 45 minutes though we probably took even longer than that as we tried to savor the views with each opportunity that we got.

Apparently we happened to show up when they were doing some trail construction to make it an even easier walk than what it already was.

Anyways, there were a couple of different routes that we could have taken to Nugget Falls, and they both join at opposite ends so both trails can be done in a loop.

Hiking to Nugget Falls – The Lower Trail

Juneau_071_08312011 - On the muddy lower trail to Nugget Falls with a huge bear paw print providing ample evidence that they are around
On the muddy lower trail to Nugget Falls with a huge bear paw print providing ample evidence that they are around

The route we took followed a wide dirt trail with a few minor stream crossings as the trail was almost at water level with Mendenhall Lake.

We chose the lower route since we didn’t feel like following a crowd, and we knew this would be the way to go since most visitors didn’t have the right footwear to traverse those benign stream crossings and muddy sections.

In one particular spot, I saw a bear paw print, which suggested to me that bears did indeed frequent this part of the area and not just at Steep Creek area where they’d go fishing for sockeye salmon.

Towards the end of the walk, there was a rock slide that looked pretty recent.

Juneau_146_08312011 - Looking back at a big rock slide that affected the very end of the trail near the bottom of the Nugget Falls
Looking back at a big rock slide that affected the very end of the trail near the bottom of the Nugget Falls

Immediately after this rocky traverse, we were at the large sandbar at the base of the Nugget Falls as well as on the shore of Mendenhall Lake.

I guess for hikers to the waterfall, this was about as close to the glacier as we were going to get.

Hiking to Nugget Falls – The Upper Trail

As hinted at earlier, there was also an upper part of this trail, which can be combined with the lower beach trail (i.e. the one we took) as a loop.

They even put some infrastructure here where we could’ve used our phone to download an app that provided some interesting interpretive narrative of some of the numbered stops along the way.

Juneau_045_08312011 - The very busy paved part of the trail (the 'upper trail') on the way to Nugget Falls and the Mendenhall Glacier
The very busy paved part of the trail (the ‘upper trail’) on the way to Nugget Falls and the Mendenhall Glacier

That was definitely something I hadn’t seen before, but it seemed like an ingenious way to not have to print out interpretive brochures or books.

We’ve heard stories that at times the lower trail would get flooded either by heavy rains, high tide, or even a wave caused by the calving glacier.

So I suppose it would be possible that the lower section of the trail may not be accessible under such conditions leaving only the upper trail available to access Nugget Falls.

Potential Bear Sightings at the Steep Creek Boardwalk

As for the bear sightings, the best bet we had was to simply walk on the Steep Creek boardwalk between the parking lot and the visitor center (note that there was a fee to enter the visitor center but not Nugget Falls).

Juneau_151_08312011 - Looking up at some cascade tumbling towards the calm waters around Steep Creek, where the bears loved to fatten up on salmon
Looking up at some cascade tumbling towards the calm waters around Steep Creek, where the bears loved to fatten up on salmon

The boardwalk rose above Steep Creek, which seemed to be an ideal spawning ground for the salmon that the local black bears seemed to love to fatten up on.

We definitely saw evidence of their presence from fish carcasses to bear paw prints.

It was said that the sockeye (red) salmon would show up to Steep Creek from mid-July through mid-September.

It was also said the coho (silver) salmon would show up to Steep Creek from mid-September through October.

Alternate Glacier Viewpoints

Juneau_023_08312011 - One of the viewpoints of the Mendenhall Glacier near the visitor center
One of the viewpoints of the Mendenhall Glacier near the visitor center

And as for other glacier views, we were able to get decent views from an observation deck close to the visitor center as well as in spots all along the Nugget Falls Trail.

We were even able to get closer looks at some of the drifting icebergs deposited by the calving glacier in some of these spots.

Authorities

Nugget Falls resides in the Tongass National Forest near Juneau, Alaska. It is administered by the USDA Forest Service. For information or inquiries about the area as well as current conditions, visit their website or Facebook page.

