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. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the 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, the 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. Its shape reminded me a lot of the inverted fan shape of say Norway’s Friaren except we got to stand directly in front of the 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. There may be higher tiers, but we couldn’t see them. The falls also fanned out and was said to be about 100ft across its base as well.
The walk to the 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 it already was.
The route we took followed a wide dirt trail with a few minor stream crossings. 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 where they’d go fishing for sockeye salmon.
Towards the end of the walk, there was a rock slide that looked pretty recent. Immediately after this rocky traverse, we were at the large sandbar at the base of the falls as well as on the shore of Mendenhall Lake. I guess for cruise passengers docked in Juneau (which we were part of), this was about as close to the glacier as we were going to get.
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 a smart phone to download an app that provided some interesting interpretive narrative of some of the numbered stops along the way. 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.
As for the bear sightings, the best bet we had was to simply walk on the Steep Creek boardwalk between the car park and the visitor center (note that there was a fee to enter the visitor center but not Nugget Falls). 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.
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.
Since we did this 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.
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.
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