Arriving into Juneau’s port is nothing short of breathtaking.
Mounts Juneau and Roberts tower above the downtown grid as the small-town streets wind up hillsides and meander over their sloping flanks, taking up the last space left between the ocean and steep bedrock.
Alaska’s capital city, nestled on the northern end of Alaska’s panhandle, is pounded by rains for most of the year—roughly 15 feet to be exact. But what the rains leave behind is much more than a mud hole. The temperate rainforest of this region, made up primarily of the vast Tongass National Forest, is a saturated landscape rich in flora and fauna. On nearby Admiralty Island, for instance, there exists the largest concentration of brown bears in the world with a population estimated at around 1,500. Humpback whales frequent the waters near shore, gorging on krill and herring, which in turn feed on the algae blooms found all summer long. There are bald eagles perched on Sitka spruce waiting for the agitated salmon that leap skyward. There are black bears that wander on neighborhood trails and orcas that pay a visit to downtown Juneau each year.
It’s fair to say there are plenty of things to see and do in Juneau, which still has the feel of a quaint historic town. Tallying in at more than 32,000 residents, this is a city built—quite literally—on the rock left over from gold mining efforts in the early 1900s. The city is also the heart of Alaska’s government, with original buildings and relics that date back to the days the state was just a territory.
But for the visitor, time is limited. So, whether it’s a port call of four to six hours, or perhaps a few days, how does one go about making the best of this experience?
First Up: Mendenhall Glacier
Get it, while it’s still good.
That’s the motto many are taking when it comes to Juneau’s hometown glacier—the Mendenhall.
Like most in the world today, this glacier is receding at a rapid clip. Many local researchers and experts believe that soon the glacier will recede so far, it will no longer be visible from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, an educational facility managed by the U.S. Forest Service. When first under construction, the center was located only a stone’s through from the face of the glacier. Today, the face still looks massive and the deep blue ice pristine, but it’s now more than a mile away from the center, separated from up-close views in the summer by Mendenhall Lake.
It’s still a visit worth making, however.
Hop a cab in downtown Juneau to avoid the masses arriving in busses and walk one of the many accessible trails that radiate from the parking lot near the visitor center. The Nugget Falls Trail was recently completed in 2011 and follows the contours of the lake toward a raging Nugget Falls; the end of the trail also offers unique views of the glacier’s actively calving face. For a longer and more ambitious hike, check out the East Glacier Trail, which winds hikers roughly 3.5 miles into the rainforest, offering breathtaking views of the glacier, Nugget Creek and the mountains that surround the area.
When salmon arrive in nearby Steep Creek, try the Steep Creek Trail, because the black bears emerge from the rainforest to feast. This boardwalk trail is built off the ground to provide safe passage for the bears and wildlife beneath. Visitors can watch a sow lead her cubs up a cottonwood while she fishes, or watch the porcupine come out of the shadows to nibble on willow tips. Even the beavers, which build dams in the area, come out once in a while to watch the show.
Whether it’s mountain goats on the slopes of Mount Bullard or black bears feasting in the creek, there’s never nothing to see at the Mendenhall Glacier. And, while there’s a fee to enter the visitor center, which is open most days in summer, the trails at the site are always free.
Quick tip: Make sure to use the bathroom before heading out; facilities get crowded quickly and 20-minute waits are common.
Mount Roberts Tramway
Vistas certainly abound in Juneau. But getting to some of the most memorable isn’t easy.
Take the Mount Roberts Tramway for the easiest access up the steep slopes of Mount Roberts for an above treeline view of the Alaska landscape that surrounds this nestled community.
The regularly departing tramway lifts off from the downtown dock—it’s a hard site to miss—and carries folks up to a tangle of trails, amenities and experiences atop the alpine ridge. Here, naturalists are on hand to talk about the ecosystems that exist above treeline, the animals, such as marmots, that live year round in the harsh environment. There’s a bar and grill, two gift shops, restroom facilities and an eagle. Yes, that’s right.
Miss Baltimore is a bald eagle that was gravely injured years ago when one of her eyes was damaged. She was rescued and rehabilitated by Juneau Raptor Center volunteers and has since worked each summer as an education bird at the top of the tram.
It’s best to follow the short loops of trails that meander from the top tram station for views of wildflowers, weatherworn peaks and misty valleys. For the most adventurous folks, follow the singletrack trail all the way up the ridge to the summit of Mount Roberts. This advanced trail is for only the most sure-footed, but also offers some of the greatest rewards.
Locals can often be found hiking from the based trailhead to the top tram building. Popular too with visitors, the more than two-mile hike is a steep one, but one that follows a well-traveled trail that’s wide enough in spots to walk side by side. For most, it’s the food and drink at the top that proves to be the biggest motivator. And if you spend more than $10 at the top, the ride down in the tramcar is free with receipt.
Taku Glacier Lodge
Need to get out of the hustle and bustle of downtown? Looking for a true Alaskan experience? A short flight out to Taku Glacier Lodge for their glacier tour and lunchtime feast is a must for any visitor to Juneau looking for an adventure that makes the most of a short port call.
When the weather is right, Wings flies guests in DeHavilland Turbo Otter floatplanes from the downtown docks out to the Taku Glacier Lodge, a locally owned day lodge on the banks of the Taku River, located southeast of Juneau.
Only accessible by boat or plane, this historic lodge has many stories to tell and was made famous by one enterprising Alaskan woman, Mary Joyce, who was recently inducted into the Alaska Hall of Fame for her solo dog sled expedition from Juneau to Fairbanks across the Juneau Icefield, among other feats.
But these days, the lodge is perhaps best known for it’s frequent furry visitors—the wild black bears—that saunter in after the grill is turned off to lick up the last bits of salmon grease.
Eat and drink like a local
Locals are quite proud of their hometown Alaskan Brewing Co. that has made itself known in the craft brewing industry. Don’t take my word for it, however, taste for yourself at their local tasting room.
Hop a cab from downtown or hitch a ride in their shuttle to the quaint brewery for a tour of the facility and free tastings. Also on tap regularly are some of the brewing crew’s favorites, as well as any rough draft brews the company may be testing.
Enjoy the gift shop, chat with brewers or wander through the memorabilia of the building; no matter how much time visitors spend at the brewery, few leave without a smile on their face.
Juneau’s downtown is in the midst of revitalization—new restaurants are opening regularly, quaint cafes have begun to fill niches and food carts are common.
When dining in Juneau, there are lots of summer options. Don’t miss Tracy’s King Crab shack, a locally-owned eatery specializing in king crab, in her new location on the docks; she’s just a little farther south, but still right on the water. Also check out new restaurants Saffron and Salt, featuring Indian cuisine and Mediterranean bistro fare, respectively. Located slightly off the beaten path is another locally owned spot called Coppa, serving espresso, light lunch fare and homemade, whole fat ice cream and baked goods.
Other popular spots with locals include Heritage Coffee Company, with two locations downtown; the Alaskan Fudge Co., which is easily located by the scent of chocolate; the Twisted Fish, El Sombrero and Rainbow Foods, to name only a few.
There’s much to do and even more to see in Juneau. Many local tour outfits offer everything from whale watching to kayak tours, guided photography adventures to zipline excursions through the rainforest. Even for the walking explorer, Alaska’s capital holds historic relics around every corner and local knowledge that’s easy to come by and given out for free.