TO BE QUITE HONEST, I didn’t expect much from Alaska’s capital city. Wandering through downtown, which consists of a single street, it’s quickly apparent that this is not a very lively place in the winter.
Although there’s no shortage of dive bars, most everything closes early, and the famous Red Dog Saloon, apparently a hotspot for eating and drinking in summer, is completely vacant. Nothing but touristy t-shirts in the window that read “Juneau, AK: A quaint little drinking town with a fishing problem.”
This is not the summer high season, when Juneau becomes a rotating door for massive cruise ships bringing more than half a million people into the tiny town.
In July, there are so many attractions that cruise ship passengers — most of whom only have between 4 and 8 hours to explore before it’s time to “set sail” — have tough decisions to make.
In February, though, Juneau seems desperately boring on the surface. The bears are all hibernating, most of the fishing rivers are frozen over, and the spectacular mountains surrounding the Mendenhall Valley stay hidden in the clouds.
But the more time I spent in town, the more it grew on me, and as I explored and connected with the local people, I found all sorts of adventures to keep me occupied.
If you’re passing through Juneau in the winter, here are 7 things to keep you stoked.
The Silverbow Inn
This is the place to stay in Juneau. Run a by a very cool couple who live in the loft next door, the Silverbow has a homey vibe but includes all the amenities of a five-star hotel. The rooms are spotless, the staff is amazing, and they set you up with everything from an iPod-ready audio system to a hot tub on the roof.
The best part is the Silverbow bakery, which is attached to the hotel and brews up fresh coffee and cooks breakfast and sandwiches on a sourdough recipe that’s more than a hundred years old. This place is legit.
I don’t care if the Red Dog Saloon is Juneau’s hotspot. My bar will always be the Sandbar. Located 15 minutes out of town by the airport, this place is an authentic Alaskan dive.
I rolled in there around 10PM and the night was just getting started with aggressive drinking and lots of quarters being fired into the jukebox. I’ve never walked into a bar and had the bartender recognize I was from out of town and proceed to introduce me to the entire bar.
The halibut burger tasted like it was caught about an hour ago, and I stayed for hours chopping it up with the locals, a great mix of business leaders, loggers, and fishermen.
Alaskan Brewing Co.
I had been drinking down Alaskan Ambers and thoroughly enjoying them since I stepped foot in AK. But I love the brand even more now that I’ve seen where it comes from. This place has a great story, which was told to me by one of the brewmasters — quite a character.
To get it off the ground, they took $5K investments from 80 Juneau residents and focused on brewing great beer.
Those who laughed at their offer in ’86 are surely kicking themselves now — Alaskan is booming and profitable, turning out more than 20 different brews each year.
Still, they’ve kept their operation small, only producing 126,000 barrels of brew in 2009, the equivalent to what Anheuser-Busch pumps out every 8 hours.
Whether it’s the ultra-pure glacier water or their passion for making great beer, I liked just about every one I tried, and the brewery is a great stop to make.
Eaglecrest Ski Area
I had come to AK to heli-ski, and when I arrived I didn’t know one ski area in the state by name.
Just across the bridge from downtown Juneau on Douglas Island, there’s a little ski area called Eaglecrest. This place is actually run by the city and like many things in Juneau, it has a very strong community vibe. No high-speed lifts or $94 tickets here, but they have some amazing terrain.
Eaglecrest is ideal for side-country skiing, with tons of hiking options and a very liberal open gate policy. Everyone seems to know each other and the group of skiers and riders who frequent the mountain sneak in runs before and after work.
It had been dumping for two days and we had an amazing day there — 2 feet of fresh pow and untracked turns down the outer bowls all afternoon. I was also very impressed by the level of a lot of the riders on the hill…people were charging!
Alaska has a way of making you feel very small, and a visit to the mouth of the Mendenhall Glacier does it to the extreme. Just one of 38 glaciers that extend down from the Juneau Ice Field, the Mendenhall is 12 miles long, more than a mile wide, and is 800 feet thick in some spots.
They’ve built a nice visitor’s center with telescopes that look out over the glacial melt and right into the jaws of the beast. You can also freely hike up to the glacier or even onto it, if you have the right gear. Everything here is free and it’s only a 10-minute/$14 shuttle from town. Don’t miss it.
Alaska Powder Descents
If you want to get out of town for the day and up into the “real” mountains, check out Kevin and Sean at Alaska Powder Descents. They have helicopters and all the gear for any adventure, from glacier exploration to heli-skiing.
I got a chance to ski with these guys a couple times and they’re good people, very knowledgeable about whatever it is you want to do, from kayaking with whales in the summer to heli-boarding in winter.
From what I gathered, regardless of the season, you can essentially design your own multi-day adventure and they’ll make it happen.
Looking for a bit of culture before retiring to the rooftop hot tub at the Silverbow? Don’t miss the very funky Perseverance Theatre on Douglas Island.
We went and checked out their current production, “BOOM.” It was well acted and had a pretty crazy plot and was packed with sexual energy and language. I was shocked at what I was seeing until I noticed in the program that the guy who wrote it was from San Francisco.
For more looks at backcountry heli-skiing, don’t miss the original video Brian Chu shot with Ross Borden earlier this year: Heli Skiing in the Ruby Mountains, NV [MATADOR ORIGINAL VIDEO].