With about 1 million visitors a year, Juneau has a lot of people to please.
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 painfully compiled my favorite activities in to five, easily digestible categories. If you find yourself in Juneau and don't do anything on this list-"I don't care if it's January!"-you are doing something wrong.
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
Fun fact: There are more hiking trails in Juneau than roads.
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.
I’ve personally hiked a small number of popular trails, here, and can attest, every single one is mind-blowing. Mount Juneau, Roberts and Jumbo are accessible right in town. As someone who likes to go on hikes to clear her head, it's almost tear-jerkingly wonderful to finish up at the downtown office and take a quick stroll down the street and jump on a trail.
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.
But, Mount Juneau is my favorite for several reasons.
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!
Another is the Salmon Creek dam. Built in 1914, it was the inspiration for the Hoover Dam. The reservoir holds trout and it was easy, compared to Juneau and Jumbo-"Probably because it's not a mountain!".
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.
.Juneau-ites can be found doing a number of things out in the wilderness, beyond the city. Driving around Juneau, you might wonder, “Where are all the active people?” You will soon discover, they are “out there” doing their active stuff away from the city. You can actually hike out to the Mendenhall Glacier and walk around inside the ice caves if you so choose. It only takes about an hour and a half and a little bit of courage to stand under the dripping, creaking ice.
2. Go on a paid excursion
If you were to stroll down the boardwalk, you would come across dozens of independent tour vendors, selling anything and everything. To list a few- glacier walks, dog-sledding, deep-sea fishing, sea-kayaking, whale-watching, seaplane flights, hovercraft adventure (whatever that is) and so much more. You can even sit in a botanical garden, drink tea and look at the Mendenhall glacier, if that’s what you’re into.
On the other side of the surrounding mountain peaks - Juneau’s ice field. This expanse of ice is the reason there is no road to Juneau. On the other side - Canada.
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!
I was lucky enough to jump on a 45-minute ice-field tour after work, one day. I literally walked across the street from the office, watched the planes land on the water, strolled down onto the floating dock, where they pull up and jumped on one-"the yellow one!". The pilot took us all around the ice-field and I was back on the docks an hour later, just in time for dinner. I think it was the most casually cool thing I've ever done.
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
The lobby just oozes labor of love feelings. The pictures here are from their website. If you click on the picture above, you can be transported to their website.
They play amazing films.
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!
The other really awesome theater in Juneau is, well, an actual theatre. It’s called Perseverance Theatre and is apparently, Alaska’s only professional theatre. I was able to catch a performance there (yes, I was alone, okay!) and was impressed by the whole shebang. It's on Douglas Island and the outside is pretty unassuming (connected to a diner), but don’t be fooled. It will blow your socks off with performer quality and stage set up. I saw Anapurna and completely forgot that I was sitting in a small theatre on in island in Alaska, for about 2.5 hours.
You can check out their webpage, here or by clicking on the photo.
4. People watch
Okay, I've been trying to seem cool and not give it away. So, I saved my favorite for the number four slot. If you know me, you know I love people. No, not talking to them, or interacting in any way. I love watching them.
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.
"Want to see a woman dressed in rainbow, taking a video of herself on her selfie stick?
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!"
( In fact, the last time I was here (last night), I was sitting with a friend, telling them about it's mention in this post.
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
Seriously, don’t hold back. If you have to, take a food tour (it exists).
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.
If you can’t tell by my overuse of exclamations, I really enjoy the food in Juneau. Having lived in Fairbanks, Alaska the past five years, where your choices are diners, thai food and espresso drive-throughs, unique and diverse eating out options are not something to be taken for granted. Granted, Juneau prices tend to be high, coinciding with everything else in Juneau. If you don’t already know this, everything must be shipped to Alaska, just like Hawaii. Juneau, having no roads leading out, must have everything barged in, even more expensive. Food, especially runs high. I was once at a small, low-end diner and their “boring burger” was priced at $12.
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 reindeer hotdog (Only $4!) from Manilla Bay Cafe, where a sweet woman named Jennifer and her sister sell amazingly cheap Phillipino options, bubble tea and cheap meats.
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.
There is an insane amount of food options in Juneau. My favorite breakfast place is The Sandpiper. Their line is out the door on Saturday’s and Sunday’s, but it’s worth every second of awkward eye contact. Their specials change daily and every time I go, I have immediate FOMA (fear of missing out) for everything else on the menu I didn’t order.
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.
Probably the most famous food, here=, is the Pel’Meni. They are Russian dumplings and Juneau's number one drunk food. On a late night, you will find they are the only restaurant open and every single intoxicated, seasonal worker is in and around the store's vicinity. The first time I tried them, I was perhaps a little too drunk and woke up burping out a mix of yellow curry, sour cream and stomach acid (Stop noticing the pattern!).
Sort of killed it. But it's something you need to try for yourself.
Obviously, I have to say seafood. But, growing up in Florida, it doesn’t hold as high esteem in my heart as a Pizza crepe the size of my head. Tracy’s King Crab Shack has a killer view, right on the docks and some of the best crab cakes I’ve ever had. The seafood is a bit pricey for me. I only scored Tracy’s on a day when it was my more monetarily blessed coworkers day to buy.
Want to know what my favorite spot in downtown Juneau is?
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.
And right smack in the middle is all the activity on the water - Birds, harbor seals, fish, fishing boats, people.
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.
Sometimes you can catch para-gliders swirling around above Mount Roberts, or helicopters buzzing by, on their way to glacier dog camps. You can watch tiny coast guard boats whizzing around.You can take in the fresh smell of seafood as the wind kicks up and scents from nearby kitchens come through. The only sun-burn I ever got in Juneau was right here on this porch. That's how long I will sit here.
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)
Well, there it is - my list of things to do.
These are only a few of the enormous amount of activities to do in Juneau, Alaska. Obviously, anyone who has spent time here will probably read this and feel I left out many great things.
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...
Basically, just go stuff your face with rock fish taco's, drink a beer on a dock, while watching the world go by and then run up a mountain.
I should have just said that to begin with.
For more info on what to do here, visit traveljuneau.com