The cruise ship industry, which I happen to work in (secondarily), trucks in loads of people every day. Between April and September, every summer, tourism rules in Juneau. It seems that most locals tend to stay out of it and go about their bourgeois lives about seven miles north, in the valley.
For those that find themselves in the chaotic diversity that is downtown, there is a limitless onslaught of activities to keep them entertained. And for someone who's mind and body is constantly moving at hyper-speed, it's hard to keep up
For such a tiny chunk of city, there’s a lot going on. It can feel a little overwhelming.
I'm here to help. Just kidding, but I'm at least here to share. So just humor me and look at my photos..."Ooooooh sunsets and mountains!"
Look! here's one, now!
I’ve spent my summer sampling all the fun activities, edibles and places, and feel ready to share what I’ve found.
So enjoy and leave a comment if you disagree.
Just kidding. Don't do that second part.
1. Go hiking
I don’t want to generalize, but it feels like EVERYONE from Juneau hikes. It’s one of the most popular of all the Juneau past-times. Free. SUPER accessible. Basically in your face.
This base level of activeness is demonstrated by the fact that the real active people, you know, the ones that are usually the hikers in other places, literally run up mountains.
It’s quite shocking and downright humbling to be struggling up a nearly vertical section of trail, around 2,000 ft. elevation and have a skinny dude with T-rex arms, float past you like a feather in the wind. These Olympic endeavors are considered "afternoon runs", or so I hear.
Oh, and did I mention you can take the tram down Mount Roberts?
JACKPOT. It takes about an hour to get up to the tram, and if you buy something at the gift shop, or at the restaurant, you can ride that sucker down for no cost.
Talk about a post-hike reward.
Mount Roberts is definitely the most popular, with the tram running every few minutes, but don’t be mistaken. It’s not easy, and it's also dangerous up there. The top is just open terrain. Tourists have DIED hiking up there. One woman has still never been found.
Okay, that maybe isn’t the best encouragement to get out and go hiking. I’m sure you’ll be fine.
But there are actually three summits you can hike to, False Summit, Gastineau and then Roberts.
This was supposed to be the original place for the tram, and remnants of construction can be seen, and played on at the top. It sits in the perfect spot. You can see all of the south channel, where the ships are coming in, and up to the far end of the valley (suburbs) where the airport is.
On your backside, you can see the Juneau ice-field expanding out into oblivion. You are literally looking DOWN on mountain goats.
I might have yelled more than once, “Look at those mountain goats down there!” just because I loved the way it sounded.
The hike is hard, but we ate tons of raspberries, saw baby marmots, grouse and porcupine, and I found an awesome walking stick!
Mount Jumbo is the tallest mountain on Douglas Island, about 3,400 ft. Douglas Island runs parallel to Juneau, on the other side of the channel.
We hiked it early in the season and I got to slide down a sheet of snow on the descent. I had just finished a 12-hour-day, when my friends invited me to go. They promised that if I sped home, hopped on my bike, rode four miles to the trailhead and then drug myself up staircases made of tree-roots for three hours, that I would be able to slide down a wall of snow on my butt at the top of the world. It was worth it.
Watch the terrible quality video, here.
All of the hikes I mentioned are given an extra layer of awesome by one simple detail: Mining history.
The gold-mining history of Juneau is still present. There are placards on the trails, and the structural skeletons are still out there, visible. Climbing up Mount Jumbo, you can see the enormous glory hole (don't laugh) leftover from the Treadwell Mine, which was the largest low-grade gold mine in the world. It collapsed abruptly one day in 1917 and if you follow this link, you can check out some super sweet hipster photos of the ruins.
2. Go on a paid excursion
They can be a bit pricey, but most offer a local rate of 50% off and if you are lucky enough to work for a tour company (or be related to and visiting an employee), you can jump on other tours for free or insanely cheap. Job perks.
I have gone on numerous tours, at no cost, from whale-watching, seaplane tour of the ice-field. I even went on a 7-hour-long excursion out to Sawyer Glacier, where we passed a National Geographic boat and watched baby black bears play on the side of a cliff. Oh, and watched chunks of ice calve off the side of a baby blue glacier, seals basking on floating ice out front, and let me tell you, the sound of that giant chunk tearing loose is the beautiful, gut-wrenching roar you’ve ever heard. The sound of an entire ship of people "ooohing" is also pretty neat.
You kind of have to work for an excursion company...
I'd say it's worth it.
It’s packed full of glaciers, around 140, and boasts one of the last glaciers still growing. So what could possibly go on out here? Sled Dog camps are built on top of several of the glaciers in the summer and helicopters bring tourists in to go on dog sled rides. It’s probably the most epic thing you can do in Juneau. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone say, “This was the highlight of my trip!”, except, it's usually when I am eavesdropping on the tour reps cancelling flights due to weather.
