Overview of Juneau
Juneau is one of the most scenic state capitals in the USA, and cruise ships sailing Southeast Alaska's Inside Passage almost always include Juneau as a port of call. The city is surrounded by rainforests, mountains, intercoastal waterways, and glaciers, contributing to the many terrific activities for visitors who are either in Juneau for the day or who are extending their Alaska cruise vacation. Juneau is the only state capital that is inaccessible from a car--you have to arrive via cruise ship, air, or ferry.
Juneau only has a population of about 31 thousand residents but is Alaska's third most populated city (after Anchorage and Fairbanks). Juneau is also the largest state capital, covering 3,255 square miles. Everything in Alaska is big! Finally, it's the only state capital which borders a foreign country. Because of its size and importance as the state capital, Juneau has good shopping and excellent bars and restaurants.
Although many of Juneau's visitors arrive and stay on cruise ships, the city has several very good hotels. I've been to Juneau four times and spent the night in two of Juneau's largest hotels, the Goldbelt Hotel and the Westmark Baranof Hotel. Both were excellent traditional hotels with all the expected amenities. I also stayed two nights at the small boutique hotel the Silverbow Inn, which is much like a bed and breakfast since it includes an outstanding breakfast at the adjoining Silverbow Bakery & Cafe. I loved the ambiance of this old historic building built in 1914--it had antiques in the lobby, but all the amenities found at a traditional hotel in the rooms. The Silverbow Inn staff were very accommodating and helpful and the large table in the lobby was conducive to interacting with our fellow guests or enjoying the coffee and snacks always available.
If you are on a cruise ship, you probably will only have a day in Juneau, so you will have to decide which of the many activities to pursue. Those who are staying longer will have the opportunity to experience more of the many diverse things to do and see in the city.
Juneau also offers whale watching, wildlife viewing adventures, salmon bakes, fresh and saltwater fishing, biking, museums, glacier trekking, and all even sorts of winter recreation.
Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area
Many who spend a part of their Alaska vacation in Juneau ride the 13-miles to the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area. The glacier was named in 1892 for Thomas Corwin Mendenhall, who was appointed by President Harrison and served as the Superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey from 1889 to 1894. Mendenhall also was on the Alaska Boundary Commission that was responsible for surveying the international boundary between Canada and Alaska.
The Visitor Center, which opened in 1962, has over 400 thousand visitors each year. This center is in the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest and was the first Forest Service center built in the USA. The indoor observatory at the Visitor Center offers great views of the Mendenhall Glacier and excellent educational exhibits and materials (videos, maps, charts, and photos) on glaciers and the flora and fauna of the area. There is a small admission fee to the center, but not to the outdoor part of the recreation area or the toilets.
The Mendenhall Glacier is one of the 38 glaciers in the Juneau Icefield and is one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. You can drive, take a tour bus from the cruise ship pier, or even take a city bus to the park. The views of the glacier are impressive, and it's important to note that about 12 miles of the Mendenhall Glacier can't be seen from the Visitor Center.
The area has many hiking trails of varying lengths (paved, unpaved, or wooden walkways), some of which provide excellent scenic views of the glacier. The trails also lead to waterfalls, salmon streams, and vast forest lands. The recreation area around the glacier offers great opportunities for viewing wildlife such as bears, beavers, porcupines, minks, and eagles. Hearty hikers with a full day to dedicate to hiking might want to try the West Glacier Trail, which takes you to the edge of the Mendenhall Glacier. This trail doesn't start near the Visitor Center as most of the other trails do. You will need to take the Mendenhall Loop Road to Montana Creek Road and follow the signs to the Mendenhall Campground.
Mount Roberts Tramway
The Mount Roberts Tramway operates right at the cruise ship pier and carries passengers 1800 feet up the side of Mount Roberts. The cars run every 6 minutes. If it's a clear day, you will have great views of downtown Juneau, Douglas Island, Admiralty Island, and the Chilkat Mountains. If it's really clear, you might even get a glimpse of Glacier Bay to the northwest.
When you reach the top of the tramway, there's a short 18-minute film on the Tlingit culture that is included in the price of the tram ticket, a gift shop, and snack bar.
Walk outdoors and you will find the non-releasable bald eagle at the Juneau Raptor Center. (She was too injured to be released into the wild after her rehabilitation.) You will also find miles of nature and hiking trails.
