Updated Friday, December 21, 2012 at 12:01 PM
ON MY first morning in Juneau, a massive humpback whale surfaced 50 yards from my kayak. That afternoon, I drove 15 minutes from my hotel to the shimmering Mendenhall Glacier.
Juneau, the Alaskan capital, is a little enclave with the wilderness literally in its back — and front — yard.
I didn't get close to any more humpbacks during my Juneau stay, but each day I returned to the Mendenhall, mesmerized by the glacier's ghostly-blue walls of ice.
At almost 13 miles long, half a mile wide and hundreds of feet deep, the Mendenhall is a river of ice that flows at, yes, a glacial pace out of the vast Juneau Icefield.
It's one of the most easily accessible glaciers in the world — a unique drive-up attraction — and one of Alaska's most visited places, thanks to a summer torrent of tourists from the cruise ships that flock to Juneau.
But on dreary fall days, I had the vistas of the glacier's icy face, and the small Mendenhall Lake that spreads out from it, almost to myself.
Start at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center for displays and sweeping views. Walk the easygoing interpretive trails. Take a canoe/kayak tour to get close to the glacier's face and the ice floes it calves off. Or splurge on a helicopter tour to the Juneau Icefield, where you can take a short stroll in an icebound world.
Kristin R. Jackson is The Seattle Times' NWTraveler editor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MICHAEL PENN / THE JUNEAU EMPIRE
A family skates across the frozen Mendenhall Lake in Juneau on a winter day.