Looks like you're going on a hovercraft adventure!
Okay, I'll come clean. I got motion sickness. I spent the flight struggling in a perpetual state of "Oh, wow!" and "Don't puke. Don't puke. Don't puke". Everyone else I talk to seems to be just fine.
So, I guess it was just me...or that hangover.
Another time, I went out on a whale-watching excursion and watched a group of humpback whales bubble net feed. If you don't know what that is, it's when they trap a bunch of little fish with bubbles and then jump out of the water, mouths agape and scoop them all up. Several of the giant beasts swam so close to the boat, I felt I could have reached out and touched them. I actually teared up with pure emotion when I saw that baby humpback's white outline through the water below me.
I kept it cool, don't worry.
3. Catch a show
Ok, I’ll admit it. I go see movies by myself.
Last winter, while living in Los Angeles, one of my hobbies was catching movies by myself on weekly discount nights. I love the experience - The dark theater, the reverence, the ritual of it alI, the fact that it’s okay to pig out on popcorn and occasionally, booze. You'll notice a pattern, soon. Or...now.
I was pleasantly surprised when I got to Juneau and heard about an independent theater called Goldtown Nickelodeon. Being the movie-lover that I am, I hunted it down. I was a little nervous, knowing that what may seem cool and retro can sometimes be a rundown oddity.
I’ll save you the anticipation and just tell you, Goldtown Theater is not one of those places. I guess I should say, depending on how you look at it. The building was built in 1901 for Alaskan Steam Laundry and in 1989, a movie buff turned a portion into an independent theater. A woman named Colette owns it, now. She is super awesome.
Every film I see advertised is an “OOOH I WANT TO SEE THAT!” moment for me. Independent documentaries are my specialty, and me and Goldtown have a shared love affair. I even was able to catch the documentary “Weiner”, a film I obsessed over from the time I found out existed. There's really nothing like hearing about a small, independent documentary and then being able to watch it in an actual theater.
A friend of mine had been out of this world excited to see this one movie. Turns out- It's playing at Goldtown! But, he was unable to make it. I went there and met the owner and convinced her to show the film on a night when she wasn’t playing anything. Granted, she had shared on social media a desire to do so, if people showed interest. So, I marched over to the theater and showed interest. My friend was so thankful...and well, surprised. That’s not how the world works!
It’s cheap. The price was $9 at the beginning of the summer but has since gone up to $10. The seats are a mix of lawn chair-cushioned wooden seats to some red, plush couches and love seats in the very back. You have to get there early to get those, and since that’s not exactly one of my strong suites, I have yet to score. The snacks are cheap, too. If you bring your own bag, each scoop of popcorn is $1.
One last thing. You know how you always have to sneak in your own snacks when you go to the movies? Not here. You can bring them. You can stroll in with a bottle of wine and a box of Cheez-Its (guilty) and buy a ticket to the show. No more clinking and crinkling tote bags!
I read an article in the Juneau Empire, dated from a while back, that it was rumored it would shut down. Don't do it, Colette! I don’t know what’s going to happen to this place, but I’ve literally been inspired to start my own independent movie theater. I’m not even joking! I mentioned it to a friend and everything.
Everyone knows mentioning something to a friend is the first step!
You can check out their webpage, here or by clicking on the photo.
4. People watch
I'm a writer...It's cool. Okay, I'll just jump in....
Love sitting in crowded places and watching the world go by? By that, I mean, do you love staring at large amounts of diverse strangers and contemplating human existence and social structure? Well, I’ve got the spot for you. It’s anywhere in downtown Juneau. That's right. Anywhere.
Like I said, It's a small town. I wave to people I know about eight times a day.
On a busy day in July, one will find up to 6,000 people swarming Franklin street. Up to five cruise ships can dock at a time in the harbor and release their diverse demographics into the tiny downtown area.
Or catch one of those vacation meltdown’s we’ve all experienced with our family at some point. You know, the one where the dad threatens to “put an end to this, right now!” and the kids stare blankly at their phones.
I’ve thought about making a video collage of tourists trying to open the bear-proof trashcans, maybe with a little speedy circus music and put to fast-forward.
"Pull the lever inside of the handle, people!"
My favorite spot to watch? The Imperial bar.
This is the oldest bar in Juneau. I have explored with many friends and visitors over the summer and they too, have expressed their love for sitting at this spot and watching people and happenings in Juneau.
On most days, the Imperial will open up their walls, basically flashing the street, and reveal two bars on both the left and right-hand side. These wooden bars are right up against the street.
The Imperial is conveniently located on Front street and boasts a lot of foot traffic. I’ve run into locals, cruise-ship workers and tourists alike, posted up at those bars, pretending to be doing other things and people watching.