The extensive trail system ranges in difficulty from the 1/2-mile Alpine Loop Trail to the 6-mile hike to the summit of Mount Roberts, over 3800 feet above sea level (and about 2000 feet higher than the Tram Mountain House. Many make the intermediate hike to Father Brown's Cross, which provides sweeping views of the Gastineau Channel and Juneau. The cross is about 300 feet higher than the starting point at the Nature Center. We even saw snow left over from the previous winter in early September from the trail.
Hearty hikers with plenty of time can do a one-way ride on the tram by either hiking to the top of the tramway or by hiking back down the mountain using the trail that starts on Basin Road in Juneau.
Helicopter Glacier Flightseeing and Dog Sledding in Juneau
A helicopter ride over glaciers and snowy slopes of the Juneau Icefield on a spectacular sunny day is one of the best tours I've ever taken. Like most helicopter and float plane rides in Alaska, it's very expensive, but truly a memorable adventure. We zipped over the glaciers and around the mountains, leaving the green mountains surrounding Juneau on a warm sunny August day and arriving just a few minutes later in a white wonderland.
When the helicopter stopped, we were at a summer camp for sled dogs training for the Iditarod Race the next year.
Our small group spent time speaking with the mushers and petting the dogs. I also had a wild ride on a dog sled, which was as much fun as I expected it to be.
Sea kayaking is a fun activity that can be done in many places. I've sea kayaked in the Bahamas and from the small Alaska ships the Mist Cove and Wilderness Discoverer, so was excited about kayaking near Juneau with my friend Julie.
The glacier view sea kayaking adventure with Alaska Travel Adventures seemed like a good fit for us since it was advertised as, "No prior experience necessary, just good health and an adventurous spirit". We both certainly have adventurous spirits!
We joined a bus at the cruise ship pier and rode through Juneau and across the bridge to North Douglas Island. About 25 minutes after leaving Juneau, we were at the boat ramp where the kayaks were lined up along the shore. The boat ramp was just across from Mendenhall Glacier and Auke Bay. The two guides gave us a short lesson, and we donned our gear and boarded the kayaks. These sea kayaks had foot pedals in the rear seat of the 2-man kayaks that operated the rudder, making them easier to steer.
We were divided into two groups of five kayaks each, and we spent over two hours paddling around the bay--one group going clockwise and the other counter-clockwise. Julie and I were probably the least experienced kayakers in our group, so we had trouble keeping up. It seemed like every time we would catch up with the group, they would be ready to move on. Since we could always keep them in sight, we didn't expect them to wait for us but would have liked for the guide to occasionally paddle back to provide us with some of the information he was giving the rest of the group. Although I can hike for miles, having good upper body strength is important if you want to keep up with a kayaking group. Exacerbating our exhausting experience were the tidal currents and the wind in our faces on the return trip.
We did love the quietness of the kayaking experience and the wildlife. The bay was filled with numerous harbor seals, and eagles kept gliding overhead. Guess our slow paddling was entertaining for them!
After the exhilarating but tiring kayak, we were treated to a delicious snack of reindeer sausage, cheese, salmon spread, crackers, and water. It was a fun trip, but those not in good shape may find it exhausting. The good news is that you will burn off some of those calories being consumed on your cruise ship!
Jeep Tours and Hiking
Juneau's main coastal highway is only about 45 miles long--5 miles south of Juneau and about 40 miles north of town. However, several other roads cross this main highway and also run along Douglas Island. Juneau Jeep Adventures offers jeep tours of the area, including a tour of several scenic and historical sites and a combination jeep, rainforest hiking, and zip lining tour.
Since I love hiking and zip lining, we chose the second tour, and it was a great one. Our excellent, enthusiastic, knowledgeable guide/driver made the experience even more enjoyable and educational. She picked us up at our hotel, the Silverbow Inn, and we rode around downtown Juneau while she pointed out some of the historical and governmental sites. Moving across the Gastineau Channel on the Juneau-Douglas Bridge, we turned north and rode almost to the end of the island, stopping at the Rainforest Trail for a 1.5-mile hike along the well-maintained gravel trail. Our guide's knowledge of the mushrooms, fungi, and other plant life along the trail was good, and she pointed out many things we might have overlooked. The hike took us along the beach, and we could see the Chilkat Mountains in the distance.
