While Alaska’s glaciers may have worldwide renown, the Mendenhall Valley contains its own marvel lovingly crafted by Steve and Cindy Bowhay, the owners of a truly unique botanical garden in the Tongass National Forest.
Dotted throughout the garden are upside-down trees, known as “Flower Towers,” that have their tops buried in the ground and their roots thrust up in the air, forming a basket that cradles colorful trailing flowers. Netting and mosses form a bed in the center of the root ball, where begonias, fuchsias, and petunias bloom brilliantly bright and delicately hang down from the overturned tree.
The Mendenhall Glacier itself is a rarity, as it is one of the world’s few drive-up glaciers. It lies at the foot of Thunder Mountain, where the Bowhays acquired a large tract of land in 1985 after a landslide demolished much of the face of the mountain, uprooting nearly everything and destroying one of the main streams.Steve, a landscaper by trade, set out to restore the stream and harness its water for a hydroelectricity plant to power new greenhouses. Settling ponds were designed to slow the rate of water erosion and provide a series of waterfalls on the garden property.
Stories have it that while rebuilding the stream, Steve accidentally damaged the moving equipment and, in a fit of frustration, used the machine to pick up a large fallen tree stump and slam it upside-down into the soft mud. The image of roots hanging down like petunia vines apparently gave him the inspiration to repeat his action, inverting over 20 other dead spruce and hemlock trees in order to plant more than 75 flowers in their root bowls each year.
Other flowers that flourish in this unique botanical garden include rhododendrons, azaleas, Japanese maples, devil’s club, elderberry shrubs, Sitka spruce, and western hemlock. Visitors can also journey up to the rock face cliff atop Thunder Mountain, which offers beautiful panoramic views over the city of Juneau.
Know Before You Go
The Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure is open from May through September. Tours are offered aboard covered carts to cruise ship passengers and landlubbers alike.