Hike the Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves

Mendenhall Glacier

By Joy Sheehan

Hike the Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves before it’s too late!

Located just 12 miles outside of downtown Juneau, Alaska sits the Mendenhall Glacier. Hundreds of thousands of visitors gaze upon its beauty each year, but very few people actually see it from its most beautiful angle: the inside.

Inside the glacier is a series of ice caves that are simply otherworldly — like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia. Only all of Narnia is blue. And you had to hike a moderately strenuous 3.5 mile trail (each way) to get there.

However, the caves are quickly melting and collapsing. Get to Juneau as fast as possible if you have any interest in photographing yourself as a Smurf experiencing this surreal natural wonder!

 

Know Before You Go

Before you attempt this hike, you need to know that this trail can be dangerous, arduous, and is somewhat unmarked in certain spots. A few people each year come ill-prepared, get lost, slip and fall, sprain their ankle, or need rescuing. I highly recommend not hiking this one alone if you’re not an experienced hiker.

Mendenhall Glacier 4

Expect the hike to take between 2–3 ½ hours each way. Start early and don’t underestimate the time. Plan it so that you’re not coming back in the dark! You should also know that you are not guaranteed access into the ice caves. Take note of the weather (beware on hot sunny days or rainy days) and always use common sense when it comes to your safety.

 

What To Bring

Dress in layers, bring snacks and water for the day, and keep in mind that you’ll get wet! This means safeguarding your phones and your cameras with protective cases! My Lifeproof NUUD Waterproof iPhone case saved me on this trip!

A warm top layer like a sweater, and a light rainjacket to change into will be wanted once you get closer to the cold wet glacier. Bring proper hiking boots or sneakers with ankle support, and wool socks. Chapstick with SPF, sunscreen on sunny days, and mosquito repellent are good ideas too.

Crampons for your shoes are extremely helpful if you want to walk on the top of the Mendenhall Glacier. Gloves to protect your hands while scrambling down the rocks during the last bit of the hike would’ve been handy to have.

And of course, please remember that this is an incredibly beautiful natural wonder in need of protection and safeguarding. Practice your Leave No Trace skills — and if you pack it in, pack it out.

 

How To Get There

The West Glacier Trail is on the Western side of the glacier starting at Mendenhall Lake. This out-and-back trail will bring you to the caves. You could also veer off at the “Viewpoint” sign on the trail, which will still bring you to the caves on a different route (the Cairn route).

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If you choose to visit the ice caves independently (not on a tour), you can either drive your own vehicle, rent one in town, or take a taxi. If taking a taxi, tell the driver you plan on doing the ice caves hike at the West Glacier Trail off of Skater’s Cabin Road. If driving yourself, use the Google directions below.

Mendenhall Glacier 2

 

Mendenhall Glacier 6Start on the West Glacier Trailhead. If you can, set up a GPS to track your course before you start the hike, as it’ll make finding your way back a whole lot easier. I also dropped a pin on my map on my phone when I started, and noted what time I started the hike and what time I arrived to the caves.

If you opt to take a guided tour, you’ll be shuttled by van from your pick-up point to the trailhead and brought back once the tour has ended.

Mendenhall Glacier 7The West Glacier Trail starts out in a forest and is fairly level to walk on for a while. It can get muddy and slick in some areas, and a good portion of the trail has uplifted rocks and roots. It begins to get pretty steep and you’ll have to go over bridges, switchbacks, stairs, and a large boulder with a knotted rope to aid in climbing up it.

You’ll reach a few scenic overlooks, and you’ll end the trail at the top of an area with shrubbery and exposed rock near the glacier. Again, not all of the trail is marked. Look for the colorful ribbons tied to bushes, or for cairns — rocks piled orderly on top of each other — that other hikers have created to help distinguish the route. The last bit is that loose rock scramble downhill to reach the cave entrance.

 

 

Exploring The Caves

Again, the last bit of the West Glacier Trail has you scrambling down a hillside of loose rocks and pebbles. Be mindful of your footing and go slow. The cave entrances are right in front of you — holes in the sides of the glacier with an icy bubbly blue hue inside. You’ll see a little stream running through them.

Caution : Once you enter the Mendenhall Glacier ice caves, you’ll want to stay forever and you will seriously contemplate adapting to the cold and taking an ice worm as your wife.

Fun Fact — Yes, ice worms actually exist! They spend their entire lives in glacial ice, only coming to the surface in mornings and evenings to feed on algae and pollen grains. Their bodies actually liquify if they experience temperatures of 41° F (5° C) or higher! So in retrospect, maybe choose a different wife species when you decide to stay here forever, unless you want to become a widow thanks to global warming. 😉

Mendenhall Glacier 10

 

The Mendenhall Glacier Is Receding!

