If you’re the person who says “both” when asked, “Do you prefer the mountains or the beach?” then Juneau is the place for you. Surrounded by sea and ice, Juneau’s mountains jut out, giving travelers a little bit of both. Long the land inhabited by the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people, the capital city of Alaska got its Western name and infrastructure during the Gold Rush. This waterfront town is an outdoor enthusiast’s haven, and boasts that it has more miles of trails and mining tunnels than road (of which there are just 190).
The absolute must-see for most travelers is the Mendenhall Glacier. There are many ways to see the glacier, depending on your level of comfort. The West Glacier Trail is by far one of the best bangs for your buck. While it includes a little bit of scrambling (up a waterfall, for example) the payoff is worth far more than it will cost you to get there. The trail is 3.5 miles out and back and brings you right up to the face of the glacier. For a more family-friendly/accessible option, the Nugget Falls Trail brings you around the other side of the Mendenhall Lake directly to a massive waterfall with views of the glacier from a bit farther away. (The short, informational video in the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center is the cheapest tour of Juneau you’ll get.)
Liquid Alaska offers canoe tours that go across the lake to bring you to the face of the glacier and across the top of the ice. Or, if you’re balling without a budget, you can charter a helicopter through Northstar, Coastal or Temsco Helicopters for a flightseeing tour that will land you on the glacier (tours cost about $300 or more).
If you’re looking for a more relaxing way than hiking to sightsee and get up close to a glacier, try a full day boat trip to Tracy Arm Fjord with Adventure Bound. For $165, this 10-hour tour is an exceptional value. Make sure to pack a cooler with snacks and beverages to enjoy while you cruise through a steep fjord, usually seeing whales, bears, eagles, harbor seals along the way, and culminating at one of the Sawyer Glaciers, which are often actively calving. Even if it’s cloudy or rainy, this trip is sure to be memorable and enjoyable — the glacier can look more blue when it’s overcast. If you’re looking for a shorter tour, several other companies offer two- to three-hour whale watching or city tours during the summer cruise ship season (check out Juneau Tours & Whale Watch and Allen Marine for options).
If you’re more of a plant lover than animal lover, check out the upside-down tree gardens at Glacier Gardens. They also offer tours up the mountain in small trams during the summer season. A good place to see fireweed is along Point Bridget Trail. The drive out the road to this trail also makes for great views of the looming Chilkat Mountains.
Another top-notch Juneau experience is cabin camping. You can rent cabins online; however, weekends can generally get booked up to six months in advance so make sure to book far ahead of time. Most public cabins are in backcountry and require hiking your gear out. However, there are some private cabins that can be rented that are more accessible, such as those at the Shrine of St. Therese or on Airbnb.
Good family activities include walking along Sandy Beach on Douglas Island. Ruins from the old mine that collapsed there give the beach a historic vibe, and informational signs along the way entertain and inform little ones. The Mount Roberts Tram usually runs during the summer cruise season, although hours may vary in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most bars and restaurants remain open, although mask policies may still be in place.
Here are some quick favorites if you’re looking for places to eat, drink, and shop:
Best value breakfast: Donna’s Restaurant.
Best food downtown: In Bocca Al Lupo (the chef specials are where it’s at).
Best food on Douglas Island: The Island Pub (try the salmon dip).
Best family dining: The Hangar on the Wharf (can’t go wrong with anything with the halibut).
Best bar: Alaskan Hotel & Bar (especially on open mic nights or live music nights).
Best brewery: Devil’s Club Brewery Co.
Best place to drink with kids: Forbidden Peak Brewery.
Best drunk food: Pel’mini’s.
Best people watching: Triangle Club Bar and the downtown cruise ship docks.
Best place to nurse a hangover with salty popcorn and a Bloody Mary: Red Dog Saloon (also best kitschy decor).
Best coffee: The Grind Coffee Co.
Best cheap souvenirs: Alaska Shirt Company.
Best souvenirs: Whale tail necklaces from various downtown jewelry stores, whale tail salad tossers, Tlingit silver bracelets from Mt. Juneau Trading Post and others, kitschy matching shirts from the T-Shirt Company, Alaskan Brewing Company sweatshirts, smoked salmon from Taku Store, a Ray Troll “Spawn Till You Die” shirt.
Best food when you’re cold from walking around in the rain: Old Friend Noodle Soup from Lemon Tree Cafe.