Juneau has many other hiking opportunities, including around the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area, Mount Roberts, and downtown Juneau. One popular trail is the 3-mile "Perseverance Trail", which starts downtown on Gold Street. It follows one of the valleys that produced Juneau's gold and also connects to the more strenuous trail to the top of Mount Juneau.
Following our hike on the Rainforest Trail led by the guide/driver from Juneau Jeep Adventures, she dropped us at the Eaglecrest ski area for the last part of our tour--zip lining with Alaska Zipline Adventures.
I've been ziplining in Mexico and in Antigua but was very excited about zipping over the rainforest canopy of Alaska. My friend Julie had never been zip lining but was enthusiastic about trying it. We had a short briefing and donned our rain suits. Although it wasn't raining, they would protect our clothing from the tree sap. Next, we boarded a van for the ride up the hill to the starting point of the zip lines.
The instructors helped us rig the gear, and we walked up a flight of stairs to the first zip line. We noticed that a short zip line near the gear station was labeled the "Bunny Hill", incorporating the skiing term for a beginner's slope into the adventure. Since they hadn't suggested that anyone in our group might want to try this easy zip, I asked who it was used for. The guides said that some newbies who were uncertain about zipping liked to use that line first since once you start the course, you have to complete it. Guess they could tell that we were all nervous, but not petrified about beginning the experience!
The Alaska Zipline Adventures course at Eaglecrest was exciting, and I loved the themed platforms, which served to both educate and entertain us while we were waiting our turn. Julie was very nervous before her first zip, but loved the experience and was sad when we completed the zipping and crossed the swinging bridge that led back to the ski lodge. The course had five zip lines, with the longest one being about 750 feet long.
This zip lining course was operated a little differently than those I had been on before. One of the two group leaders used a brake to stop us instead of our having to wear a glove and use our hand to slow down. This made ziplining much easier since I didn't have to concentrate on stopping. It also made doing tricks (like zipping upside down or flipping over) easier for those who were more athletic. (not me)
After completing the zip lining, one of the zip line leaders dropped us back at the cruise ship dock in downtown Juneau. This was a fun experience and an excellent way to see more of the Juneau area since the course is on Douglas Island at the ski area.
Walking Tour of Downtown Juneau
Although Juneau features many fun and exciting organized outdoor activities, exploring Alaska's capital city on foot is both interesting and educational. Cruise ships dock in the heart of downtown, and maps of the area are readily available at the Visitor Center near the Library on the Franklin Street waterfront or at the Centennial Hall Convention Center on Egan Drive. The size of the downtown area is very compact since it is constricted by water on one side and mountains on the other. It's impossible to get lost since you can see the large cruise ships along the harbor.
Before crossing the street to browse in the dozens of shops selling everything from Native art to t-shirts and jewelry, take the time to look at the interesting dog statue you see when disembarking your ship. It is that of Patsy Ann, a stray dog who greeted every ship visiting Juneau in the 1930's. Her story is touching, and I always associate this small dog with Juneau. The waterfront pier also features three other memorials--one to the men who work in the commercial fishing industry; the second to the USS Juneau, a ship christened by the Juneau mayor's wife in 1942 and sank later that same year during World War II; and the third to Archie Van Winkle, the first Alaskan to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.
If you are a shopper or a pub crawler, you will find plenty of places in Juneau to buy a souvenir or have a beer. The Red Dog Saloon, at the corner of Franklin Street and Marine Way, is very noisy and touristy, but exactly the type of bar visitors associate with the gold rush days. You probably won't find any locals there, but it's worth a peek to see the inside. Many of the other bars are quieter and more authentic. Whichever bar stool you sit on, be sure to order one of the beers made at Juneau's Alaskan Brewing Co.
A good place to get an overview of Juneau is at the Alaska State Museum on Whittier Street off Egan Drive. It has impressive exhibits of Alaska's history, including those dedicated to the Native culture, Russian involvement in Alaska, and wildlife. The Juneau-Douglas City Museum at Fourth and Main Streets across the street from the State Capitol includes an emphasis on the history of the town and life of the pioneers. The first Alaska state flag was raised in front of this building on July 4, 1959. Those interested in Juneau's role in the mining industry might want to take the 45-minute walk (or a short ride) to the Last Chance Mining Museum at the end of Basin Road. The museum features some of the original tools and machines from the Alaska-Juneau Gold Mining Co., which operated in Juneau from 1912 to 1944.
