Alaska's state capital is chock full of adventure. As one of the state's largest cruise and airport hubs, Juneau has established itself as a tourist destination.
Tucked beneath towering mountains, this city offers something for everyone while taking an Alaska cruise. Whether you want to stroll down the historic streets of downtown, toss out a line in a picturesque inlet, or climb aboard a floatplane to view glaciers from the sky – Juneau has it all.
Mollie is a resident of Alaska, who has spent many years visiting everything her state has to offer, including extensive visits throughout Southeast Alaska.
You can easily find recommendations for top things to do or see in this bustling Alaskan community, but we're going to take you off the beaten path. In this guide, I will provide you with a list of top places to visit in Juneau from a local's perspective.
5. Spend an Afternoon on South Franklin Street (Downtown Juneau)
Juneau boomed during the late 1800s. Thanks to the discovery of gold, miners, traders, swindlers, and more made the trek north to America's Last Frontier. Fishing villages quickly transformed into bustling cities (Well, cities by Alaska standards), and many of the old buildings still stand today.
Walking around Juneau's downtown is like stepping back into a time machine to the 1890s. Visitors can head towards South Franklin Street to reach the heart of the historic area. The wide sidewalks and quaint buildings have played host to a variety of shops and restaurants throughout the ages. The multitude of stores carries souvenirs, local Alaskan crafts, fine arts, books on Alaskan history and nature, and handmade jewelry.
The downtown area is easily accessible by foot to the main cruise ship port. During your shopping experience, be sure to pop over to Marine Park with your binoculars to take a peek at Mount Juneau.
This is a popular spot to see mountain goats, especially in the late summer when their white coats stand out against the green landscape.
Local Tip: If it's sunny, be sure to catch a ride to the top of Mount Roberts via the Mount Roberts Tramway.
While this trip isn't worth it on a cloudy day, the views are unparalleled on a clear day. Be sure to pack extra layers. It is often much windier or colder at the top.
You can also hike to the top if you're feeling more adventurous. The trail from downtown is 6 miles round trip and takes about 2-3 hours (depending on stops). You can also hike to the top and ride down (or vice versa).
Treat yourself to a beer at the tram's bar, and the ride down is free!
4. Visit the Touch Tank at the Douglas Island Pink and Chum Hatchery
The Douglas Island Pink and Chum Hatchery (DIPAC) is a great place to learn, view, and touch the sea life that inhabits the waters around Juneau and southeastern Alaskan. This hatchery is crucial to maintaining salmon populations, but it also offers a variety of great activities for visitors eager to learn more about the infamous salmon run and other wildlife.
If you're visiting between July and September, the hatchery is one of the best places in the area to view the salmon run. Head over to the Ladd Macaulay Visitor, situated inside of the hatcher, to watch this natural phenomenon unfold.
In season, salmon surge up the hatchery's fish ladder. At times, the run is so thick that you could walk across the water on their backs (Of course, this activity is not allowed. But you get the picture). This is also one of the best spots to watch bald eagles fish the waters. With the salmon so thick, eagles are almost guaranteed to snag a meal on each dive.
The hatchery also has viewing windows where you can watch the salmon struggle upstream beneath the surface. Education signs will help you identify which species of salmon you're viewing.
If you're visiting outside of the salmon season, there is still plenty to see and do. DIPAC's touch tanks invite both the young and old to get close to Alaskan beautiful sea critters. You can touch urchins, crabs, sea stars, and sea cucumbers, and staff is available to educate curious visitors. There is also a salmon rearing facility and aquarium onsite, where salmon and other marine life can be viewed year-round.
3. Drive to Echo Cove
Juneau can only be accessed by plane or boat, but that doesn't mean there aren't any roads in the area.
There are approximately 250 miles of road throughout the city and borough of Juneau, with stretches of road extending out into the beautiful wilderness surrounding the city.
One of the best stretches of road extends out of downtown Juneau to Echo Cove via the Glacier Highway. This 80-mile round trip offers visitors the chance to hike and view wildlife at their own pace.
Car rentals are available throughout the Juneau area, with many offering pick-up services at the cruise ship port. Be sure to pack a lunch, water, sunscreen, and bug spray for this journey, as services are few and far between outside of the city.
This drive can easily fill up a day with all of the scenic viewpoints and trails along the route, or you can opt to camp along the road if you are staying in Juneau longer.
