By Kurt Jacobson
Sparkling waterfalls tumble down steep green mountainsides where eagles fly. Towering old-growth coastal forests cover dozens of nearby islands where the famous Alaskan grizzly bears roam. In the middle of all this sits Juneau, Alaska.
I lived and worked in Alaska for ten years and have been to Juneau many times. When I cooked on the Cook Inlet oil platforms I’d sometimes head to Juneau in March for part of my two weeks off.
The temperatures were as much as seventy degrees warmer than my home in the little town of Sterling, making this a desirable getaway.
I’d hang out with the locals for five days or so before returning to the icebox up north greatly refreshed by the warmer climate.
On my most recent trip to Juneau in June of 2017, I wanted to see what the town was like now that the cruise ships are well entrenched in local life.
Disneyland or Real?
Was Juneau still a place I’d recognize or has it gone Disney Land? Was it still a place to go to for a fun, nature, and memorable trip?
The local population of around 32,000 swells in the summer when thousands of tourists come to see the mountains, glaciers, and wildlife. Thanks to the cruise ships bringing in the bulk of the warm-climate visitors there’s a wealth of infrastructure set up to shuttle them to a multitude of activities.
I wondered if there were still options to experience Juneau apart from the cruise crowd as well as the usual attractions and activities.
Not everyone wants this ala carte menu of touristy things to do. Lucky for them there is so much more to do than the typical tourist activities spending six to eight hours of shore-leave from the cruise ships. Most tourists take the whale sighting tours, Mendenhall Glacier trip, or helicopter glacier rides.
Don’t get me wrong, these activities rock! The question is how to have the best time in Juneau with or without the crowds tagging along.
My wife and I arrived on a blue sky Sunday; a wondrous occasion in this land of rain. We hit the ground running not daring to miss any of the 18 hours of sunlight overhead. Our home base for two nights would be the newly renovated Prospector Hotel.
Our room was huge and had enough space to wrestle a grizzly bear in the middle of it. The Prospector Hotel put us no more than a ten-minute walk from anything we wanted to see on the waterfront or in town.
After unpacking we headed off to take A Tour With Taste by Juneau Food Tours with Midgi, the owner, and get to know the town. Midgi said, “I’m really keen on providing a memorable experience for my customers.” She certainly did make our tour memorable.
These tours cost $129 which some might find overly expensive. I know from living in Alaska that the cost of living is high and this fee is probably necessary for Midgi to stay in business.
From Colorado to Juneau
Our food tour started at Tracys King Crab Shack. Tracy, like me, moved from Colorado to Alaska. With no background in cooking Tracy told me, “I wanted to buy a hot dog cart but serve King Crab legs out of it.”
Tracy opened a crab shack instead of a cart and her business took off. Now she and her partner own several restaurants in Juneau. Her king crab shack is so busy that some days you might have to wait thirty minutes or more to get a table.
If you go, be sure and grab a table first then have someone in your group wait in line to order at the counter. The king crab bucket sells for around $125 and is the ultimate.
We only had the crab bisque and crab cake bites on the food tour but returned later for the crab bucket. Served with butter we didn’t need or use, dinner rolls, and coleslaw; this was a food highlight of our trip.
One of the aspects of the food tour that I loved was breaking away from the cruise ship crowd. I found that once we were about three blocks away from the waterfront, the cruise ship crowd disappeared.
We stopped at V’s Cellar Door restaurant for a delicious halibut nacho.
After the halibut nacho, Midgi pointed out several restaurants in that quieter area of downtown. These were away from the cruise ship crowd: like Salt and The Rookery Café, where Beau Schooler was nominated for Rising Star Chef by the prestigious James Beard Foundation.
A classic Alaskan hotel
The Taste of Juneau food tour ended at the Alaskan Hotel. This historic hotel opened in September 1913 and is still going strong. The hotel was completed in an impressive five months from the start of construction to opening.
Not an easy task when you realize most of the materials had to be shipped north from Seattle by steamship. Featuring steam heat and a wireless electric generating system on the roof, this was ultra-modern for its time.
We were treated to a trio of Alaskan Brewing Company beers in the Alaskan Hotel’s bar. What a great way to finish the tour sipping real Alaskan beer in a historic Alaskan hotel, listening to a very good bluegrass band entertaining a small crowd.