Mendenhall Glacier 11The Mendenhall Glacier is receding and melting quicker than it can accumulate snow and ice. The snowfall at the head of the Icefield is heavily relied on. But with increasing global temperatures, it’s not looking very hopeful for glaciers.

Granted, the total disappearance of the Mendenhall glacier would probably take centuries, but the ice caves inside of it are disappearing at a much faster rate.

I first visited the caves in July 2014 and two days later, a ranger informed me that the main entrance had melted and collapsed! Talk about timing! I returned to these ice caves in August 2017 and the difference was alarming. The new entrance was much smaller and the caves weren’t as vast or extensive. Water was still dripping and pouring from its “ceiling”.

Some predict that it could be as little as 10 years until they are gone completely!

Avoid future disappointment and start planning your trip to Juneau ASAP!

 

Mendenhall Glacier 12

 

 

 

Guest Author at

I’m Joy, a 30-year-old California transplant, originally from Upstate NY. In summary, I’m big into the outdoors, travel, and wildlife. I’m also a self-proclaimed foodie, cold brew connoisseur, and matcha-holic.

I’m equally passionate about travel as I am wildlife research and conservation. Specifically in reptiles and amphibians. When I’m not catching flights, I’m catching lizards.

Between backpacking, road tripping, taking seasonal wildlife positions, and working as a seasonal cruise ship staff, I have currently travelled to 25+ countries and have lived in 9 states and visited a total of 34.

54 thoughts on “Hike the Mendenhall Glacier Ice Caves

  • September 15, 2017 at 8:32 am
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    Honestly, as much as I love adventure, this is one that I’d prefer to enjoy by living vicariously through you or others who have been there.
    I hike often but, this sounds pretty dangerous with no guarantee of seeing the caves.
    Sadly, with global warming, they might be gone even sooner. Loved your photos and touches of humor.

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    • September 24, 2017 at 11:29 pm
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      The caves are usually open and it’s kinda rare to not see them. I just tried my best to include that info about no guarantees just to avoid any disappointment if it does happen for someone and they can’t see the caves.
      Glad you loved the post though! 😀

      Reply
  • September 13, 2017 at 7:45 pm
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    This must be one heck of an experience and make some of the most amazing photos you’ll ever take on a hiking trip I’d imagine!

    Thanks a million for sharing and giving the insights and tips that you did. I think this is something for my bucket list ya! 😉

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    • September 24, 2017 at 11:30 pm
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      I hope you get to go someday! It was by far my best and most scenic hike to-date!

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  • September 6, 2017 at 4:07 am
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    I would rather ban all tourist activity in the vicinity of these caves. It is more important to save these caves and the environment than seeing them melt away because of various reasons- and some of them could be linked to the human activity.

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    • September 6, 2017 at 6:43 am
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      With the melting of the ice caves, it is definitely more dangerous for people to be visiting, especially without proper gear. I was very happy though to see that nobody was jumping on the ice or trying to break any pieces off or anything. All the hikers were very respectful and fast about walking through, taking some photos, and then moving on outside – careful not to take too long in the potentially dangerous cave. I do think that the ability to see the caves and experience them makes a lot of people want to save them and learn more about them though, so that’s good!

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  • September 5, 2017 at 11:26 am
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    Wow! You’re brave! Certainly, I will not that hike it alone. What’s the best season to hike it?

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    • September 6, 2017 at 12:34 am
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      Definitely in the summer months of July and August is the best time to hike it. I first hiked it with a big group of people a few years ago, led by a guy who knew the way very well. I hiked it this summer with 2 coworkers, showing them the way myself this time! I don’t think I’d ever hike it alone.

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  • September 5, 2017 at 8:19 am
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    I’ve read a lot about the ice caves in Iceland but never at the Mendenhall glacier in Juneau. The annoying thing is that I’ve been to Mendenhall. I hope i didn’t miss my chance as it sounds to be receding quickly. I’d love to recreate your photos in the cave.

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    • September 6, 2017 at 12:36 am
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      Oh man! That’s a bummer! I hate when I go somewhere and find out about an awesome discovery near there after I’ve already left it! Hopefully you can get back there soon!

      Reply
  • September 4, 2017 at 10:10 pm
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    What a fantastic guide! I’ve been searching Alaska for awhile now. I’m excited to check out this amazing spot!

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    • September 5, 2017 at 5:26 am
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      I have a lot more posts on Alaska on my blog A Jaunt With Joy, and plenty of photos of it on my Instagram @ajauntwithjoy too! What areas are you looking to explore?! I hope you get to experience these caves!

      Reply
  • September 4, 2017 at 11:36 am
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    Oh no, it’s receding? That is sad! I’m not even sure if I have enough time to go there, I hope I get to see it though. I’ve never entered an ice cave and it’s on my bucket list. I just think they are beautiful.

