The thrill of Alaska starts before the plane lands. Flying into Juneau on a clear day is like having a seat on a large, special access tour bus. As the plane maneuvers over Gastineau channel between islands and peninsulas that look like mounds of submerged forestland, you can scan the shoreline for bears or harbor seals. If you are lucky you will catch a glimpse of Mendenhall glacier. When I find myself in Juneau for work there are at least five things I try to make time to do.
After a two-hour, early morning flight from Seattle, aboard one of Alaska Airlines comfy Boeing 737-800 aircraft, I am always ready for a good cup of coffee and breakfast or a mid-morning snack. To accomplish this I pick up my rental Jeep and head to The Rookery Cafe in downtown Juneau about 8 miles from the airport. They are the only place in Juneau that serves Stumptown coffee from Portland OR. On my last trip I settled for a house-made, mixed-berry scone and an Americano.
If you are in Juneau between May and September you can expect to wander the cafes and stores with a few thousand cruise ship passengers. In May the crowd is relatively light, which makes window shopping a pleasure. I look for Alaska Native owned stores, like Planet Alaska on Ferry street newly opened in May 2019. But if you are squeezed for time, like I was between meetings, go to Sealaska Heritage Center’s gift shop. I love Alaska Native Ivory, but be sure to educate yourself about the history of the craft. Buying a beautiful carving you are supporting a local artist and acknowledging the importance of subsistence harvesting in rural Alaska. Shopping at either of these stores allows you to know your dollars are going directly back to the Alaskan indigenous artists and their communities.
If the weather is clear or partly sunny take the Mount Robert’s tram. You don’t need to be an extreme sport enthusiast to enjoy the slow, calming, and maybe warm (there is no air conditioning in the tram) ride up to 1,800 feet. The first stop once on top and ogling the vista, is the Chilkat theater where you will learn about the indigenous people of southeast Alaska and learn a few words in Tlingit. If you are physically able, the hike around the top is wonderful. Spend a few moments taking photos of the tiny cruise ships at dock and if you are lucky you will spot an eagle soaring below you(!).
Summer days are long in Alaska, so check your watch often to make sure you don’t miss happy hour. My favorite place to go is The Hangar on the Wharf. If beer is your thing, you will be happy to know they support the multiplying number of local breweries, the most famous being Alaskan Brewing Company. On my last visit I wasn’t in a beer mood, so I ordered a Woodford Reserve Manhattan. If you are hungry or a wee bit peckish there is something for everyone on the menu. I’m always looking for the best bang for my buck, so I was happy to see the Soy & Ginger bites were available with King Salmon.
If you arrive early to the airport, or maybe you stayed overnight in one of the many hotels near the airport, check out the EVAR or Airport Dike hiking trail. EVAR stands for emergency vehicle access road, and it is owned by the Juneau airport. The trail is a little over a mile long and borders the Mendenhall Wetlands reserve. It is an easy hike where locals go to walk their dogs. For me it is a hike that allows me to feel the wildness of Alaska without having to bring bear spray – perhaps not wise but I had my 32 ounce, metal HydroFlask with me in case of emergency (I figured smacking whatever creature, human or otherwise, in the head really hard would allow me time to escape). If you are observant you may be treated to a glimpse of river otters, eagles, or a kingfisher. Another treat is the silence between the roar of float planes and helicopters taking off or landing.
Whenever you go, Juneau has many rewarding experiences. Take all appropriate precautions to have a safe trip. And remember sometimes your instinct is the best warning sign you have.
Share your favorite things to do in Juneau in the comments below…