Since Juneau is the state capital of Alaska, it has some interesting government buildings. The State Capitol building on 4th Street has free tours. Not surprisingly, since Alaska's population is so small, it's much less grand in size than some state capitol buildings. The Governor's House, which is an elegant residence, is also not as grand as some I have seen. However, it is within easy walking distance of the capitol. The Governor can walk to work!
Like most cities, downtown Juneau has some interesting historic churches like the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, which was built in 1894. It features the onion domes seen on other Russian Orthodox churches around the world.
Alaskan Brewing Company
In 1986, a young Juneau couple convinced 80 other Alaskans to invest in their new venture--a craft brewery--and the Alaskan Brewing Company was born. The craft brewery has grown to produce a wide variety of year-round and seasonal beers, all made from the clear icy waters surrounding Juneau. The beers have garnered over 100 major medals and awards, and beer aficionados will certainly want to try one (or more) of the brews when visiting Juneau. The beer is also now available in several of the lower 48 states. The investors and the (now older) couple have done well.
The Alaskan Brewing Company Brewery and Tasting Room offers free tours. Visitors learn about the history of the company and how beer is made. The tour includes a look at the original 10-barrel brewing system and the current 100-barrel brewing system. It's fun to browse the collection of artifacts from Alaska brewing history, as well as the international collection of beer bottles and cans. You can buy beer gear such as apparel, glassware, and fun novelties. Last (but not least), visitors get to enjoy free samples of the beer.
When we visited the brewery, nine different beers were available for tasting, including year-round offerings like the original Alaskan Amber, seasonal beers like summer or winter ale, and limited edition beers like the smoked Porter. The brewery also usually has a rough draft beer available for tasting. These beers are just small batches of specialty brews sold on draft only in Alaska. Some of the beers now produced either year round or seasonally started out as appropriately-named rough drafts.
I was impressed by the company's dedication to the environment and their innovative ways of helping to protect it. Alaskan Brewing Co. was the first craft brewery in the USA to install a carbon dioxide recovery system and an energy and water saving mash filter process. Since Juneau does not have roads connecting it to the outside world, all raw materials and products must arrive or leave by air or water, so saving energy (and costs) is even more imperative.
Those who arrive via cruise ship may be disappointed to learn that the brewery and tasting room are located about five miles from the cruise ship dock. However, the company has an Alaskan Brewing Depot retail store on Franklin Street in downtown Juneau that features all sorts of branded gear. More importantly, the store has a direct shuttle to the brewery and tasting room. The shuttle departs hourly from the Depot at 40 minutes past each hour, beginning at 10:40 am. You can learn more and guarantee your spot on the shuttle by checking in at the Depot when you arrive in Juneau or book online.
Macaulay Salmon Hatchery
Riding from the airport into Juneau on my first visit to Juneau, I was amazed by the millions of salmon we saw in the streams we crossed in just the nine miles separating the airport from downtown. Although I knew the basic story of salmon returning from the ocean to where they were hatched years before, I never thought there would be so many.
I am sure that others who visit Juneau and other places in Alaska are also fascinated by salmon. Children and adults who travel to Juneau will both enjoy a visit to the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery, which is located 2.5 miles from downtown on the road to the airport. The hatchery provides amazing views of salmon sights and allows those visiting the facility to learn first-hand about Alaska's wild salmon. At the entrance, there's a birds-eye-view of a fish ladder and outdoor hatchery operations, accompanied by a 5-7 minute long informative commentary from a local guide.
Inside the hatchery are aquariums displaying a variety of local marine life; including somewhere you can touch a variety of local sea animals. The gift shop sells a variety of local arts and also will ship wild salmon anywhere in the USA. They even have tastings of a variety of salmon samples such as king salmon dip, salmon caviar, salmon jerky, and canned salmon.
Tracy Arm near Juneau
Tracy Arm is about 45 miles south of Juneau, but boats in Juneau offer full-day tours of the fjord and its twin Sawyer Glaciers. Many cruise ships include shore excursions to Tracy Arm so that its guests can see the waterfalls, towering granite walls, and icy blue glaciers. In addition, they might see seals, whales, bears, or many types of birds.
If you have extra time in Juneau and haven't seen a tidewater glacier, then a side trip to beautiful Tracy Arm might be of interest.