For several months this summer, I have been working on board a cruise ship repeating seven day Alaska voyages, round trip from Vancouver. Visiting the same ports every week can be monotonous in some parts of the world, but here in Alaska, there are endless whales to watch, mountains to explore and glaciers to marvel at.
Juneau is the capital city of Alaska, and is built up quite a bit for tourists arriving by land, air and sea(plane). The season starts in May, when the weather is still chilly and the ice is still frozen. There are very few large cruise ships that come to Alaska in May, so the town is spacious, a feeling which quickly dissipates as the climate warms up and the streets become crowded later in the season. No matter what time of year you travel to Alaska, it is sure to be beautiful in its own way. Here are some of my favorite things to do in this incredible town:
- Mendenhall Glacier – Quite possibly the most popular attraction of Juneau is the icy blue Mendenhall Glacier, located about 12 miles from downtown. Shuttles are available from the pier which will take you to the visitor center. The visitor center offers several walking trails (Trail of Time, Moraine Ecology Trail, Nugget Creek Trail) which will take you around the area to admire the flora and fauna, as well as several outlooks for a great photo op of the glacier.
A block from the visitor center is a boardwalk built up above streams among the forest which are great for wildlife and plant viewing. If you’re lucky, you might be able to spot a lone porcupine meandering about, or a mother bear teaching her cubs how to catch salmon in the stream (this is most common during the salmon run, which begins late July).
If you have a bit of extra time, you can explore one of the many hiking trails around the Mendenhall area. My personal favorite is the West Glacier Trail, which I will talk about more in the next bullet point.
- West Glacier Trail (AKA Ice Caves) – With a little adventure and a lot of luck, you may discover one of Mendenhall Glacier’s ice caves! This was the #1 thing on my Alaska bucket list, but after doing some research online, I found that the glacier caves are ever changing – the ice melts and forms the caves, then that ice melts and the caves collapse and disappear. Regardless of what I read online, on my last Juneau of the season, I decided to give the hike a go and try to find the caves.
The trailhead can be accessed from the Mendenhall Campground, and is about six miles round trip. The trail itself is not for the faint of heart – steep inclines are met with rocky staircases, and it is not always clearly marked. You will be crossing streams and climbing boulders, but the views are worth it to say the least. The trail ends at a viewpoint at the top of a hill, and this is where the adventure kicks in. From the end of the trail, you must carefully climb down a steep, rocky plane to the base of the glacier. The ground is icy and wet, so make sure you wear waterproof, slip proof hiking boots. From this point on, there is no clear way to know where the caves are, or if there are any at all. You must search for them on your own – but be careful! The ice is melting and can be weak in some spots, meaning it can collapse at any second. If you find the caves, you will see why the journey is worth the destination. You can stand fully upright with a massive sheet of ice as your ceiling. It is truly a breathtaking experience. If you are unable to find a cave, the views along the hike are still more than worth the trip!
- Mount Roberts Tramway & Hiking – Another highlight of Juneau is the Mount Roberts Tramway, located just steps from the cruise port. Purchase a round-trip ticket to the top of Mount Roberts, where you can browse souvenir shops featuring local artists, grab a coffee or some lunch with an impressive view, or explore the many hiking trails sprawling across the top of the mountain. Keep your eyes open for native plants and animals, and don’t forget to stop off for a photo op of the town, cruise ships in port and the surrounding fjords and inlets. The view is absolutely spectacular.
The trails extend for many miles, so feel free to turn back at any time and follow the same path back to the tram station, where you can use your return pass to coast back down to the city.
- Hiking, Hiking and More Hiking! – Alaska is definitely a wilderness lovers paradise. There are hundreds of miles of trails just waiting to be explored, too many to list on this blog post! One of my favorite trails is Perseverance Trail, which is three miles round trip, but branches off into other loop trails along the way so you can extend your hike if you wish. For an incredible view of the valley, take the Glory Hole extension. In addition to the wonderful natural scenery, there are abandoned mines along the way, left over from the gold rush era, waiting to be explored (with caution).
One hike I have yet to conquer is Mount Juneau, a 12 mile round trip strenuous climb up the area’s tallest peak. I have made it my goal to hike this 3,576 foot mountain whenever I make it back to Alaska.
- Whale Watching – From April until November, the waters of Alaska are home to hundreds of humpback whales who feed in the waters of the Inside Passage. There are many agencies that offer boat tours, from zodiacs to catamarans, which offer whale watching tours, and if you’re lucky, you might even see bald eagles flying across the sky or a bear walking along the shoreline!
- Gold Panning – Okay so it’s a little cheesy, but if you are interested in a fun day out where you can learn about the history of the gold rush while attempting to hit it big yourself, sign up for a gold panning tour with your ship or in the city. The guide will take you to a local stream and walk you through the panning process, and talk to you about what life was like for those who made their way up to Alaska in search of riches. You’ll spend more on the tour than you’ll find in gold, but the memories will be priceless.
- Dog Sledding Adventure – Cuteness overload! Spend your day visiting one of the musher’s camps, which are home to the dog sledding teams which compete in the annual Iditarod, a 900+ mile race from Anchorage to Nome. The camps serve as training grounds for the dogs and mushers in the off season, and they offer tours of the area to help fund their entrance fee, dog care and race essentials. Visit at the right time of year and you may get to see (and hold) some newly born future Iditarod puppies!
No matter what time of the year you visit Juneau, you’re sure to have an incredible time! Whether you choose to marvel at the incredible Mendenhall Glacier, or explore the dozens of sprawling hiking trails, you’re sure to be impressed with Alaska’s natural beauty and wildlife.
Have fun! And don’t forget to follow my page and subscribe to my YouTube channel for updates on my travels around the world! ❤ Jess