    The ice worm made me real curious especially when you mentioned they liquefy. So I googled it immediately. I was expecting that they’d be white, and was disappointed to see that they look just like regular worms haha…

    Reply
    • September 4, 2017 at 10:00 pm
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      Hahah Funny that you googled them though! A park ranger first showed me what they looked like and I was surprised they weren’t white or clear transparent too! But they have such unique lifestyles!

      Alaska is filled with ice caves, though this is probably one of the most “easily” accessible and allows people to see it for free if they wanted to hike in, instead of paying over $100 for a tour. Hopefully you get to go see an ice cave sometime!

      Reply
  • September 4, 2017 at 10:57 am
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    Your pictures are dream like! Never seen anything like this and your post reminds me of a British friend who sailed from Japan to Alaska! Amazing! Yay I wish I could trek here too, and the coldness, I hope I could handle!

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    • September 4, 2017 at 10:02 pm
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      Wow! Now THAT sounds like an epic adventure that your friend was on!
      The coldness isn’t so bad actually! Unless you go to AK in the winter that is haha.

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  • September 4, 2017 at 8:23 am
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    First of all, let me just say that I am super happy I found your blog! I was looking for something like this for ages!!! so thank you! And secondly, I can’t wait to go to Alaska to visit these caves! 🙂

    Reply
    • September 4, 2017 at 10:03 pm
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      Aw, Thank you! I’m so happy you enjoyed my post! Are you going to Alaska soon?! I have a ton more posts on Alaska on my blog A Jaunt With Joy and a lot of photos on my instagram @ajauntwithjoy too! I already can’t wait to try to get back there next summer!

      Reply
  • September 4, 2017 at 12:19 am
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    These are amazing pictures! I’m into fun facts so I’m fascinated by the ice worms info. It would be interesting to visit this place in a few years to see if it changed at all.

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    • September 4, 2017 at 10:04 pm
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      Right?! I’m hoping to get to go back here next summer or the one after that, and I’ll be interested to see how different it looks! So sad it’s receding this quickly though.

      Reply
  • September 3, 2017 at 5:22 pm
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    WOW! I have to say those caves look unusually awesome. The first photo you have looks like something I only see in my rather weird dreams. I would love to visit this someday and take tons of photos. Awesome post!

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    • September 4, 2017 at 10:05 pm
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      Hahahah right?! It didn’t feel real, walking into the cave and suddenly being surrounded by blue bubbly ice like this! Definitely my most memorable hike and one of the coolest outdoor experiences ever!

      Reply
  • September 3, 2017 at 5:01 pm
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    That would be sad if all the ice caves that there were melted away. I do hope to make it out there at some point and see the amazing glaciers that there are.

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    • September 4, 2017 at 10:06 pm
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      I hope you get to see them too! Hopefully they last longer than what’s predicted of them!

      Reply
  • September 3, 2017 at 2:53 pm
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    Great blog post! This place is something I would really love to see. Beautiful photos. I don’t go camping or hiking nearly as much as I want to. I am planning a camping trip at the end of this month though, so reading this blog was a big help! I can’t wait

    Reply
    • September 4, 2017 at 10:07 pm
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      Thank you! It might help to also read my solo female hiking guide post on my blog A Jaunt With Joy! Even men and non-solo hikers get valuable information from it, and there’s a lot on camping in there too! Just use the search bar and type solo hiking and it should pop up! =)

      Reply
  • September 3, 2017 at 10:20 am
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    Those views are incredible!! I would love to go hiking inside the caves. That’s so sad to hear that they are melting, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Hope I make it up to Alaska in time!

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    • September 3, 2017 at 4:38 pm
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      I hope you can too! Every turn you take in this state is just drop dead gorgeous!

      Reply
  • September 3, 2017 at 7:53 am
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    Wow, what a chilly adventure! I have never seen a glacier so closely and this Mendenhall Glacier is a lovely place to discover nature’s wonder. As you have said that due to global warming these glaciers are melting, it might disappear in 10 years so I have to plan early before they disappear. Nice information on what preparation we have to do before coming here.

    Reply
    • September 3, 2017 at 4:40 pm
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      Glad you liked the article! There are tons of ways you can view this glacier, including by raft kayak stand-up-paddleboard etc! I hope you get to make it out to Alaska someday soon!

      Reply
  • September 3, 2017 at 6:46 am
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    I can’t find the right words to describe the ice caves. It doesn’t look like it’s from this Earth. It is seriously spectacular and I would love the chance to visit it someday.

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    • September 3, 2017 at 4:41 pm
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      Right?! The second you go inside, you’re instantly dumbstruck haha

      Reply
  • September 3, 2017 at 12:36 am
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    Hopefully, one of these days, we could explore these glacier ice caves led by trained guides of course, as nobody wants to fall into a crevasse. As a visit to this iconic destination is the culmination of any land excursions in Alaska.

