I didn’t plan on going to Southeast Alaska to find some great weather, but last week I hit the jackpot in Juneau and Ketchikan.
After our damp-and-dreary Anchorage summer, I rejoiced when the sun came out in Juneau.
Cruise season has slowed a bit, but there still are lots of ships cruising the Inside Passage. In fact, there are cruise ships scheduled well into October this year. That means more options for travelers who want to go on guided tours in the air or on the water.
But on a bright sunny day, I pulled on my boots, looking for a scenic hike to get some million-dollar views.
In Juneau, one of my favorite hikes is up the Mount Roberts Trail.
The trail is easy to access on two fronts: from Basin Road, which is just uphill a couple of blocks from the Alaska State Capitol, or from the Goldbelt Tram, which leaves from the cruise ship docks.
Friends tell me the hike up from Basin Road is challenging. Trail maps say it’s a six-hour hike. I took the tram, which covered quite a bit of the vertical gain, in about five minutes.
It’s a quick 1-mile walk up to Father Brown’s Cross, named after a priest who helped build the trail in 1908. Along the way there are several vistas that afford fabulous views of Gastineau Channel in both directions.
You can continue up to Mount Roberts (and beyond). It’s a spectacular hike.
From the trailhead on Basin Road, there are several other trails you can take, including the Perseverance Trail. The trail is a little less than 5 miles up and back. I haven’t hiked it, but hear good reports.
The other hike, right across from the Mount Roberts trailhead, is the Gold Creek Flume Trail. This is an easy hike along over a man-made flume, which powered Juneau’s first hydroelectric project. It’s just a mile and a half there and back, but there are lots of bridges over the rushing water and the trail is well-maintained. It’s a popular lunchtime stroll right up the hill from downtown Juneau.
Out past the airport in Juneau is the Mendenhall Valley, formed by the Mendenhall Glacier. The visitor center is an easy 13-mile drive from downtown Juneau. There are some great views of the glacier in and around the visitor center.
But you just can’t miss Nugget Falls. It’s at least 100 feet tall and the water thunders down nonstop to Mendenhall Lake. It’s loud! The trail from the visitor center is almost flat — and it’s about a mile and a half round-trip. Get up close the falls and feel the spray. Walk to the end of the spit in front of the falls for some good photos.
The other hike on my list isn’t very long, but it’s a beautiful setting. The Shrine of St. Therese is a retreat center run by the Catholic Church. It’s a 22-mile drive north from downtown Juneau, right on the water.
There are two separate beaches at the site. You can see several cabins that are used for retreats set back a bit from the beach. There’s a causeway that leads to “Shrine Island,” where there is a stone chapel in the trees.
There’s a trail around the island that includes several striking vistas where you can look out onto the Gastineau Channel. Often, you can see humpback whales feeding in the distance. Accordingly, it’s not unusual to see a fleet of sightseeing boats watching for another breaching whale.
Both Juneau and Ketchikan are in the Tongass National Forest — and there are dozens of hiking trails for hikers of all abilities. Learn more at the Tongass National Forest website.
When I arrived in Ketchikan, the weather was typical: rain. There’s just one nonstop flight from Juneau to Ketchikan, Alaska Air flight 60, arriving at 8:10 a.m. I still was a little sleepy. But the ferry ride from the airport to town offered a healthy dose of salt spray and a stiff north wind. After the five-minute ride, I was wide awake.
The next morning, the sky was blue and the sun was out. If you’re staying downtown in Ketchikan, there’s one trail that starts on historic Creek Street.
Creek Street once was Ketchikan’s red-light district, so the trail originally was well-trodden by the married customers trying to discreetly visit the “bawdy houses” along the creek.
Today, Creek Street is a collection of shops and galleries. The trail goes right by the front doors, before weaving over the creek and up the hill to the Cape Fox Lodge, which overlooks the downtown area.
Instead of heading up the hill to the lodge, I opted for a beautiful hike along Ketchikan Creek.
“My favorite hike is from Creek Street up to the Totem Heritage Center,” said Kara Tetly, executive director of the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau. Along the way you’re likely to see gobs of spawning salmon. There was a hatchery on the creek that’s now closed, but there’s still a healthy salmon run up the creek.
Tetley and I also compared notes on another popular Ketchikan hike: the Rainbird Trail. The trail is up above the downtown district, with an entrance near the University of Alaska Southeast campus. It’s a 45-minute walk one way through the rain forest. Even if it’s sunny, you’ll be happy you wore your boots. It’s soggy, after all, in the rain forest. Be prepared for some million-dollar views.
Neither Tetley nor I have been on the big hike that’s popular with cruise ship visitors. That’s the trek up to Deer Mountain. “You really should take a cab up to the trailhead,” said Tetley, unless you rented a car.
You can start your trek to Deer Mountain from downtown if you wish. Just follow the signs on Ketchikan Lakes Road to the dump. The trailhead is across the street.
“Yes, it’s best to take a taxi to the trailhead,” said Michael Briggs, general manager of the Cape Fox Lodge. “You’ve still got three and a half miles to go, plus a 2,000-foot climb.”
If it’s raining when you arrive in Juneau or Ketchikan, head to the museums.
At the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, there’s a special exhibit on Alaska Native gut knowledge and perseverance. Called “Visceral: Verity Legacy Identity,” the exhibit features traditional and modern displays of animal gut for art and apparel.
In Ketchikan at the Tongass Historical Museum, check out Ray Troll’s “Fossil Coastline” exhibit.