May 21, 2020

Juneau, Alaska's unknown capital

Words: Len Rutledge Images: Phensri Rutledge

Travel to most places is difficult at present but planning for future travel has never been more popular. People are avidly reading about destinations that interest them and many are already booking for future travel. Alaskan tourism was booming in 2019 and it is expected to be successfully revived in 2021. While wilderness is probably Alaska’s most appealing feature, don’t forget the cities.

Most people are vague about which city is the capital of Alaska. Most would not recognise this as the most scenic capital city in the U.S. Even less would know which is the only capital city in the U.S.A you can’t reach by car. The answer to all these comments is Juneau, a natural wonder, wildlife hotspot and cultural jewel.

The 32,000 residents must come and go by plane or a three-day ferry trip. I, like most of the 1.3 million annual visitors, arrived by cruise boat. I discovered it has a great blend of extreme and relaxing activities for just about anyone.

For those looking for adrenaline pumping action there are helicopter tours, glacier trekking, dog sledding, kayaking, zip lining, all-terrain vehicle riding, taking the Mount Roberts Tramway and so forth. More relaxing activities include sightseeing, whale watching and history chasing.

Sealaska Heritage Institute

This is a place where Native people tell the Native story. You can walk through an authentic clan house, listen to an ancient story, and explore exhibits that share knowledge about Southeast Alaska through Native perspectives.

Monumental art pieces have been created for the building, representing the three tribes of the region. Outside there are giant red metal panels designed by an internationally celebrated artist and three, bronze house posts by emerging master artists. Inside you see an enormous house front and the largest glass screen in the world.

Mount Roberts Tramway

I recommend you travel 600 metres up the mountain in this thrilling ride and then explore a park offering cultural heritage education, dynamic crafts and some amazing, expansive views. This is undoubtedly Juneau’s most panoramic and breathtaking view and the tramway leaves right from the wharf.

At the top you explore the Sky Bridge and Mountain House complex. Inside you’ll find a theatre, gift shop, restaurant and espresso bar. Enjoy the complimentary 18-minute film, “Seeing Daylight”, about the Native way of life.

Alaska State Capitol building

Don’t look for a dome and don’t look for big grounds when searching for the Capito because this is one of the few that have neither. This was built in 1931 well before statehood, so originally it was a federal building.

The large, boxy building can be explored on a self-guided tour from the lobby. You see two murals of living off the land and ocean in Alaska, governmental chambers, and hallways bedecked with historical displays featuring photos, newspaper clippings and artwork.

The nearby State Administration building proved to be an interesting find. We were alerted to it by a local resident and we found a huge stuffed bear, a magnificent theatre organ and a great view overlooking Juneau and the Gastineau Channel.

Mendenhall Glacier

Juneau’s most popular attraction is a kilometre wide with ice 100 metres to 600 metres deep. This is Alaska’s most easily reached glacier and provides some of the most spectacular landscapes in the state. It is only 20 kilometres from downtown and the Glacier Shuttle provides transportation every 30 minutes.

The Visitor’s pavilion has a 15-minute film about how Mendenhall is part of the huge Juneau Icefield and it provides a great view but take a short walk down Photo Point Trail to a lookout platform which provides an unobstructed view of the Glacier’s face.

The 20-kilomere-long river of ice terminates on the far side of Mendenhall Lake. Blue icebergs float in the lake amid reflections of the surrounding magnificent mountains.

Nugget Falls

In my opinion the most rewarding walk from the Mendenhall Visitors pavilion is to Nugget Falls. This is a waterfall downstream of the Nugget Glacier which drops 115 metres in two tiers of 30 m and 85 m onto a sandbar in Mendenhall Lake.

The walk to the falls is a very easy and flat 3 kilometres round trip as part of the East Glacier Loop. The hike can be done in a leisurely 45-60 minutes but you will find that you are stopping at many points because the views are so stunning.

Black bears frequent this area although we didn’t see any. Visitors are warned to stay on designated trails, not to take food or flavoured beverages on walks, and give bears plenty of space if encountered by not approaching them.

Restaurants and shopping

The Red Dog Saloon with its sawdust floor and relics covering the walls is a popular tourist attraction. Crab lovers should head to Tracy’s King Crab Shack for some of the best crab dishes in Alaska. Seafood, Asian, fish and chips, and pizzas are also on offer.

Jewelry stores dominate offerings to tourists. Many are promoted (and some are owned) by cruise companies. Caribou Crossing features over 60 Alaskan artists while House of Russia trades on the old Russian connection. The Raven Eagle Gift Shop is one of several Native-owned outlets.

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