Alaska Backpacking Trip Report Part 1: Side Trips

ice caves alaska

Last month, 5 girlfriends and I went on a backpacking trip in Alaska. It was life changing, and there are memories from there that I’ll treasure forever. It’s the second in our series of girls backpacking/adventure trips that we plan on doing yearly. The first was our canoe trip to Maine. It was every good thing in one place: awe inspiring landscape, a feeling of disconnect from the outside world, but close friendships and connections, and physical challenges that make you feel strong and powerful. The group was a collection of a few of my favorite women: my childhood friend Mardi, her friend Jen from Vermont, a friend from college Devon, and two friends from San Francisco (although one moved to Portland recently), Liz and Diana. I started putting together a full post about Alaska but realized it was far too much content. Today I’ll just be sharing about our side trips to the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, and Glacier Bay. The backpacking section of the trip will be coming shortly, later this week…

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Before we left on a ferry through the Inside Passage to Skagway where the Chilkoot trail began, we spent a day in Juneau and visited the Mendenhall Glacier and ice caves. This was one of the highlights of the whole trip! Mardi’s friend, Nate, is a guide there so he took us.

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Ice caves are melting and changing constantly, and hiking on a moraine isn’t the safest, so it was helpful to have someone who could help navigate it for us. That being said, most people on the trail and in the caves did not have guides with them so I think if you’re very careful and do your research on the trail and conditions, you could do it on your own.

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It’s about a 7 mile hike roundtrip to the caves, which are under the Mendenhall Glacier on the left side as you approach it. Again, they are constantly melting and therefore changing their shape. Sometimes they’re safe to enter, and sometimes they’re not. We were lucky to have a safe day to enter them but we did carry helmets with us just in case. Large chunks of the glacier fall of pretty regularly on the outside edges, so it’s important to keep away from those spots.

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The crazy thing about the ice caves were that magnificent blue color. Nate said they were from hundreds of years of snow becoming compressed ice, compressing out all air pockets as ice crystals form. It’s incredible to see in person! A once in a lifetime experience for sure.

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Major problem with my decade old hiking boots!!! I noticed it on the drive over, and used a good amount of crazy glue to keep it on during the hike, as a last ditch attempt at saving them. This was on the way back, the other side was now falling apart and at this point I knew I’d have to buy new hiking boots the day before starting the 6 day backpacking trip. YIKES. Luckily, on the way home from the hike we found a store selling hiking boots and bought a pair of Vasque Ultradry Boots. The store employees promised these were great right out of the box, and you didn’t need any kind of wearing in. Still, I loaded up with blister care and sock liners. Spoiler: They were totally right. These boots were amazing! No hot spots or any problems at all. I was amazed!! Highly recommend (and no, I’m not getting paid to promote them).

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That evening, back in Juneau we ate at Alaska Fish ‘n Chips Co right on the harbor, and took the tram up to the top right at sunset (which was, FYI after 10pm!). We were racing to catch the last tram down (they forgot we were there and almost left us!)


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The next morning, we took the 3 hour Fair Weather ferry (that was the fast one!) from Juneau to Skagway through the Inside Passage, which are a network of waterways that travel through ports in Southwest Alaska. The ferry ride was gorgeous! There were waterfalls, stunning mountains with huge lush trees, and charming little lighthouses along the way.


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This was our view landing in Skagway, a charming little gold rush harbor town.


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Skagway is such a cute, historic town!

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I’ll discuss the actual Chilkoot backpacking trip in a second post, but right now I’m going to skip ahead to the flipside aterwards, which was Glacier Bay….

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We took a chartered flight from Skagway to Glacier Bay in Gustavus when we finished our hiking trip. This was the easiest, and most affordable way to get there from Skagway, especially since we had 5 people. Devon had to leave after the hike, and the chartered flights fit 6 people max including the pilot. The flight was breathtaking! Glacier after glacier, waterfalls, etc. Absolutely stunning!




It was the first time in such a tiny plane, and yes it did make me nervous and a little queasy by the end!

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We stayed at the Glacier Bay Lodge in Gustavus, which is actually in the park. It was really lovely, highly recommend! Huge windows in the main lodge restaurant overlooking the water. Most of the tours leave right from the lodge too, so it’s super convenient.


The next morning we went on a boat tour of Glacier Bay. It’s really the best way to get an overview of the area you’re exploring and it did not disappoint! We saw amazing wildlife. Puffins, seals, at first. Then, in the afternoon blue whales, black bears, grizzly bears, and wolves on the shorelines! Incredible!

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As we got further north, icebergs starting appearing in the water. Some animals like birds and seals were resting on the larger pieces.

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The main destination of the boat tour was the Margerie Glacier. We were able to witness caving, which is the natural process of chunks of glacier breaking off and becoming…icebergs! Some were huge- 20 stories high! It was incredible to watch and so loud, I could have stayed all day.


The winter has been long, and berry season is late in coming so many of the animals were still scrawny looking (and hungry!). This grizzly above was turning over rocks to look for clams and mussels to eat.



Another black bear roaming the shoreline looking for food.

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The second day we went on a kayaking tour of Glacier Bay with a guide, Brittany (below) of Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks. It was so peaceful to not be on a motorized boat and we saw a black bear, otters, and another blue whale (this time we heard it from far off which was the most amazing sound!).


These seals followed us around in our kayaks!


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Sorry, so many photos but it’s always so hard to decide which ones to choose…


We stopped for lunch at a beach (the black bin above is the bear box with food).


Brittany put together a delicious spread with smoked salmon, quinoa, fruit, and all sorts of other yummy things. It was so tasty.

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We wore these full body rain jumpsuits, but got lucky- it didn’t really rain at all!


One quick thing we also did in Glacier Bay National Park was visit the Huna Tribal House of the indigenous Tlingit tribe. This is the first permanant Tlingit structure since their villages in Glacier Bay were destroyed by that fast moving Margerie glacier 250 years ago. They’ve recently finished the building by groups of clan leaders and craftsmen. The handiwork is absolutely stunning!

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Glacier Bay was really incredible. It has everything-mountains, lush green forests drenched in fog, huge glaciers and icebergs, and amazing wildlife like puffins, seals, bald eagles, blue whales, grizzly bears and moose. It might be my new favorite national park. There were groups of people who were out kayaking from island to island for days. It sounds absolutely amazing. Putting it on our list for next girls trip adventure!


THis looks amazing and makes me want to go for my 50th birthday!
I’d love a budget post about this trip, to help me prepare if you could, that would really be helpful! Thanks!

Amazing! Can’t wait to see the backpacking part of the trip. I sympathize with your boot issue: on day 2 of an 8 day trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro, the same thing happened to my decade-old boots. Our guide took them away during dinner and returned them to my tent that evening… he’d sewed the soles back on with this thick red string. To this day, I don’t know how he did it on the side of the mountain, but they lasted through the remainder of the hike!

Really beautiful photos. I took a similar backpacking trip with side trips in the Canadian National Parks, recently. I would love to do this in Alaska, though. It looks very quiet and remote.

Chilkoot is on my bucket list so I’m so excited to see these. Now I may need to add Glacier Bay.

Alaska is incredible! My brother lives in Valdez, so I’ve been able to visit a few times. Also, on a trip to the Smokies this spring, my two-decades old hiking boots did the same sole-separating thing!

This is so lovely! How great to have girlfriends that are up for these type of adventures. It’s so inspiring, can’t wait to see part two!

Also, I would love to see a post about the things you packed for this trip! I’m always so curious what other backpacking ladies take with them on their adventures. 😊

Awesome! I’m glad you had a good time!
We live in Sitka and really love living in Alaska.

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