Beauty, Culture and Wildlife Await in Alaska’s Capital
Experience the sights, history and food in the great city of Juneau, Alaska. Go off the beaten track to find untamed beauty and culture in the vibrant capital of The Last Frontier State.
Juneau sometimes seems like a world away — especially since it’s only accessible from the lower 48 by boat or plane. But it’s much closer than one might think. At just over a two-hour direct flight from Seattle, Alaska’s capital provides several ways that travelers easily can reach uncrowded areas, even during the touristy summer months. This is partly because of its geography.
Juneau and its surrounding borough are located in the vast Tongass National Forest in the Alaskan Panhandle. With 3,255 square miles of territory within 16.7 million acres of wilderness, Juneau is one of the largest cities by area in the United States.
So, whether you’re an independent traveler or a cruise visitor in Juneau for the day, it’s possible to get away from it all. Adventurous visitors can wander in Juneau’s back hills and experience nearby Mendenhall Glacier and its wetlands, or explore the area’s mining history and spot a whale or two on Douglas Island.
Juneau’s Quiet Side
The center of town sits along the glacial cut of the Gastineau Channel. The southeast end is so deep that it can allow large ships to dock close to downtown, but too shallow to allow many boats to move through it to the north.
This waterway and the forested hills that surround the town — even when crowds fill the docks and downtown shops — allow an escape to quiet neighborhoods with community gardens and hikes on craggy, verdant rock cliffs. Just a dozen miles away, you practically run into Mendenhall Glacier and miles of outdoor exploration.
A rental car (or even a bike) can be helpful to access some of the more remote areas of Juneau, but there also are public transportation options, like a bus service and taxis driven by helpful locals. If you would like the help of a commercial guide, family-owned tour operators can take travelers off the beaten path.
The Edges of Downtown
Walkers, including those on cruise ships wanting to get away from the group for a day, can enjoy the area by rambling past Juneau’s docks. The town was founded on the discovery of gold nuggets, but its ancient cultures still abide. On the north end of downtown, experience the rich collections of Indigenous art and culture at the Alaska State Museum, including carved wooden masks, waterproof gear and ceremonial dress, and examples of traditional boating technology.
The museum’s traditional Indigenous crafts-manship may tempt you to look for sellers of contemporary crafts. Sealaska Heritage Store, part of an Alaskan Native cultural and arts center, sells beaded jewelry, weavings and a well-curated selection of kids’ books featuring Tlingit and Haida folk stories about the trickster Raven.
For spectacular views, a tram climbs for five minutes and 1,800 feet up Mount Roberts.
If you’re looking for a fitness challenge, bypass the tram and head up the Mount Roberts Trail from Basin Street, which rewards hikers with million-dollar views of the Gastineau Channel. It climbs to Mountain House, where there is a theater, gift shop and restaurant.
A less strenuous but still aerobic way to get to know Juneau’s less-traveled areas is to hike the back hills of the city’s neighborhoods. Listen to ravens chattering to one another as you head up the Seward Street stairs and over to Seventh Street to walk past Juneau’s oldest Victorian mansions.
The Chicken Ridge Historic District neighborhood includes the former home of Alaska statesman Judge James Wickersham, which is now a museum at the Wickersham State Historic Site. In the same area, find Juneau’s oldest church and one of the oldest structures in town, octagonal-shaped St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, founded in 1893.
The Mendenhall Glacier is one of Juneau’s premier destinations for visitors, and for good reason. It’s only a dozen miles from the city center, making it one of the most accessible glaciers in North America.
It is a 13-mile river of ice that originates high up in the Juneau Ice Fields. Although it can be crowded with buses of visitors coming from cruise ships, it’s still possible to go for early morning hikes at Mendenhall from the visitor center parking lot.
For the closest look at the glacier, try Nugget Falls Trail, which is a spur trail off the popular Photo Point Trail less than a mile in length. It goes along the edge of Mendenhall Lake to a waterfall at the base of the glacier.
