One of the most visited and photographed waterfalls in all of Alaska is Nugget Falls.
If you’re visiting the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center chances are you are thinking about stopping by Nugget Falls.
But what can you expect if you make the trek over to the falls and is it really worth it?
In this article, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about the hike to Nugget Falls.
I’ll show you what the trail looks like, the views, and give you some insight into what to expect when you arrive at the falls.
What is Nugget Falls?
Nugget Falls is a 377ft waterfall located near the Mendenhall Glacier in Tongass National Forest. One tier of the falls is 99 feet and the other one is 278 feet, making for a pretty impressive waterfall.
You can easily explore the falls by doing a 2 mile round trip hike on a mostly paved path that only has about 140 feet of elevation gain.
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How do you get to Nugget Falls?
Nugget Falls is located on a 2 mile round-trip trail that is found at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center. It’s about a 20 to 25 minute car ride from Downtown Juneau/the Cruise Ship Terminal Area.
You can book a taxi to get over to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center (~$35) from Downtown or you can arrange for shuttle transportation via a number of different tours.
Rideshare services are not permitted to drop off or pick up passengers here, although some defiant drivers will still drop you off.
The Nugget Falls experience
Your journey to the falls will begin near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center. You’ll see the visitor center perched on a hilltop and it’s impossible to miss whenever you arrive in the area.
You should first see a sign directing you towards “Photo Point” which will be on the way to Nugget Falls. Follow that.
If you need to use the bathroom before the hike there is one located at the base of the visitor center.
Eventually you will see a post showing that Photo Point is 1/3 of a mile round trip and that Nugget Falls Trail is 2 miles round-trip. (It’s right at the spot where you also have a decent lookout point for the glacier.)
We decided to first venture to Photo Point and man was it worth the short detour.
You’ll follow along a paved path that is going to offer you impressive views of the Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls. In fact, it is from this vantage point where you will be able to easily frame up both at the same time!
While the falls is located close to Mendenhall Glacier, the water for Nugget Falls actually comes from the Nugget Glacier which is quite a ways upstream, near Nugget Mountain.
Check out the USGS topo map below to see how far away that water begins its journey.
Something else that is interesting is that Mendenhall Glacier used to protrude past the falls so the falls would have likely been covered up by the glacier.
If you want to learn more about the area you can check out some of the interpretive panels along the way.
The paved path takes you on a small loop overlooking glacier ponds and at the turnaround point of the loop there is a nice observation area.
Along the way, you’ll probably notice the murky blue-gray lake water which gets its unique color from the glacial silt. All that fine-grained silt suspended in the water is the byproduct of the unrelenting grinding of bedrock by glacial erosion.
Also, check out some of the recently exposed bedrock which may take up to 200+ years for forest vegetation to take back over.
It’s a pretty cool feeling to know that you’re admiring scenery in transition from a recent mini ice age that ended in the mid 1700s.
For those of you who are not interested in doing the full 2 mile round trip Nugget Falls Trail hike, this can be a good end point as you can relax on some of the benches and just admire the views.
From Photo Point if you look at Nugget Falls you may see some tiny bodies at the bottom which give you proper scale for the magnificent falls. The falls may be larger than you think.
You also have a great view of Mendenhall Glacier which overlooks Mendenhall Lake (the body of water between you and the glacier). Here’s a great view I got with my 300 mm zoom lens.
I couldn’t get over how stunning that glacier blue color was found in the crevasses. It’s unreal, not to mention really old. It’s estimated that it takes ice about 200 to 250 years to make it from the ice field to the foot of the glacier.
Once you get to the end of Photo Point you can venture off the path and onto some of the glacier polished rocks for less obstructed views.
Just be mindful of the closure signs because some areas are restricted for environmental reasons such as nesting areas.
We snapped some photos from the end of Photo Point and then it was time to get back on the trail towards Nugget Falls.
Speaking of trails, there is a lower trail that goes along the beach towards the falls. We, however, were visiting when water levels were high due to rain and glacier melt. So that trail was not really doable.
The upper trail is mostly semi-paved and mostly flat making it very easy to traverse. 45 minutes will be enough time for most to complete the entire round-trip journey.
You’ll start by making your way through some beautiful rainforest scenery.
Don’t forget to be on the lookout for bears because they can make their way on the trail. Porcupine can also be found on the trail along with squirrels.
Also, as a reminder food is not allowed on the trail, presumably to remove temptation from the bears.
After a little over half a mile you’ll pass over a couple of small creeks which during our visit were flowing very nicely. Definitely a nice little photo opportunity.
And then when you are about a quarter mile away you will probably start to see or hear the falls raging in the distance. But before you stop off at the falls you can check out some of the unmaintained beach access along Mendenhall Lake.
We visited on a pretty rainy and cloudy day but it was still pretty breathtaking to take in the scenery. It’s always really cool to watch some of the large chunks of ice float by. Plus, this area was very quiet and peaceful compared to the busier area near the base of the falls.
And then finally we arrived at the falls and made the final steps on the path along the shore of the lake.
You’ll find yourself in an open sandbar type of area that is perfect for taking in the falls.
But you can also choose to get much closer to the waterfall.
Conditions probably vary depending on the weather but when we visited you had to stream hop via a few stones in order to avoid getting wet if you wanted to get close to the falls.
Most of the people visiting opted to cross the rocks but there were some who were not comfortable with that idea.
We have a lot of experience with creek crossings from hiking in Arizona so this was not a problem but if you have mobility issues you may not want to risk the tumble, especially considering how cold the water would be on your feet.
Anyway, we ventured across the little stream and then made our way close to the waterfall. From up close, it’s even more impressive than you would imagine.
There was definitely a lot of spray coming from the falls so having a rain jacket helps even if it’s not raining outside.
And remember, temperatures may be 10° cooler here due to the glaciers when compared to further down the valley, so dress for cool temps.
Although dealing with the rain was kind of annoying, I think all of the recent rainfall made the falls even more powerful than usual.
There’s a rocky area that you can scramble up to get a closer look at the falls but obviously be careful and only climb up as far as you’re comfortable. At a certain point, the rocks become pretty slick and the terrain becomes very steep. Kind of a recipe for disaster.
If you want an observation point that is a little bit more tame you can head to the observation deck which will also give you a nice view of the falls, although it is partially obstructed.
We hung out at the falls for about 10 minutes or so and then the rain started to come in a little bit more so we got a move on.
In total, we spent about one hour exploring Nugget Falls and Photo Point.
If you tend to move pretty slow and like to take a ton of photographs then you may need closer to 1.5 hours but we did not feel like we had to rush through anything.
Of course, you may also want to spend time at the visitor center and I will have a separate article detailing how to best experience that.
It’s hard to deny the excitement of visiting a waterfall and Nugget Falls is no exception.
It is one of the easier waterfalls to get access to it and you can get some magnificent views of the entire glacier area on the way to the falls making it even more attractive.
If you’re visiting the Mendenhall Glacier, I would try to carve out an hour to an hour and a half to take in this waterfall from up close! In terms of bang for your buck for your hiking time and effort, this waterfall certainly is worth a visit.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.