The Adventure Seekers Guide to Juneau, Alaska
Updated on January 3rd, 2020
Juneau is the capital city of Alaska located in the top part of the tail coming down alongside Canada. It is the only U.S. state capital that isn’t accessible by road, and getting here requires you to arrive by plane, boat or ferry. Before I arrived in Juneau I had no idea what to expect. Definitely not what I discovered that’s for sure.
The first thing you will notice especially if you fly in is the magnificent landscapes. To the south and west is the inside passage dotted with islands of varying size. The north holds the Juneau Icefield which is home to over 40 large glaciers. The populated area of Juneau encompasses only a small width of land before the Coast Mountains pop up 3,800 feet to the East. Read on for my adventure seekers guide to Juneau, Alaska.
Start your trip to Juneau by visiting the Mendenhall Glacier and visitor centre. Not only will you see Juneau’s most famous glacier, but you will also learn so much for the rest of your trip. There is plenty of information about the Juneau Icefield and its glaciers plus crazy facts about how quickly they are retreating. It’s not uncommon for you to see bears, mountain goats, beavers and depending on when you are there salmon spawning. Make sure you save some time for a few of the short trails around the lake where you can grab a close up of an iceberg!
Keep day one to an easy start and spend the second half of your day spotting humpbacks and orcas. Finding a tour to meet your needs will be easy as there are many companies offering slightly different trips. I was lucky and received a complimentary half-day whale watch. I met the boat in Auke Bay where 15-20 of us were greeted and brought aboard. Once underway it wasn’t long before the first whale had been sighted. We followed a family of humpbacks for a couple of hours at our legal distance, which still much closer than I had ever been to these amazing sea creatures. The highlight was as we were all focused on a whale in the distance when another completely breached the surface only metres from our boat.
Hike Mount Juneau
Although Juneau is a city, it doesn’t feel that way and is packed full of hiking trails. From end to end the road through Juneau stretches only 45 miles while hiking trails cover 130 miles. As I was only in Juneau for four nights I needed to choose my hikes wisely. Luckily I was Couchsurfing and my incredible host sat me down and helped me come up with a jam-packed itinerary full of the best Juneau has to offer. His recommendation was to hike Mount Juneau, so that’s what I did.
I allocated half a day for this six-mile hike, which was plenty of time. To reach the trailhead follow Gold Street out of town onto Basin Road, once at the end you should hit a car park. The first mile of the trail overlaps with the Perseverance trail, after which you take a signed left for the following 2 miles of a steep incline. This section starts as a shaded tree-lined route which then opens up onto the face of Mount Juneau. I climbed this mountain at the end of September and still crossed over some waterfalls where I decided to take my shoes off. Prepare for possibly impassable falls earlier in the season when the snowmelt is high.
The views from this hike are stunning, overlooking the city and the inside passage to the south and the mountain ranges to the north. At the summit, you can choose to follow a trail along the plateau if you have time. As you’re in Alaska, remember to pack layers as the weather can change quickly and dramatically.
Fly in a Helicopter + Trek on a Glacier
By no means should a budget traveller be going in a helicopter. My birthday was coming up though and I thought what better way to treat myself. I had decided, I was going to splurge a little (a lot) on a helicopter glacier trek. When my Couchsurfing host told me he could get me on for the cost of fuel, I had never felt so lucky! North Star Trekking had me booked in for an afternoon flight.
Describing this experience brings back so many incredible memories. The first was how awe-struck I was with how the helicopter flies. I sat next to the pilot and watching him use the joystick looked like he was playing a video game, not taking 5 of us into the air. Seeing the multitude of colours in the ice, the lines created by the retreats and the vast expanse of mountains as far as we could see was mind boggling. How hard to believe I was in the USA!
Then came the trek. We met our guides on a remote part of the glacier. All we could see surrounding us was ice and ice walls. Nothing close to what I had ever experienced before. We suited up with crampons, trekking poles, an ice pick and helmets – just in case. Over the course of two hours, we explored a new land, looked down crevasses that went on forever, walked over rivers and under ice tunnels. All created naturally.
The Mendenhall Ice Cave
Of everything I did while in Juneau, hiking to the ice cave under the Mendenhall glacier was the craziest, scariest and most amazing thing. I’d even go as far as saying this was the most fun hike I have ever done. My hosts had recommended I do this during my trip but had also encouraged me to find someone to go with. Without knowing anyone and them being at work I took to the challenge on my own. Equipped with crampons and a walkie talkie I was off to discover my first ice cave. Due to the rapid rate of retraction of the glacier, the entrance to the cave can change on a daily basis.
Because the entrance to the glacier changes, the total distance of the hike also changes. I hiked 6 miles round trip. The hike starts by following West Glacier Trail along a flat but muddy shaded path. After a mile or so (this part changes) you exit the trail to the right. You can usually tell where due to a clear path from other hikers. This is where the hike gets tricky. Uneven terrain and a steep scramble where I felt I was rock climbing up slippery rocks. Once you make it onto the ice then the next hard part is finding the entrance. A tour group was exiting the cave and I happened to time it perfectly to see them. Once inside the world turned an incredible blue hue.
When you do this hike, make sure you are well-prepared for all weather conditions and leave plenty of time. Put in place as many safety precautions as you can and make sure someone knows where you are. Enjoy! This will be one of the best hikes of your life.
Other Adventures in Juneau
Tours run from Juneau up the Tracy Arm Fjord to the Sawyer Glaciers. Witness ice breaking free and crashing into the sea, catch a glimpse of a seal sunbathing on an iceberg and feel the spray of 1000 feet waterfalls as you cruise past.
Walk around Auke Lake
When I stayed in Juneau I was right across the road from this lake. To say I had the most stunning views in an understatement. The walk around the lake is by no means a hike but worth it if you’re trying to fill an hour or two.
Juneau is home to one of the best-rated ziplining tours in Alaska. There are 7 ziplines and an aerial suspension bridge for hours worth of entertainment.
Watch the Northern Lights
I was desperate to see the Northern Lights during my trip to Alaska. I checked the forecast every day and set my alarm at night in 20-minute intervals if the predictor went above KP level 3. Unfortunately, I was still unlucky and never got to witness them. I hope you are luckier than me and experience a great geomagnetic storm.