Juneau is one of the most scenic state capitals in the U.S., 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, inter-coastal waterways, and glaciers, serving as a marvelous backdrop for the many terrific activities for visitors. 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 32,000 but is Alaska's third most populated city (after Anchorage and Fairbanks). Juneau is also the largest state capital in the U.S., covering 3,255 square miles. 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.
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 want to plan even more adventures. Juneau offers whale watching, wildlife viewing adventures, salmon bakes, fresh and saltwater fishing, biking, museums, glacier trekking, and winter recreation such as skiing and snowboarding.
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, touting over 400 thousand visitors each year, 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 restrooms.
The Mendenhall Glacier, one of the 38 glaciers in the Juneau Icefield, 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 forestlands. 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 so you'll need to take the Mendenhall Loop Road to Montana Creek Road and follow the signs to the Mendenhall Campground.
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 likely find a beautiful bald eagle at the Juneau Raptor Center. (If a bird is too injured to be released into the wild after rehabilitation, they may live at the center.) You will also find miles of nature and hiking trails.
The extensive trail system ranges in difficulty from the half-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.
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.
Those who take a helicopter tour may stop at a summer camp for sled dogs training for the Iditarod Race the next year. The dogsled operator is flown up via helicopter early in the season and sets up camp on the Herbert Glacier in advance of the summer tours.
Small groups spend time speaking with the mushers and petting the dogs. You may have the opportunity to have a wild ride on a dog sled.
Paddle a Sea Kayak
Sea kayaking is a fun activity that can be done in many places. Some sea kayaking tours offered in Juneau advertise that you can take a kayak tour without previous kayaking experience—just an adventurous spirit.
Usually, you'll board a bus at the cruise ship pier and ride through Juneau and across the bridge to North Douglas Island. On this particular tour option, about 25 minutes after leaving Juneau you will be at the boat ramp just across from Mendenhall Glacier and Auke Bay. The kayaks are lined up on the shore but first, the guides will give participants a short lesson, help you don your gear, and assist you with boarding the kayaks. Two-person sea kayaks often have foot pedals in the rear seat that operate the rudder, making them easier to steer.
You may spend over two hours paddling around the bay so having good upper body strength is important if you want to keep up with a kayaking group. You can expect to paddle against tidal currents and wind at least part of the time.
When you kayak, you may see harbor seals and eagles gliding overhead. After the workout paddling kayaks, some outfitters treat guests to snacks like reindeer sausage, cheese, salmon spread, crackers, and water.
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. Several jeep companies offer tours of the area and a combination jeep, rainforest hiking, and zip-lining tour.
On one of the hike and jeep tour options, the knowledgeable guide can pick you up at your hotel and the tour begins with a ride around downtown Juneau where the guide points out some of the historical and governmental sites. Moving across the Gastineau Channel on the Juneau-Douglas Bridge, the route turns north and you'll ride almost to the end of the island, stopping at the Rainforest Trail for a 1.5-mile hike along the well-maintained gravel trail. The guide's knowledge of the mushrooms, fungi, and other plant life along the trail adds to the experience. The trip then takes you along the beach where you can 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.
Catch a ride to the Eaglecrest ski area for a zipline adventure. Once at Eaglecrest, you'll have a short briefing and don rain suits which protect your clothing from the tree sap. Next, you'll board a van for the ride up the hill to the starting point of the zip lines.
The instructors help rig the gear, and participants walk up a flight of stairs to the first zip line. There's a short zip line near the gear station—newbies who are uncertain about zipping like to use that line first since once you start the course, you have to complete it.
The zipline course is exciting and incorporates themed platforms serving to both educate and entertain participants while waiting for their turn. Once you finish the zipline course, you'll take the swinging bridge that leads back to the ski lodge.
After completing the zip line course you'll be taken back to the cruise ship dock in downtown Juneau.
Walk Around Downtown Juneau
Although Juneau features many fun and exciting organized outdoor activities, exploring Alaska's capital city independently 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 the touching story of Patsy Ann, a stray dog who greeted every ship visiting Juneau in the 1930s. 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. Be sure to order one of the beers made at Juneau's award-winning Alaskan Brewing Company.
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 Company 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, an elegant residence, is within easy walking distance of the capitol.
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 iconic onion domes seen on Russian Orthodox churches around the world.
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) when visiting Juneau.
The Alaskan Brewing Company Brewery and Tasting Room offers free tours where 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.
The brewery also usually has a rough draft beer available for tasting in addition to a tasting menu of current offerings. 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.
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. For $25 round-trip, Liquid Alaska Tours provides hourly transportation between the brewery's locations. The shuttle departs from the Depot at 40 minutes past each hour, beginning at 10:40 a.m. The price includes a guided tasting. Advance reservations can be made directly through Liquid Alaska Tours.
Visit the Salmon Hatchery
When you visit Juneau, you'll be amazed by the millions of salmon you'll see in the streams surrounding the city. Children and adults who travel to Juneau will 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 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 informative commentary from a local guide. Admission is $5.00 for adults and $3.00 for children 12 and under.
Inside the hatchery are aquariums displaying a variety of local marine life including touch tanks. The gift shop sells the work of local artists and also will ship wild salmon anywhere in the U.S. They even offer tastings of a variety of salmon products such as king salmon dip, salmon caviar, salmon jerky, and canned salmon.
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 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 would be a great day trip.
A helicopter ride over glaciers and snowy slopes of the Juneau Icefield on a spectacularly sunny day is one of the best tours I've ever taken. Like most helicopter and floatplane rides in Alaska, it's very expensive, but truly a memorable adventure. You can zip 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 snowy wonderland.
Spend the Night
Although many of Juneau's visitors arrive and stay on cruise ships, the city has several very good hotels. Two of Juneau's largest hotels, the Four Points by Sheraton and the Baranof Hotel are excellent traditional hotels with upscale amenities. You can also stay at the small boutique hotel the Silverbow Inn where guests enjoy the ambiance of this old historic building built in 1914—it has antiques in the lobby, yet all the room amenities found at a traditional hotel. The large table in the lobby is conducive to interacting with fellow guests or enjoying the coffee and snacks that are always available.