This is easily Juneau's best attraction, and one of the most rewarding in the state, with Alaska's easiest access to both a glacier and to bear viewing. Read on.
At the head of Mendenhall Valley, the glacier glows bluish white, looming above the suburbs like an Ice Age monster that missed the general extinction, a truly impressive sight. The parking and an adjacent shelter have a great view across the lake 1 mile to the glacier's face, and a wheelchair-accessible trail leads close to the water's edge. Atop a bedrock hill, reached by stairs, a ramp, or an elevator, the Forest Service visitor center contains a glacier museum with excellent explanatory models, computerized displays, spotting scopes, and ranger talks.
Beginning in August and lasting into September, the area has an extraordinary added attraction: the most accessible bear-viewing opportunity you're likely to find anywhere. Red and silver salmon spawn in Steep Creek, just short of the visitor center on the road, making an easy source of bear food. Around a dozen female and juvenile black bears congregate to catch and feast on the fish, all within a few yards of viewing platforms. Despite the bears' apparent docility and interest in their dinner, remember they are dangerous wild animals. Stay on the trail and give them space. Don't bring food or drink, not even coffee. For more on bear safety,
There are several hiking trails at the glacier, including two fairly steep hikes, one on each side of the glacier. At the visitor center and a booth near the parking lot, the Forest Service distributes a brochure that includes a trail map. The East Glacier Loop Trail is a beautiful 3.5-mile round-trip hike leading through the forest to a view of a waterfall above the glacier about half a mile from its face. The trail has steep parts but is doable for school-age children. You can park at the visitor center and start from there. The West Glacier Trail, 7 miles round-trip, is more challenging, leaving from 300 yards beyond the Skaters' Cabin and following the edge of the lake and glacier, providing access to the ice itself for experienced climbers with the right equipment. You will need wheels to get to the trail head. Take the Mendenhall Loop Road to Montana Creek Road, turn right, and then turn right again on Skaters' Cabin Road.
The granite Skater's Cabin is also the starting point for a groomed cross-country-ski loop on Mendenhall Lake in front of the glacier. Don't go beyond the orange safety markers near the glacier's face.