Apparently, the cruise ship crowd has better things to do than filling the Alaskan Hotel’s bar?
One other thing about the food tour we would have missed if not for Midgi insisting we try was the acoustics of the Fisherman’s Memorial. This curved semi-circular stone memorial features fascinating acoustic surprises.
If two people stand on opposite ends of the memorial and lean in close with one of them speaking softly and the other one holding an ear up to the wall at its top, the sound carries all the way.
Then Midgi showed us if you stand on the center disc with the fishing boat embossed in it and speak facing the wall, the echo is loud and strong.
Upon the mountain top
After the tour ended we beat feet to the Mt Roberts Tram. This high-ride up the mountain is said to be the most popular attraction in Juneau.
I think that is due to its location just steps from the bulk of the cruise ships. But with a blue-sky day upon us, I had to see the city of Juneau from above. So up we went with the crowd.
Since we had time to spare we sat in on the 30-minute video and talk at the theater. The presenter, a young Tlingit woman told us about her people’s history and the white man’s influence on the area.
She told us “When America bought Alaska from the Russians the Russian’s wept as they sailed away from Alaska. And who wouldn’t weep if they had to leave this great land.” she said. I agree wholeheartedly as when I left the only way I can stand not living in Alaska is to visit every summer for more than 20 years now.
After the video and talk, we hiked the trail system above the complex at the top of the tram. The crowd thinned since most cruise ship passengers only wanted to see the view from the top and visit the café, eagle display, and theater.
The views from points on the trail we hiked were awesome. We could see up and down the Gastineau Channel, Juneau, and the cruise ships from high above. Wildflowers were in bloom and several interesting trees and bushes grabbed our attention. It’s rough living on top of Mt Roberts where winds can blow over 100 miles-per-hour often.
It could rain
On day two of our visit, Juneau weather did what it normally does and yes, it did rain. Since we were staying right next door to the recently renovated State Museum it made sense to visit.
Upon entering the first thing I noticed was the towering spruce tree with several stuffed bald eagles in it. I thought I knew a lot about bald eagles from living in Alaska for many years but I had some things wrong.
The eagle tree display taught me that eagles might not mate for life, they don’t lose the ability to unlock their talons once locked on a fish, and there is no evidence of a bald eagle carrying off a small dog or cat.
The rest of the museum visit was impressive as we learned about the numerous native tribes in Alaska. I found the historic map of Alaskan canneries interesting. The map showed a time when salmon was more valuable than gold to the Alaskan economy.
The $12 entrance fee is well worth it, especially on a rainy day. I was happy the cruise ship crowd didn’t overwhelm the museum the day we went. Also on site is a library and archives for those wanting to conduct research.
Take a hike
If you want to get away from the cruise ship crowd I suggest stopping by the visitor center or go to Juneau Trails and Parks for a list of hikes in and around Juneau.
Some of these hikes like the Mendenhall Glacier loop trail are stunning. This trail gets you up close and personal with the glacier, forest, and maybe a black bear? It’s 3.5 miles in length and can be accomplished in two hours for most hikers.
The Perseverance Trail starts in downtown Juneau and leads hikers through a scenic canyon on an old railway bed.
A fairly steep climb takes you above the Gold Creek valley where you will find plenty of nature and solitude.
Yes, you might get lucky and see a black bear, but don’t worry. Black bears seldom attack people. If you make a fair amount of noise while you hike I doubt you will even see one.
Take to the air
Other options for getting away from it all are the floatplane operators in Juneau. Alaska Sea Planes, Wings Airways/Taku Glacier Lodge, or Ward Air can be chartered to drop you off for some wilderness camping, visit a small coastal village, or remote lodge.
Check with the Forest Service for a list of low-cost cabins and consider a wilderness adventure. Just know that most cabins need to be reserved a year in advance.
We opted for a remote fishing lodge, Whaler’s Cove, where we had an amazing time. Fishing, kayaking, and watching dozens of whales entertained us every day.
We had two days in Juneau at the front end of the trip and one day on the back end. Juneau turned out to be more than just a place to land before taking off into the wilderness.
I believe Juneau has something for nearly any visitor whether you are a cruise ship passenger or another adventure traveler.
With plenty to do year-round don’t limit your travel dates to summer only. If you plan ahead I think you will find this capital city one of Alaska’s gems.