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    • September 3, 2017 at 4:44 pm
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      So true haha The chances of falling into a crevasse are only possible if you’re climbing around on the top of the glacier and without crampons on your shoes. Otherwise, if you do the hike alone, just don’t try climbing all over the top part haha It really is such a unique location, and the epitome of a truly Alaskan visit!

      Reply
  • September 2, 2017 at 11:22 pm
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    The Mendenhall Glacier looks breathtaking. it is so sad that global warming is accelerating its demise. I hope to one day see it for myself. Your photos look amazing! 🙂

    Reply
    • September 3, 2017 at 4:45 pm
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      Thank you! I hope you get the chance to get to Alaska and see it too!

      Reply
  • September 2, 2017 at 3:45 pm
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    WOW! These caves look so breathtakingly beautiful; reminded me of GOT. 😀 😀 Thanks for sharing all the information, I have added these to my must visit list.

    Reply
  • September 2, 2017 at 11:53 am
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    Oh wow, these look absolutely amazing. I would love to visit these one day.

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  • September 2, 2017 at 9:52 am
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    Bookmarked. Mendenhall Glacier ice caves looks amazing. And I intend to go here before it’s too late. Your first picture had me dumbstruck. It took me an effort to realize it is for real.

    Reply
    • September 2, 2017 at 5:04 pm
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      Hahahah That’s great! I can’t wait for you to go and see it for yourself!

      Reply
  • September 2, 2017 at 8:47 am
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    What an absolutely amazing experience to have! I do hope that these beautiful glaciers will stay with us and not melt away. I am not an experienced hiker so I definitely will need to go do this on a tour. I can’t believe the entrance had melted and collapsed 2 days after your visit – how sad! This looks like a once in a lifetime experience to have.

    Reply
    • September 2, 2017 at 5:08 pm
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      It’s definitely a shame that they won’t be around forever for everyone to witness it’s insane beauty. I was so shocked to see how much they changed in just 2 years from my first visit!

      Reply
  • September 2, 2017 at 8:19 am
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    I would love to go to Alaska. This looks like an incredible experience , but tough. How sad to think that they will not be around forever.

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    • September 2, 2017 at 5:11 pm
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      The hike itself isn’t tough, as long as you know your way and follow updated directions. Definitely a shame that they won’t last forever though.

      Reply
  • September 2, 2017 at 3:30 am
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    Whoa Alaska is a dream destination for me ever since I read the book In To The Wild. With this blog, you have done justice to the beauty that Alaska is. There is always uncertainity in places like this. Common sense helps in handling dangers lurking in trips like these.

    Reply
    • September 2, 2017 at 6:13 am
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      I love that book! And I totally agree that having common sense and at least prior knowledge of what to expect on a trail, is super helpful. And sometimes lifesaving! It would’ve been so easy to sprain an ankle on part of this hike. I can’t believe so many people there had the wrong shoes for it! I saw a girl in Ugg boots! That’s a huge risk on a trail like this!

      Reply
  • September 2, 2017 at 2:07 am
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    Some really incredible pics here, I’ve got Alaska on my places to visit and would love to do another glacier hike. I did one in Fox Glacier in New Zealand. Glaciers are so majestic but I can imagine and from seeing your pics this would be amazing to do 😀

    Reply
    • September 2, 2017 at 6:15 am
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      Thank you! It’s hard to take a bad photo of Alaska though. It’s just so jaw-dropping at every turn!
      Just googled the Fox Glacier you did and it looks incredible! Hope you get to Alaska some day soon!

      Reply
  • September 1, 2017 at 9:15 pm
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    Mendenhall Glacier ice caves looks amazing! It must have been a different world altogether! I remember when i explored the Limestone caves in Andaman and Nicobar islands, I didn’t wish to come back so i can fully understand the urge to adapt and stay on in Mendenhall Glacier ice caves. By the way, I never knew that ice worms exist! So thanks for the information and an entertaining post!

    Reply
    • September 1, 2017 at 9:46 pm
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      The limestone caves sound incredible! I’ll definitely be adding those to my bucket list as well! I’m so glad you enjoyed my post here on camping for women! Be sure to check out the rest of my travel and outdoor posts on my blog A Jaunt With Joy! 🙂

      Reply
  • September 1, 2017 at 7:56 pm
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    Omg this is my kind of adventure! I love it! Hopefully the ice cave is still for us in a few years. Just so sad but I guess this is the reality…nothing last forever.

    Reply
    • September 1, 2017 at 9:48 pm
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      Are you planning a visit to these caves in a few years?! I hope you get to see them!

      Reply

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