Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the rugged coastal mountain range, Juneau is the capital of Alaska.
Full of conflicts and contrasts, it borders a waterway that never ices but lies below an ice field that never melts. It was the first city in the Southeast to spank a head tax on cruise-ship tourists but still attracts more than a million a year.
Welcome to America’s most unusual state capital. In the winter, it’s a beehive of lawmakers, their faithful aides, and lobbyists locked in partisan struggles. In summer, it’s a launchpad for extensive outdoor adventures. Superb hiking starts hardly 10 minutes from the center, vast glacier calves into a lake 12 miles up the road, and seaplanes and boats take off from the harbor bound for nearby ziplining, bear-watching, and whale-watching.
How to reach Juneau?
Juneau is Alaska’s capital, but you can’t enter via a rail or road. However, you can sail and fly.
- Juneau International Airport: The airport serves as a local hub for all air travel, bush carriers, and the provincial airline. Alaska Airlines provides daily jet service to Seattle (900 mi south) and Anchorage (600 mi northwest).
- Alaska Marine Highway: Juneau is a principal port for the Alaska Marine Highway, Alaska’s ferry system. The ferry typically runs throughout Southeast Alaska with stops in Petersburg, Ketchikan, Wrangel, Haines, Skagway, and Sitka. Small communities, such as Angoon, Tenakee Springs, Hoonah, Kake, and Pelican, get exclusive AMHS service. The nearest port with a road connection is Haines, about a five-hour ride away from Juneau by conventional ferry or a two-hour ride on one of the state’s new catamaran boats. The ferry is the only way to bring a car to Juneau.
Places to Visit in Juneau:
Traveling to Juneau and not seeing the Mendenhall is like visiting Australia and skipping the Great Barrier Reef. The most popular of Juneau’s ice floes, and the town’s most popular attraction – the Juneau Icefield, flows 13 miles from its origin and has a half-mile-wide face. It terminates at Mendenhall Lake, the basis for all the icebergs.
On a bright day, it’s gorgeous, with snowcapped mountains and blue skies when you look up. It can be even more impressive on a drizzly and cloudy afternoon, as the ice turns hues of deep blue.
Near the front of the glacier is the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, which holds numerous glaciology exhibits, including an ice face of the glacier along with a big relief map of the ice field; spotting scopes that let you look for mountain goats, and a movie theater that shows the film Landscape of Change.
Outside you’ll find numerous hiking trails. The most popular is the 0.3-mile Photo-Overlook Trail and the Nugget Falls Trail; the latter leads a half-mile to an impressive belting waterfall that spills into the lake near the face of the glacier. For many, the most exciting path is Steep Creek Trail, a 0.3-mile boardwalk that winds past observing platforms along the stream. From July through October, you’ll see not only sockeye and coho salmon spawning from the platforms but also black and brown bears feasting on them. This is Southeast Alaska’s most accessible bear-viewing site.
Treadwell Mine Historical Trail
It’s difficult to imagine today, but the Treadwell mine on the Isle of Douglas was once the biggest gold mine globally, set up like a mini town with its own stores, baseball diamond, blacksmith and dormitories. Reaching its peak in the late-1800s, the mine was later abandoned after a piece of it slid into the sea in 1917. Today, eerie reminders of Juneau’s affluent mining past poke through the woods on this well-signposted ancient trail with recently placed interpretive boards. Treadwell is just 3 miles south of the Douglas Bridge next to Savikko Park. Buses 11 or 1 from downtown will get you there.
Mt Roberts Tramway
Compared to others, this tramway is rather pricey for a five-minute ride. But trust me, its location and the view from the top couldn’t be better. It hurries you from the cruise-ship dock up 1750ft to the timberline of Mt Roberts, where you’ll find a cafe, rare gift shops, a miniature raptor center, and a theater with a film on Tlingit history.
St Thérèse Shrine
Get ready for some religious enlightenment. The Shrine of St Thérèse is a rare natural stone church on a magnificently forested island attached to the shore by a stone path. A Jesuit priest approved the Catholic church in the late 1930s, and the first Mass was held in 1941. It’s a supremely peaceful spot.
Things to do in Juneau:
- Visiting the Mendenhall Glacier
- Charter fishing
- Hiking (There are nearly 100 hiking trails in the area – both steep and easy)
Be aware that Juneau is pretty spread-out. It is divided into sections. There is “The Valley” (where the Mendenhall Glacier, Mendenhall Mall, a skate park, and most of the inhabitants are found), and “Downtown.” The distance between the two is a decent 15 minutes.
If the weather is clear, an air tour leaves the most spectacular impression from the cruise ship tour options that are available. Behind Juneau lies the Juneau Icefield. Floatplane and helicopter tours are available.