From glaciers to gold mines: the inside guide to Juneau, Alaska’s capital city

Published October 12, 2023

7 min read

Juneau’s unusual geography has shaped its fortunes and honed its spirit. It’s wedged between glaciers, mountains, temperate rainforests and glossy tidal waters, all of which invite visitors to explore. Its historic centre hugs the Gastineau Channel, which fringes Southeast Alaska’s 300-mile-long Alexander Archipelago. Reachable only by aircraft or boat, this is a capital that’s breathtakingly remote.

Traditionally referred to as Dzantik’i Heeni, meaning ‘where the flounders gather’, Juneau has been the traditional homeland of three distinct ethnicities for over 10,000 years, including the Tlingit (pronounced “clink-it”), Haida (“high-da”), and Tsimshian (“sim-shee-an”) communities. In the 1880s, prospectors began flocking to the city for the promise of gold, and these mines remain some of the largest in the world. Today, the city is home to administrators, tech wizards, artists, wildlife-watchers and adventurers, who, together, have helped to forge a laidback city with a close-to-nature feel.

With a population lower than 32,000, the spacious state capital of Juneau rarely feels hectic. To start soaking up its atmosphere, head for Downtown Juneau to explore its historic streets on foot. Juneau Voices, a walking tour linking 11 sound installations, offers a warm-hearted introduction to neighbourhood life. At each stop, you’ll hear spoken-word snippets recorded by members of Native elders as well as local history experts, selected for their storytelling skills.

For an extra dimension, combine this tour with the Public Art Walk created by Juneau Arts and Humanities Council. It connects Juneau’s best cultural spaces, including the Alaska State Museum (for prehistory, the Gold Rush and more), the Juneau-Douglas City Museum (a local history collection packed with everyday objects) and the Sealaska Heritage Institute at the Walter Soboleff Building (for fascinating presentations on Indigenous heritage).

Along the route, there are independent galleries, artists’ studios, murals and monuments to discover, such as Patsy Ann in Marine Park, a bronze sculpture of a beloved local dog who, despite being born deaf, knew when the steamships were coming and would wait patiently on the dock to greet each arrival every day. 

To round off your downtown experience, bowl through the swing doors of the Red Dog Saloon on South Franklin Street, a cheerful landmark where assorted lifesaving rings and hunting trophies line the walls, and tourists and locals alike order reindeer sausage sandwiches and duck farts (Kahlua and Bailey’s laced with Crown Royal whisky).

Juneau’s food and drink scene isn’t all about jokey cocktails and nostalgia, however. For a contemporary experience, munch on tacos filled with sustainably caught fish from Deckhand Dave’s food truck, crack open a steamy bucket of Alaskan king crab at Tracy’s King Crab Shack, both situated along the main wharf, or head to Bocca al Lupo in downtown Juneau for handmade pastas and rustic, wood-fired pizzas with a local Alaskan twist. 

The remarkable Mendenhall Glacier — rugged enough to entice hardcore trekkers, with an excellent visitor centre for the rest of us — is just one of Juneau’s many natural attractions. Downtown, you’re never far from smooth waters and steep forested slopes. For hikers, kayakers and winter sports enthusiasts, their pull is hard to resist.

Lying at 58.3 degrees north, a similar latitude to the north coast of the Scottish Highlands, Juneau enjoys a far milder climate than Alaska’s northerly reaches and in summer, the long hours of daylight beckon everyone outdoors. Rain is always a possibility, but Juneauites aren’t bothered. True to their spirit, one of the city’s best hikes — a three-mile climb with superb waterfall views — is called the Perseverance Trail. To tackle it like a local, just pull on your waterproofs and Xtratufs (like wellies, with a neoprene lining) and go.

Three animals to spot in Juneau

1. Bears
One of the best ways to watch Juneau’s wild bears in relative safety is to take a floatplane to Admiralty Island, where there’s an observation tower. With luck, you’ll see brown bears fishing for salmon in Pack Creek, digging up shellfish or grazing on sedges. For black bears, head for the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area and follow the Steep Creek Trail, where viewing platforms hang over the local bears’ favourite salmon-grabbing spots. July and August offer the highest chances of spotting them.

2. Whales
With easy access to the nutrient-rich waters of Southeast Alaska, Juneau is one of North America’s best whale-watching bases. Humpback whales tend to migrate here from Hawaii in spring and remain in the area until fall, while orcas tend to go wherever their food source is, making their movement patterns slightly less predictable. Nevertheless, a half-day boat trip takes you deep into their feeding grounds: if your captain has an amplified hydrophone, you’ll get to eavesdrop on the mighty cetaceans’ conversations. Alternatively, try a kayaking trip — a thrilling adventure delivering water-level views.

3. Eagles
Juneauites sometimes joke that Southeast Alaska has more bald eagles than people. While that’s stretching the truth, this is easily one of the world’s best places to see them in abundance. Juneau’s eagles are particularly conspicuous in summer, perching over rivers where salmon are spawning. Sheep Creek, located four miles southeast of Juneau, is one of their regular haunts: here, you’ll see them perching on trees and rocks, scanning for washed-up fish.

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