Juneau is, by no means, the most logical of capital cities. With no roads connecting it to the rest of the state, even legislators have to ferry or fly in for sessions. It’s simply not all that convenient a place to get to (or away from). But whether you’re a long-time legislator or a first-time visitor, that ferry or flight will serve up scenery that’s sure to take the sting out of pretty much any inconvenience.
Oh, don’t forget your raincoat. Juneau’s not just a coastal city. It’s a rainforest city. A Pacific temperate rainforest city, to be exact. The state museum had an awesome overhaul a few years back. The hiking is spectacular. There’s plenty of shopping to be done. And the dining? Well, little old Juneau has come quite a long way. This city of about 32,000 residents — plus nearly 1.8 million visitors each summer — contains a lot to check out.
But long before the place now known as Juneau played host to miners, legislators or foodies, the area was home to the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people. For one of the state’s most stunning installations of Native art, walk the exterior of the Walter Soboleff Building, which features massive art pieces by celebrated artists from each of the three tribes.
Word of warning: Along with that rain gear you’ve already been warned about, don’t step out onto the streets of Juneau without comfortable footwear. Unless you stay by the cruise ship docks, there’s a good chance you’re going to walk at an angle for most of your wandering. Juneau’s got some steep hills — but there’s plenty to see (and distract you from the climb) along the way.
This (mostly) easy-peasy trail wanders into Gold Creek Valley and past the long-abandoned Perseverance Mine — it closed down in 1921. The 3-mile trail will probably take two or three hours to finish. Maybe four if you’re a photograph-everything type.
If you’re not in the mood to climb, you can get to the top of Mount Roberts via Southeast’s only tramway. Best avoided by those with a fear of heights, the tram skirts the mountain on the 1,800-foot ride up from the cruise ship dock. Once up top, there’s plenty to do: wander the trails, visit the Mount Roberts Nature Center, buy some tchotchkes at the gift shop and, of course, take a zillion photos.
Juneau food scene
Juneau’s been getting serious attention from national food and travel media for two stellar restaurants. The Rookery Cafe offers “casual bistro dining” for breakfast and lunch. Don’t be fooled by the word “casual” as this is seriously good food. The menu is anchored by all-American delights including burgers, tater tots and an Alaskan halibut cake, but trips out on flavors from afar including a banh mi and the you’ll-need-a-nap-after Korean chicken sandwich. For dinner, make reservations at SALT Alaska, the city’s top spot for fine dining. Chef Lionel Uddipa puts locally foraged ingredients (often found on his own early morning walks) to work for a menu that changes with each season. Ingredients often include local seafood and produce.
Don’t have time to scout out the local food scene but want to get the good stuff in your belly? Worry not. Food blogger Kelly “Midgi” Moore and her team of local tour guides has you covered. During the walking tours, your guide will point your mouth toward some smokin’ delicious smoked fish, all the salmon dip and crab you can handle and other tasty treats. Some tour options will help you quench your thirst for local brews and booze too. (See a full calendar at juneaufoodtours.com.)
Time to get up close — but not too close, please — to some of Juneau’s prettiest nature sculptures: the icebergs that float around in Mendenhall Lake and the mama that calved them, Mendenhall Glacier. Take a guided or self-guided paddle across the lake for a water-level view of the floating wonders. Alaska Boat & Kayak Shop can pick you up and supply the gear needed for a comfortable outing on the lake. Prefer staying on land? You can still get a good view of the 13-mile-long glacier and the lake from the trail that runs from the Visitor Center. The center has loads of educational information too. It’s a cool spot — pun intended.
Providing one of the best intro courses to Alaska’s cultures, art, history and nature, the Alaska State Museum is, truly, one of those something-for-everybody sorts of places. A massive renovation turned the already-good museum into something truly spectacular. The hardest decision: Do you go there first or do you wait to duck in during a downpour? You can’t go wrong either way. (395 Whittier St.)
Haven’t seen a bear yet? Don’t fret. Your chance to see plenty of bears is out on Admiralty Island, a short floatplane flight (or longer kayak trip) away. Peak bear-viewing season is July through August. The best bet if you’re not bear-country savvy? Head out to the Forest Service’s Pack Creek bear viewing area with a guide. (Search fs.usda.gov for more information or call 907-586-8800.)