Juneau_005_08312011 - Pair of thin cascades behind downtown Juneau. We noticed these just as we disembarked from the ship and were about to buy our shuttle tickets
Juneau_012_08312011 - Sockeye Salmon swimming in Steep Creek. This was what the bears in the area were after
Juneau_017_08312011 - Evidence of bears munching on sockeye salmon at the Steep Creek Boardwalk
Juneau_020_08312011 - Looking towards the head of Steep Creek as we were on our way to start the Nugget Falls hike with Mendenhall Glacier in the distance
Juneau_024_08312011 - Mendenhall Glacier as seen from the observation area
Juneau_031_08312011 - Looking ahead at the terminus of the Mendenhall Glacier with kayakers at its base providing a sense of scale
Juneau_044_08312011 - Distant view of Nugget Falls with some folks right at its base for scale
Juneau_053_08312011 - Some people checking out the icebergs from the lower trail to Nugget Falls
Juneau_062_08312011 - Contextual look at the Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls in context with some of the mud flats adjacent to the lower trail
Juneau_064_08312011 - The signposted start of the official trail
Juneau_067_08312011 - The wide dirt trail that was part of the lower trail we took to Nugget Falls
Juneau_083_08312011 - The Mendenhall Glacier took on a different appearance the closer we got to Nugget Falls
Juneau_084_08312011 - Looking ahead at the Nugget Falls together with the Mendenhall Glacier near a major rock slide area
Juneau_086_08312011 - Almost about to join the folks taking photos of Nugget Falls at its base
Juneau_089_08312011 - Another contextual look at Nugget Falls backed by the Mendenhall Glacier
Juneau_101_08312011 - Nugget Falls reflected in a calm pool near the rock slide area
Juneau_103_08312011 - Context of the rearranged rock slide area and calm pond reflecting the Nugget Falls with the Mendenhall Glacier also looking close
Juneau_108_08312011 - Looking back at the Nugget Falls from as far back on the sand bar as I could go
Juneau_111_08312011 - Long exposure view of the base of Nugget Falls backed by the foot of the Mendenhall Glacier
Juneau_147_08312011 - Contextual look across Mendenhall Lake further downstream from the Mendenhall Glacier and the icebergs
Juneau_150_08312011 - Waterfall seen from the Steep Creek boardwalk after having returned from the Nugget Falls hike
Juneau_152_08312011 - Looks like a partially eaten sockeye salmon along Steep Creek

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Since we did our Nugget Falls visit as part of an Alaskan Cruise, and we figure the vast majority of visitors here are cruise passengers, we’ll describe how we got here from this perspective.

When we disembarked from the cruise ship and entered right into downtown Juneau, there was a large bus stop area as well as some stands selling shuttle tickets to the Mendenhall Glacier.

Juneau_010_08312011 - When we finally got off the cruise ship in Juneau, we got to catch one of the independent shuttles going to the Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls Trailhead
When we finally got off the cruise ship in Juneau, we got to catch one of the independent shuttles going to the Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls Trailhead

As of our visit in August 2011, the price was $8 per person each way ($16 per person round trip).

The narrated shuttle left every half-hour from 9am to 6:30pm (I recalled though I’m totally not sure about this).

The shuttle bus dropped us off at a car park a short distance from the visitor center at the lower end of the Steep Creek boardwalk. This drop-off spot was also the pick-up spot to return to downtown Juneau. The distance between Juneau and Mendenhall Glacier was said to be around 13 miles.

Fixated on both the Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls together before zooming in on the falls itself


Fixated on Nugget Falls in motion from a spot where I got a perfect reflection of it


Diagonal sweep following the path of the falls before panning over to the glacier


Misty bottom up sweep from directly in front of the falls

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Tagged with: mendenhall glacier, tongass, national forest, juneau, alaska, waterfall, sockeye salmon, brown bear, alaska cruise, alaskan cruise, inner passage, steep creek



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Johnny Cheng

About Johnny Cheng

Johnny Cheng is the founder of the World of Waterfalls and author of A Guide to New Zealand Waterfalls. Over the last 2 decades, he has visited thousands of waterfalls in over 40 countries around the world and nearly 40 states in the USA.
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