THREE different people made comments to us as we sat there, about how we had the best seats for people watching in Juneau. With each incident, our response laughter grew more obnoxious.
Everyone knows. The secret's out. They might as well use it as an advertising campaign.
5. EAT EVERYTHING
Get it in. GET IT ALL IN.
The food in Juneau is the reason I got in shape.
I got my first gym membership after about two weeks of devouring everything I could get my hands on. I hoped I would find some balance..and increased metabolism.
I ended up getting into the best shape of my life, while still enjoying all the treats of the city. As I type this, I am eating a homemade brownie from The Crepe Escape. These things are my coworker and I's secret obsession. They only make them once in a blue moon and if you're lucky, you can score one when they are still hot.
But there are so many options, and plenty of ways to get your money’s worth. Nestled along the docks, there is a food cart parking lot. I have to walk by this everyday and let me tell you, I salivate every time. Popcorn stands, pizza, crepes, fish and chips. These scents swirl in the wind like the leaves from Pocahontas and basically draw you to them like a zombie.
A rootbeer float with locally-made rhubarb ice-cream from the Coppa stand. It’s also $4 and you get the fancy root beer. According to my coworker, who is from Juneau, Coppa has been voted the number one ice-cream company in Alaska. You can sample any flavor and they often write encouraging things on their sign, like, “Be Happy!” which I enjoy as I power-walk to work everyday.
My all-time favorite restaurant in Juneau is a small place called Saffron. They specialize (and I don't use that word lightly) in Indian comfort cuisine. It's the best thing that's ever happened to me. I want to stand up and give an acceptance speech after every meal.
You order a bunch of stuff, share everything and get way too full on quality ingredients. The food is so good, the server could call me ugly, steal my purse and run my cat over and I would still have a great time. I took someone here, once, who hated Indian food. Guess what?
You guessed it. They hated it.
Just kidding. They loved it. It's THAT good. It's Eat, Pray, Love in one bite.
Get the spinach leaves fried in chickpea batter, the lamb Kheema, garlic naan and masala chai. Oh, and the mango, mint and chili chutney's.
Sort of killed it. But it's something you need to try for yourself.
Quick side note: on one particular night in Juneau, I actually caught a locally made mockumentary on Pel'Meni addiction at the Goldtown theater. Upon entering, the filmmaker handed us a coupon for a free sample. Awesome right?! Think again.
The famous Juneau go-to is about a five second walk from the theater, so during the 15-minute intermission, the entire theater walked over to the Pel'Meni place and got a free sample. The single employee could hardly contain his enthusiasm upon watching us all pile into the tiny little storefront. He said, and I quote, "I'm going to serve real customers with real money".
Luckily, after a brief phone conversation with his boss, he was persuaded.
Pretty hilarious...and awkward.
A spot that combines all of these activities into one!?
Lean in, kids.
There is a magical place called Hangar on the Wharf. It's the original location of Alaska Seaplanes and sits directly on the water. There is an outside bar, overlooking the floating dock, where the seaplanes take off. On the left is downtown Juneau, where you will see things like people doing backflips off of the ramp and the cruise ships coming and going. On the right is Douglas Island and a perfect view of Mount Jumbo.
I especially enjoy that view, because there's nothing quite like staring up at a mountain and knowing you've stood at it's summit.
You watch the seaplanes taking off and landing, the roar of their engines ostracizing the world for brief intervals.
On one occasion, we caught a shift change happening on one of the Un-Cruise ships. These are smaller cruises, which focus on excursions. As the ship pulled out of the harbor, the employees, who had just finished their contracts on board, drunkenly screamed, whistled and waved at the captain and deck hands, all while popping champagne bottles.
It was impossible not to share in the excitement of the newly free sea-dwellers and also laugh a little.
You can order food (mushroom french fries!) and drink a cold beer from their amazing selection, all while taking in the people, places and activities of the busy harbor.
On a nice day, I fantasize about being there. On rainy days, I fantasize about...well, the sun. But, also about being there, in the sun.
That's the thing about Juneau. It's a temperate rainforest. You spend a lot of your time fantasizing about the sun. But, damn when it comes out, you forget all about the last five days of perpetual drizzle.
This place sure knows how to ask for forgiveness. And I accept every single time.
You'll understand when you visit.
Let's face it. I convinced you.
(Please don't tell the tour companies you heard that one thing from me)
I did. I know.
You write an article trying to encompass an entire city!
What I mean to say is, you'll just have to come here and discover your own personal favorite aspects of this incredibly diverse and bustling little oasis.
You might even catch a mousy girl with a beer sitting and watching you from a distance...
I should have just said that to begin with.
For more info on what to do here, visit traveljuneau.com