Juneau is perhaps the most remote capital city in the United States. There are no roads connecting Juno to the rest of Alaska or to the rest of North America. The extremely rugged terrain surrounding the city makes Juno a de facto island in terms of transportation. You must either take a plane, a boat or a ferry to get there. The city lies at the base of a high coastal mountain range and just across the channel from Douglas Island. There are few more picturesque settings than that of Juneau. Mother Nature bestowed a wealth of stunning natural beauty on it.
The first thing you will probably notice as you arrive is the big number of seaplanes taking off and landing in the port area. Given that most visitors arriving in Juneau come via cruise ship or plane, the average stay in this town is not more than two days. There are plenty of things do in this little town if you have time, but we were there for the day. So here are some of the things you can do in Juneau if you only have a day.
Walk to the Mendenhall Glacier and Nugget Falls
The astounding Mendenhall Glacier is only about 12 miles from town and offers several opportunities to visit it. For a minimal fee, the local bus will take you within ½ mile of the park entrance and the glacier. There are several trails in the park that can take you in or around Mendenhall Glacier, the lake and the river.
We especially enjoyed hiking up to Nugget Falls, at the right side of the Glacier, on a 2-mile long trail along the beach from the visitor’s center. The spectacular waterfall drops 377 feet onto the sandy beach of the Mendenhall Lake.
Take Helicopter Flight with Glacier Landing
The most memorable and exciting trip in my opinion is the helicopter tour up to Mendenhall Glacier with a landing on the glacier itself. Despite its rapid retreat in recent years, this glacier is well worth a visit if you’re in Juneau, especially if you have never been on one before. The trip is relatively expensive, but the entire experience is absolutely unique. Before landing on the glacier, the helicopter will take you around the bay and over the mountains for about 30 minutes. If the weather is good, you will enjoy stunning views of the entire Inside Passage up to tens of miles away.
After landing, you will have the opportunity to walk on this huge mountain of ice that looks like a river that was frozen in its tracks. The tour is great and you will learn very interesting things about the ice field and the climate change.
Mendenhall Lake Canoe Adventure
There are a lot of paddling options in Juneau, but Mendenhall Glacier paddling will get you close to the icy giant across the serene waters of the lake, navigating past floating icebergs. On the way to the glacier you can see birds, goats and a lot of salmon. You row up to the beach where you stop to see the waterfalls and then turn back. You can’t beat this view of the glacier from the canoe!
Ride the Tramway to the Top of Mount Roberts
For those that want to get a glimpse of Alaska’s vast forests and mountainous terrain, try taking the Aerial Tramway for a quick ride to the top of Mount Roberts. If you arrive via cruise ship, upon disembarking you will see the bright red Tramway right next to the docks.
The admission ticket is good all day, so if you loved the first ride you can go up again later. There are plenty of things to do at the top – eat, shop, watch a short cultural film, explore art, see an American Bald Eagle, or just walk around. There are several short trails through the forest surrounding the visitor center. The view from up there is fantastic.
Have Lunch at the Red Dog Saloon
If you are looking for an authentic western style bar that fits Alaska well, stop for a beer and a bite at the Red Dog Saloon. The place is very nicely decorated with animal trophies and funny artifacts, sawdust floors, waitresses wearing brothel apparel, live music and excellent service. And to impress you even more, Wyatt Earp’s gun is on display on the wall.
Downtown Historic Walking Tour and Shopping
Juneau offers a wealth of shopping opportunities and wonderful sightseeing choices, which makes it a very popular port with cruise ship visitors. Some of the art stores in Juno are quite a feast for the eye. From ivory sculptures and carved totem poles, to very unique knives and silver jewelry with totemic designs, you can find great things for almost every budget. If you like walking and shopping, pick up a map from the Visitor Center and be your own guide. Exploring historic Juneau won’t take more than a couple of hours, even if you’ll stop at every little shop on the way.
For a more informative tour, you can join a local Juneau-Douglas City Museum guide that will take you through part of the original townsite. You will hear a lot of stories about the personalities of early Juneau and learn how Juneau’s mining past shaped up this little town.
There are many more great things to do in Juneau if you have more time to spend there. We only had a 12 hours but it was an exciting and fun filled day.
Do you have any great tips for fun things to do in Juneau? Let me know about your experience in the comments. I want to know what I missed.