Juneau: America’s Scenic State Capital
The City and Borough spans more than 3,200 square miles from the coast of the Inside Passage to the border of Canada, making Juneau the largest US state capital.
With its thriving Native culture, rustic charm, welcoming locals, and lively waterfront, Juneau awes those who are lucky enough to visit. And that isn’t as easy as one would expect. There are only two ways to get to Juneau: by air and by sea. There are about 150 miles of roads throughout Juneau, all of which dead-end in the Alaskan wilderness or at the impenetrable Juneau Icefield. Backed by Mount Juneau and Mount Roberts, the remote capital is set on a long, narrow strip of land along the Gastineau Channel, which links the city to the Alaska Marine Highway.
At the buzzing waterfront, look for the sidewalk sundial and the memorial dedicated to fishermen lost at sea. For an excellent aerial view of the city, hop aboard a gondola on the Mount Roberts Tramway, which ascends from the cruise pier to an elevation of 1,745 feet, where spectacular scenery, Native art, shops, and restaurants await.
It’s easy to get around downtown on foot. Blue historic signposts show the way to various points of interest and provide local highlights. Some of the city’s oldest buildings are pubs or saloons—remnants of the booming gold rush days around the turn of the 20th century. The watering holes still in operation are frequented by an eclectic blend of locals and tourists from all over the globe. The Alaskan Hotel & Bar, located on South Franklin Street, is the oldest operating hotel in the state, built in 1913 by four men in just six months.
The Tlingit people have fished, hunted, trapped, and traded in the Juneau region for thousands of years. In 1880, Tlingit Chief Kowee helped lead prospectors Richard Harris and Joe Juneau to Silverbow Basin, where they found sizable gold nuggets and staked their claim. The two men set up a small townsite nearby, igniting the first Alaska gold rush. It wasn’t long before the tiny Auk fish camp had transformed into a burgeoning boomtown.
The mining industry drove Juneau’s growth for several decades, leading Congress to move the central government from Sitka to this isolated region at the turn of the 20th century. When the Alaska-Juneau Gold Mine opened in 1917, it became the world’s largest operation of its kind. By the time it closed in 1944, the mine had produced nearly 3.5 million ounces of the precious metal—about $80 million in today’s dollars. Cruise guests can embrace Juneau’s mining past by panning for real gold the same way that miners did over a century ago.
Prior to the United States’ purchase of Alaska in 1867, the territory was inhabited by a group of Russian whalers and fur traders. Their influence is evident throughout Juneau, specifically at the ornate St. Nicholas Church with its characteristic onion dome. The octagon-shaped National Historic Landmark is the oldest original Russian Orthodox church in Alaska that’s still in use. Services are held on Saturdays and Sundays.
At the Alaska State Museum, more than 23,000 artifacts and works of art from Alaska’s Native, Russian, mining, and fishing histories are showcased in interactive exhibitions. Favorite displays include the Tlingit clan house and the life-sized eagle’s nest. Visitors can climb a staircase next to a two-story-tall tree to see the full-scale bald eagle replicas perched inside.
Juneau’s vast landscapes are nothing short of breathtaking and offer over 250 miles of hiking trails. The 1,500-square-mile Juneau Icefield is an expanse of interconnected glaciers north of Juneau in the surrounding mountain range. The famed Mendenhall Glacier is just 13 miles (about a 20-minute drive) north of downtown. The one-and-a-half-mile-wide meandering river of ice stretches over 12 miles from the icefield to Mendenhall Lake, where a large platform affords outstanding views of the expansive natural phenomenon. Of the 38 glaciers in the Juneau Icefield, Mendenhall is the only one accessible by road—drive, hike, or bike right up to its base. Several mushing camps near Juneau offer the opportunity to glide across a snowcapped glacier in a sled towed by a team of Alaskan huskies.
For fishing enthusiasts, Juneau has some of Southeast Alaska’s most abundant angling grounds, especially for salmon. Pay a visit to the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery, two and a half miles from downtown; it supports the salmon population by fattening the waters with more than 150 million salmon every year. King salmon—the largest of the species, averaging about 36 inches and 30 pounds—kicks off the spawning season in early spring, followed by sockeye, pink, and chum salmon.
Shore-bound anglers can cast from the public fishing pier next to the hatchery on Channel Drive. To taste the local delicacy, stop by one of the area’s many fish houses, like Hangar on the Wharf Pub & Grill or the Twisted Fish Company, both of which serve some of the freshest and most delicious seafood dishes in the city.
On this boating adventure, you will enjoy a scenic 30-minute cruise en route to the angling grounds. Your target is halibut.
In a classic de Havilland seaplane, you’ll soar over five breathtaking glaciers flowing from the Juneau Icefield.
Against a backdrop of forested slopes, you’re off on a memorable tour of Fritz Cove. Bald eagles and their nests, herons, shorebirds, and waterfowl are all common sights.
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