Editor’s note: This story was written before the COVID-19 pandemic, and some information might be out of date. With the situation continually evolving, we strongly encourage you to check ahead to determine the status of any business, park or activity you are interested in. To find the most up-to-date information about current health and travel mandates, check with the state of Alaska online and adn.com.
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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 longtime legislator or a first-time visitor, the journey 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. But even on wet days, this city of about 32,000 residents — plus nearly 1.8 million visitors each summer — contains a lot to check out. 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.
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. Head inside for exhibits on ancient place names and the off-the-hook tools invented to catch salmon and halibut.
Word of warning: Along with that rain gear, make sure you 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.
Perseverance Trail: 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.
Mount Roberts: 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.
Where to eat
Juneau’s been getting serious attention from national food and travel media for its food and drink options. Chef Beau Schooler, who has been racking up James Beard nominations for best chef of the northwest, is always changing things up at his Italian restaurant, In Bocca Al Lupo. No, you can’t get food just like it at home. Schooler serves up some serious from-scratch magic. (He’s also fun to follow on Instagram.) Check out inboccaallupoak.com. 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. But if you’re more thirsty (for adult beverages) than hungry, head straight to Amalga Spirits. Their Juneauper Gin — see what they did there? — is top notch, top shelf, and all around tops.
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 food 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.)
Mendenhall Lake and Glacier: 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 Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. The center has loads of educational information too. It’s a cool spot — pun intended.
Alaska State Museum: 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.)
Admiralty Island: 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.)