Juneau Stories and Tips

If you knew Juneau like I know Juneau...

Hikers at Mendenhall  Photo, Juneau, Alaska

Q: Does it always rain in Juneau?
A: No, sometimes it snows.

After directing my own scientific meteorological study of the area during the past five summers, I feel qualified to confirm the above suggestion. Based on my own experience, my recommendations for visits to Alaska's capital include wearing a rain parka and bringing a hood for your camera lens. With a few preparations you are inclined to become one with the magnificent landscape around you. Go ahead; make like the wildflowers and drip with a little dew. Welcome to Juneau.

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Lilies soak up the liquid sunshine.

Located in the Tongass, the largest forest in the U.S. National Parks system and the largest temperate rainforest in the world, the sun visits Juneau only a few times a week during a few months of the year. It takes a certain type of person to weather the Juneau climate but it doesn’t take much skill or fortitude to appreciate the city’s astounding natural beauty.

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A real pin-up, the famous face of the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau.

Juneau is as unique as its citizens being the only state capital not accessible by road. Visitors are required to fly, cruise, drift, ferry or paddle into the isolated town which when measured by area is the largest city in the United States, comprising 3,000 square miles, half of which is ice and water. This fact likely keeps the population steady at around 30,000, making it the third largest city in Alaska after Anchorage and Fairbanks.

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Floatplanes are more common than autos in Juneau.

There are roads within the Juneau limits, all seeming to leading to some spectacular natural wonders before ending abruptly. With a huge concentration of bald eagles hanging around town, sightings are guaranteed; run-ins are possible. At least one floatplane has encountered turbulence when an eagle soaring overhead lost his grip on the salmon in his clutches and dropped it onto the airplane’s windshield.

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While other birds are difficult to spot, eagles nests are hard to miss even at the top of a tall pine tree.

It’s understandable with salmon hatcheries and processing so nearby that fishermen, both the human and aviary sort, are plentiful in Juneau . Eagles are as nearly as common as pigeons are in other urban centers and are so well-fed and prolific here they been removed from the endangered species list. A visit to the local hatchery is truly an educational venture well worth the time. A fishing expedition in the local waters netted our family enough smoked salmon for a year. The Taku company processes your catch and ships it to your home for a fee. As to the five pounds of ultra-fresh salmon roe the captain handed my son in a simple plastic bag, we reluctantly donated it to the birds since we could only indulge in so much caviar at a time.

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Fish Ladder at the Salmon Hatchery

The Gastineau Channel, the fjord that separates Douglas and Juneau, serves as float plane ramp and summer parking lot for cruise ships which bring nearly a million visitors a year into this immense, pristine wilderness. This year our ship was parallel parked in the waterway directly bordering Main Street. Our front and center berth required that I pull the curtains in my cabin lest harbor side shoppers would be privy to my private quarters. Juneau’s downtown center is hustling with energy and shops, still teeming with the excitement of its former glory days during the Gold Rush.

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A delightful little community whose main industries are tourism, government and fishing.

Juneau has been the hunting and fishing grounds for the Tlingit, Auke, Taku and other tribes for some ten thousand years. The locals had the area to themselves until Peter and Catherine the Great sent explorers to the area in the late 1700’s to hunt for seal fur to trade with China. John Muir, Captain Cook and other luminaries stopped by not long after but it wasn’t really until a local businessman, George Pilz, hired Joe Juneau and Richard Harris to hunt for the fabled golden ore that reportedly existed in the area that things started to take off. When the first attempt to find gold failed, Pilz brought in the expertise of Chief Kowee who led the explorers to the mother lode that started a stampede and established Juneau’s place in modern history. Gold was mined in Juneau until the 1940’s when the operation was finally shut down. Many believe there are still immense veins in the mountains of the area. It is the romance of this notion that sends many visitors on tours of the gold mines.

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The entrances to the abandoned mines are clearly visible.

There’s no doubt that Juneau’s main attraction happens to also be the only drive-up glacier in Alaska. "Mighty Mendenhall" as Juneau’s most famous ice river is often called, lies only thirteen miles out of town revealing just a small sliver of the enormous Juneau ice fields. Getting there is easy; either sign up for a shore excursion through your ship or simply hop on one of the many tour operator busses waiting just outside the Roberts Tramway station where you can nab no-frills round-trip bus rides for about $10-15. For a more elaborate tour, sign on for the city tour/glacier combo which also takes you to the Chapel by the Lake, makes stops at eagles nests and offers photo ops of Juneau city landmarks such as the governors’ mansion replete with Totem Pole.

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Glorious landscapes just minutes from town.

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Flowers at the log cabin Chapel

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This view rewards the faithful who visit the Chapel by the Lake

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The Governor of Alaska resides in this colonial mansion highlighted with local art – the Totem

Visiting the glacier by bus leaves you free to roam about, taking in the beauty of the ice flow from area from a distance of about .25 miles. There are also excursions which that should be booked in advance that take you closer to the glacier. If you just want a simple hike, proceed to the source of the roaring waterfall which feeds into the glacier lake or examine the visitor’s center maintained by the park service. For a longer hike, check in advance and arm yourself with information and bear awareness.

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The only bear we encountered were at the exhibit center at the salmon hatcheries.

We didn’t see any bear at Mendenhall, but we did marvel at the acrobatics of the Arctic Terns flying about like tiny helicopters as it was mating season, and spied a shy porcupine hiding out in a tree. If we had been yearning for a bear encounter, just minutes from away is the world’s largest concentration of brown bear on Admiralty Island, with 2.34 bears per square mile.

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This little fellow almost upstaged the glacier.

During one long day in Juneau we had plenty of time to take in many sights, hike, shop and more. Consistently inclement weather and limited visibility has prevented my taking in the second most popular attraction of the town – the Mt. Roberts Tramway. Locals and other visitors assure me the view at the top is spectacular but each of the five times I’ve been here I passed on the ride high into the clouds.

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No, I’m not afraid of heights but the dense fog had me thinking twice about taking the trip up Mt. Roberts. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

We decided to both drown our sorrows (at the soaking we'd taken) and simultaneously count our blessings to be in Alaska at the local watering hole - longest continuously operating pub in Alaska – the Red Dog Saloon. The saloon is a requirement for visitors to Juneau with its authentic sawdust floors, mounted trophies of wild animals and an animated sing-along maestro who keeps ‘em coming back for more, year after year. The Alaskan Ale and delicious fish and chips doesn’t hurt business, either.

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Red Dog Saloon’s cheeky signage and woodsy décor delights visitors.

We had barely finished our brew when the clock signaled our ship’s approaching departure. With just enough time to stop at the Taku Fisheries and the local Russian specialty shop, we bid a fond, foggy farewell to Juneau.

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Taku Fishery ships local specialties direct.

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