11 Top Things to do in Juneau, Alaska: An Adventurers Travel Guide
Updated on April 15th, 2020
Juneau is the capital city of Alaska located at the top of the tail alongside Canada. It is the only U.S. state capital that isn’t accessible by road. Which means getting here is already an adventure. You’ll need to plan ahead to arrive by plane, boat or ferry. Before I arrived in Juneau I had no idea what to expect. I can safely say that the week I spent here blew any expectations and I have compiled this list of amazing things to do in Juneau for outdoor and adventure lovers.
The first thing you will notice especially if you fly in is the magnificent landscape. To the south and west is the inside passage dotted with dramatic islands of varying size. One even home to the largest grizzly population in North America. The north holds the Juneau Icefield which has over 40 large glaciers waiting to be explored. The city of Juneau itself encompasses only a small width of land before the Coast Mountains pop up 3,800 feet to the East.
Whether you have a short stopover on a cruise ship, a weekend or a full week for adventures, this adventure seeker guide to Juneau, Alaska will be your best companion.
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What to do in Juneau
Visit the Mendenhall Glacier & Visitor Centre
Start your trip to Juneau by visiting the Mendenhall Glacier and visitor centre. From here you will have unobstructed views of Juneau’s most famous glacier and learn about the surrounding area through interactive exhibits.
There’s plenty of information and a short film 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 the season – 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. Photo point trail is a paved half a km walk which has the best views of the glacier and won’t take more than 20 minutes. If you have a bit more time, the 115 m Nugget Falls is a 3.2 km loop and will take approximately 1-hour return.
How to get to Mendenhall Glacier
The Mendenhall Glacier is 12 miles outside of Juneau. There are buses, shuttles and taxis which can take you to the glacier and visitors centre. Buses from downtown start at $30 roundtrip while a taxi will cost $35 each way. A great option is to take a guided tour to the glacier. This tour combines a 45-minute sightseeing tour through downtown Juneau with the Glacier and includes entrance fee ($5) to the visitor centre. Pick up and drop off is at Mount Roberts Tramway.
Go Whale Watching
Between April and November, the inside passage is teeming with whales. After catching the ferry from Prince Rupert in BC and seeing the whales from a distance I knew it would be worth my time. Taking a whale watching tour to spot humpbacks and orcas is a must during your stay in Juneau.
There are many companies offering slightly different trips from half to full days and whale watching in combination with other tours. I did an afternoon half-day whale watch which was the perfect amount of time. 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 the legal distance. Which was still much closer than I had ever been to these amazing sea creatures. The highlight of the trip was seeing a humpback completely breach the surface only metres from our boat. Something etched into my memory forever.
This half-day whale watching tour lasts 3.5 hours (2 hours on the water) and includes pick up and drop off to downtown Juneau. Or compare dates and prices with this whale watching adventure which also includes drop off and pick up and a snack of fresh-caught Alaskan salmon on a bagel. Don’t forget your layers as it gets even colder out on the water.
Hike Mount Juneau
Although Juneau is a city, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s much less built up and is packed full of hiking trails. From end to end the road through Juneau stretches only 72 km while hiking trails cover 210 km.
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. He gave me a list to tick off full of the best Juneau has to offer. His local recommendation was to hike Mount Juneau, so that’s what I did.
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.
A cool thing about this hike is you ascend double the height of the Mount Roberts Tramway which is 550m (1800 feet) above sea level. At 1080m the views and prices are way better than taking the tram.
Detailed hiking information
Head over to the All Trails website for the most in-depth trail information. I allocated half a day for this 9.5 km (7-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 will 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. Ask locals if you are hiking earlier in the season to prepare for possibly impassable falls when the snowmelt is high.
Splurge on a Juneau Helicopter Tour to Trek on a Glacier
By no means should a budget traveller be going in a helicopter, am I right? Although my birthday was coming up and I thought what better way to treat myself then by doing something I hadn’t done before. Curiously Erin is about knowing when to splurge and when not to. So it was decided, I was going to splurge a little (a lot) on a helicopter glacier trek.
Describing this tour 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. Such a surreal experience.
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. Our guides were waiting for us on a remote part of the glacier. Once being dropped off 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 seemed to go on forever, walked over rivers and under ice tunnels. All created naturally. This was easily one of the most amazing activities of my life and well worth every cent.
Which company to choose?
I chose North Star Trekking as my operator as they had come highly recommended by my host. I can strongly pass on this recommendation and say that a Juneau helicopter tour should be a must for your things to do in Juneau.
The Mendenhall Ice Cave
Of everything I did while in Juneau, hiking to the ice cave under the Mendenhall glacier was the craziest and scariest thing. Which considering the few days I had here it’s hard to believe.
I’d even go as far as saying this was the best hikes I have ever done. My host had recommended I do this during my trip but had also encouraged me to find someone to go with.
Without knowing anyone and my hosts 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.
Hiking and trail information
Because the entrance to the glacier changes, the total distance of the hike also changes. I hiked 9.5 km (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 varies depending on the current cave entrance location) you exit the trail to the right.
You can usually tell where due to a clear path from other hikers, but it’s best to get as much information from a local ahead of time. You can also consult All Trails for a trail overview and map. From here the hike gets tricky. With uneven terrain and a steep scramble, where I felt I was rock climbing up slippery rocks this hike isn’t for the faint at heart.
Once you make it onto the ice, 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 ensure someone knows where you are. Enjoy! This will be one of the best hikes of your life.
Visit the Alaskan Brewery Co
If you enjoy visiting breweries between May and September you must stop into the Alaskan Brewery tasting room for a guided tour. Included with a $25 tasting the brewery offers a free shuttle to and from downtown. I arrived too late in the day for a tasting and brewery tour, but that didn’t stop me from sampling a few of the 20 beers on tap.
The tasting room is small and cosy and gives you a chance to mingle with the other customers if you choose. Outside they have their own Wild Alaskan Food Truck which serves up delicious seafood and burgers.
Outside of May and September the brewery is open for drinks without the guided tours.
Explore Tracy Arm Fjord
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 Auke 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.
Take a Zipline Tour
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 (and still am) 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.
Eat Alaskan King Crab
A must eat during your time in Alaska is Alaskan king crab. I was wholly unprepared for the size of this crab and getting one leg was enough to not only be way bigger then my head but fill my stomach. The best place to try this is at Tracy’s King Crab Shack along the waterfront.
Have you visited Juneau before? What would you add to the adventure seekers guide to Juneau, Alaska?