Another recommended hike is East Glacier Trail, a beautiful 3-mile loop that climbs 650 feet in elevation through a canopy of green once covered by ice. Stop in at the visitor center to chat with a ranger about that week’s best places to see bears, eagles or salmon.
Outdoor recreation in the area doesn’t need to stop at a glacier hike. For a deeper appreciation of the glacial ecosystem, explore the 4,000-acre Mendenhall Wetlands trails adjacent to the airport. The Airport Dike Trail is a birder’s delight, running for 3.4 miles through saltwater wetlands between the mainland and Douglas Island.
Photographers love the meadows filled with Juneau’s iconic pink-purple fireweed. Alternatively, consider a guided “Bike and Brew” day tour of the Mendenhall Valley on rental bikes with Cycle Alaska.
Head out on the bridge over to Juneau’s largely residential neighbor, Douglas Island. The north side of Douglas has views of Mendenhall Glacier and the mountains.
On the south side of the island, take in Juneau’s only stretch of sandy beachfront at Savikko Park (also known as Sandy Beach), a byproduct of the historical mining operation that once dominated the island. A 2-mile moderate loop of the Treadwell Mine Historical Trail provides a fascinating look at the gold mining history of the area. Just over a century ago, these mines churned out about $70 million worth of gold in 25 years, and interpretive signage points out the ruins of mines and machinery.
Juneau is well-known for its excellent whale-watching charters, where visitors motor out on boats to see humpback whales spouting, breaching and clapping the water with their giant fins. This quintessential Alaskan experience can be even cooler with off-the-beaten-track alternatives, such as paddling through humpback feeding grounds on a kayak whale-watching trip.
In early July visitors can watch spawning salmon returning to their birthplace and climbing the 450-foot fish ladder at the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery, which is accessible by car or taxi. It offers an important look at the salmon cultivation process that ensures wild populations stay sustainable. Bald eagles often are perched on the rocks and sea lions swim by, both hoping for a fishy snack.
Salmon and halibut fishing are the state’s favorite pastimes, and there are plenty of opportunities to book a day trip. One tour company allows visitors of all ages and experience levels to try their luck in local fishing holes and from the docks at the hatchery. They also provide all the required gear, from poles to boots.
Don’t Miss the Food
There are plenty of good places to eat around Juneau. The Raven Café in the Alaska State Museum is a great place to discuss the exhibits over coffee and pastries. The menu offers a family recipe for pork adobo — a Filipino stew — either in a burrito or over rice. Afterward, indulge in premium ice cream with Alaskan flavors like salmonberry from Coppa.
That cafe lies northeast of the museum, and also serves creative salads and pastries with locally roasted Sentinel coffee.
Back downtown, cocktail hour is fun with a wild Alaskan botanical-infused gin at Amalga Distillery (check out the little shop in the distillery for local goods, too). And you can’t go wrong listening to live music with a glass of bubbles and Alaskan oysters at Deckhand Dave’s oyster bar, a new concept for this popular “taco truck with an Alaskan twist” in the food cart pod on South Franklin. A low-key option for dinner is the chicken tikka in the colorful dining room of Spice Indian Cuisine, just down the street.
Check out one of Juneau’s best casual neighborhood eateries close to the airport, Zerelda’s Bistro, for barbecued ribs or Asian-influenced specialties like veggie coconut curry bowls, in its new location on Mendenhall Mall Road. Red Spruce AK is a new joint worth visiting for global street food in Auke Bay — think bao tacos, burrito bowls and kombucha.
To get the morning started, try eggs Benedict or caramelized cornflake French toast at local favorite downtown diner The Rookery Cafe.
On Douglas Island, head over to The Island Pub nearby on Second Street for an airy dining room with views of downtown Juneau. Order a pint and Caesar salad to accompany one of their inventive pizza pies.
–Written by Jennifer Burns Bright
–Top photo of the Juneau waterfront by Janice and Nolan Braud/Alamy
This article appears in the 2022 Summer Edition of AAA Washington’s member magazine, Journey.