Here are some of my favorite stops along this drive:
- Eagle Beach - This beach offers great views of Lynn Canal, the Chilkat and Juneau Mountains, and plenty of easy hiking trails. This is also a great vantage point to see humpback whales from the shore.
- Jensen-Olsen Arboretum - An idyllic public garden that is a miniature version of the famous Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia
- The National Shrine of St. Therese – a historic landmark about 20 miles outside of Juneau. This stop has a beach stone chapel, spanning views, and quiet gardens. There is also a gift shop and lodge onsite.
Local Tip: Do a portion of this drive at sunrise or sunset (assuming your ship is there late enough).
This is when wildlife is more active, and you are more likely to catch sight of a fox, wolf, or bear along the route. The lighting also makes for dramatic landscapes as a backdrop for your photos.
2. Go Bear Viewing on Admiralty Island
Juneau is home to both black and coastal brown bears. Both of these species of bears can be viewed in and around Juneau, especially when out on the road. In the late summer, both bears are a common sight in salmon streams and berry bushes. Due to their dense population, it is always recommended to carry bear spray and a small blow horn when hiking or exploring. Both are easily available in the downtown shops and outfitters in Juneau.
If you're heading to Juneau to catch sight of the infamous grizzly, there is no better place than at Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area on Admiralty Island. While black bears can average around 400 pounds, their distant cousins, the coastal brown bear, can weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Brown bears are Grizzlies, but they are considerably larger than the grizzlies found in the interior. That is thanks to a rich diet of salmon, berries, and other fatty-riched foods that are readily available along the Alaskan coast.
While both species co-exist elsewhere, Admiralty Island is home to only the brown bear. It is estimated that around 1,600 brown bears call Admiralty Island home, making it one of the densest populations of brown bears in the world.
The Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area is situated inside the Pack Creek Bear Sanctuary. This sanctuary is only accessible by boat or plane, so most visitors catch a 30-minute floatplane ride from Juneau. The sanctuary is open from June 1 through September 10, with the peak season occurring from July 5 through August 25. During the peak season, visitors are limited to 25 per a day.
A permit is required to visit the sanctuary, with half of the permits available for public purchase. Due to the difficulty in reaching the sanctuary and securing a permit, I recommend booking a bear guide to solve both of these problems. Bear guides are also knowledgeable in bear behavior and help keep you safe while you observe these majestic animals in the wild.
While this isn’t a local secret, this is one of the best places to view brown bears en masse in Alaska.
But don’t worry if you can’t swing a permit here. Black bears are numerous throughout Juneau and out on the road, and brown bears are incredibly common throughout mainland Alaska.
When visiting Alaska, it is never if you see a bear, but when.
1. Take a Guided Kayak Trip to Mendenhall Lake
Juneau is a water destination. Surrounded by islands with countless inlets and glacier lakes, this is a water lover's dream destination. One of the most spectacular trips is a voyage along Mendenhall Lake to Mendenhall Glacier.
Visitors can opt for a guided kayak tour to Mendenhall Lake, where you can kayak between floating icebergs and experience the serenity of Tongass National Forest for the water. The tours allow paddlers to view the glacier from a safe distance while learning more about the history and nature of the region from the experienced guide. Keep an eye out for otters, beavers, and bears, as they are frequent visitors along the banks of Mendenhall Lake.
Permits are required to paddle close to the glacier, so opting for a guide makes this journey easier and safer. Guides also supply all the gear needed. While some fitness level is needed to participate in the 2-hour adventure, visitors do not need to be kayak experts. Guides provide kayaking tips and lessons, and the lake remains calm on sunny days.
If kayaking sounds too extreme, visitors can also enjoy Mendenhall Glacier on a charter cruise. Helicopter tours are also often if you want to see the glacier from the sky. Both of these experiences are easier physically, but they lack the serenity found only with a paddle.
Local Tip: If you're under a time restraint, you can also view the glacier from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
If you have longer to explore, consider a hike to Nugget Falls from the visitor center. This trail will bring you close to the glacier as well as to the viewing point of Nugget Falls, a 377-foot waterfall plummeting into the lake.
Simply look for signs from the visitor center pointing to the falls. The 2-mile hike is level and on gravel, making it the perfect option for families.
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