JUNEAU, ALASKA is a little town of 30,000 people which is visited by over a million people a year. However, most of the visitors come via cruise ship and don’t spend any time properly exploring the Alaska Panhandle — their loss is a pretty big one. Here are 9 things to do in Juneau if you take the time to give this place the attention it deserves — and don’t mind a little rain.
1. Summit Mount Juneau.
Mount Juneau looms over downtown and can be seen from pretty much everywhere around the business district — if the cloud cover allows.
The trailhead is easily accessible from the Perseverance Trail, a popular downtown hike for locals. It’ll take you roughly two hours to reach the summit of Mount Juneau, depending on how fast you choose to move.
The first thousand feet or so of elevation find you scrambling through low-lying brush, but soon after you’ll burst above the tree-line and zig-zag along switchbacks on the side of the mountain. Keep your eyes peeled for the mountain goats that scamper along the rocky overhangs that dot the side of the mountain.
Before long, you’ll find yourself at the top of the peak, with few other people in sight. On a clear day, you’ll have an incredible view of the Chilkat Mountain Range, towards the east across the Gastineau Channel, and the Coast Mountains.
2. Bike the Herbert Glacier Trail.
The most popular glacier in Juneau is the Mendenhall, but those who are a bit more adventurous can make their way to the Herbert Glacier, about thirty miles north of downtown. A rocky yet maintained trail, four miles in length, runs to and along the Herbert River and through giant western hemlock and Sitka spruce trees. Small ponds dot the landscape — on a sunny day they make for a welcoming place to park your bike and read a book, or have a picnic.
The final half-mile of the trail is accessible by scrambling through a narrow path of rock and sand and can only be hiked, but the best way to cover most of the trail is with your mountain bike — the trail is easily navigable and features few steep inclines. The clean, refreshing air of the rainforest coupled with the golden light peeking through the towering coniferous trees is a wonderful way to experience a glacial valley, away from the crowds.
3. Catch a sunset on the beaches of Douglas Island.
In the summertime, Juneau gets about 18 hours of sunlight — making for long days, and wonderfully longer sunsets. Head to the northern end of Douglas Island, a tidal island across the Gastineau Channel from mainland Juneau. This time of year, the sun will set towards the north, which you will be able to witness, as long as the cloud cover allows.
4. Kayak to the ice caves of Mendenhall Glacier.
The Mendenhall Glacier is visited by 500,000 people every year, the vast majority of whom unload from 60-person coach buses and are shepherded towards the visitor center. There are countless photos of the Glacier from the same viewpoint.
You can put your kayak in at Mendenhall Lake (about two miles from the face) and paddle in the frigid water for hours. The scale of the ice is put into perspective by the two four-thousand-foot mountains on either side of the Glacier, and kayaking will give you a viewpoint that few others get.
You can also paddle to the rocky shores at the foot of the Glacier to explore the ice caves — they are constantly changing due to the recession of the Mendenhall.
5. Photograph wildlife.
Wildlife is everywhere you look around Juneau — just be sure to have your camera ready.
DIPAC, or Douglas Island Pink and Chum, is a hatchery well-known for the salmon which return to spawn every year in the mid-summer months. They can be seen jumping out of the shallow water, trying to make their way upstream and avoiding being eaten by bald eagles, which perch in the trees just above, waiting for their prey. The eagles can easily be found in the trees by looking for their white heads against the dark green needles of the spruce trees.
Black bears, who are very skittish around humans, can occasionally be seen from hiking trails around Juneau, or around the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. While they make for incredible subjects, they should be treated with respect: they are wild animals, and you are in their home.
6. Make a trip to the brewery.
Go to any bar in Alaska, and you’re certain to find a brew from Alaskan Brewing Company on tap. From the Icy Bay IPA to the Smoked Porter, you can spend a whole evening sampling the beers available from Alaska’s most popular brewing company.
While their beers can be found everywhere in the 49th State, the brewery is a bit more difficult to get to: located in the industrial district of Juneau, you need to take a shuttle bus from downtown, or drive yourself. The intimate atmosphere makes for a relaxing place to while away the afternoon after a hike.
7. Rent a Forest Service cabin.
There are dozens of different cabins that the Forest Service offers for rent around Southeast Alaska — most of which need to be reserved far in advance and require a decent hike to get to.
While you’ll have to bring everything you need to spend the night, these remote spots offer a roof over your head and the best views of the mountains and channels around the Juneau area.
John Muir Cabin is my personal favorite. You’ll get an incredible view of the Gastineau Channel and downtown Juneau from it.
8. Have a bonfire at the beach.
It rains all the time in Southeast Alaska, but on a clear night, you can find people circled around fires on the many beaches. Some of these shoreline havens are sandy, and some are rocky, but all make for cozy places to gather with friends.
On a clear night, you might even be able to see the Northern Lights.
9. Go salmon fishing.
Fishing for salmon isn’t for the faint of heart — between purchasing a license ($25 for the day), a rod, and all your gear, it can run you a pretty penny. You’ll need to find out what kinds of salmon are in season, where they are currently running, and what they look like. If you want to take anything home, you’ll need a cooler, a fillet knife, and a strong stomach to prepare your catch.
But even if you are just out to enjoy the outdoors, all you’ll need is a good pair of boots and a warm jacket. Standing at the water’s edge will be one of the most relaxing times you’ve ever had.
All photos are the author’s.