Having lived in Alaska’s capital city for seven years, I can tell you that there is a lot of stuff to do—and not enough time to do it! But if you’re able to stay for a few days, or even a few hours, let me recommend some of the best places to go and things to see from a local’s point of view. A few (well, 7) of my personal favorites, in no particular order…
1. The Mendenhall Glacier
Yes, this is a touristy spot, but you don’t have to hang with the crowd. While there are some great photo ops from the Visitor’s Center and from the trails close by, a walk up the 3.5-mile East Glacier Trail will give you some amazing views of the glacier, Mendenhall Lake and the A-J Waterfall, which you can reach via a side trail a little over a mile from the trailhead. Because this trail is fairly well traveled, it’s pretty safe, but as always when hiking in Alaska, keep an eye out for bear and other wildlife, as well as rough trail conditions when the weather is bad.
2. The Shrine of St. Thérèse
When you can’t take the crowds any more, the Shrine of St. Thérèse is the perfect place to visit. Located 22 miles out of town, this quiet, contemplative site is dedicated to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the patron saint of Alaska, and welcomes members of all faiths. In addition to the simple shrine chapel built of beach stone in the 1930s, the shrine features the Stations of the Cross, a walking path and labyrinth, and an amazing view of Lynn Canal.
3. The Last Chance Mining Museum
Located at the end of Basin Road downtown, the Last Chance Mining Museum is situated inside the former Alaska Juneau Gold Mining Company’s compressor building, which you get to by taking a short hike from the road. The structure, which was used from 1912-1944 and is now operated by the Gastineau Channel Historical Society, contains one of the world’s largest mining air compressors as well as industrial mining tools. Walking in is like taking a trip back in time, and you can easily imagine the thousands of men who worked in the mines 24 hours a day, seven days a week—every day except for Christmas and July 4.
4. Glacier Gardens
Most people don’t realize it, but Juneau is located in a rainforest. Far from what you’d find in Costa Rica or Guatemala, though, the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest is filled with Western Hemlock and Sitka Spruce, as well as skunk cabbage and berries of all kinds. Visitors to Glacier Gardens can take a ride (in a covered vehicle—it is a rainforest, after all) up Thunder Mountain to enjoy a 200-degree view of the Juneau area while learning more about the flora and fauna of Southeast Alaska, or take a self-guided walk through an Alaskan botanical garden. While the garden’s ‘flower towers’ are not to be missed, I personally loved being up in the forest when the fog was lifting on a summer morning—almost too beautiful for words.
5. Alaskan Brewing Company and Other Libations
You can’t visit Alaska without having a state-brewed beer, and there’s no better place than the Alaskan Brewing Co. Join other aficionados for a taste of their award-winning craft brews, which they claim have a bit of the history of the state in every bottle. The company holds tastings at their location year-round, so you can visit them at their facility five miles from downtown, or try their beers at a different Juneau watering hole. While the Red Dog attracts a ton of tourists, I personally prefer the Alaskan Hotel for homegrown music.
6. The Tram
Want to get a bird’s-eye view of Juneau? Take a ride up the Mt. Roberts Tramway—one of the most vertical tramways in the world—and experience the capital city on a whole new level. Nestled 1,800 feet above the city, you can enjoy fresh-caught seafood and local beer on the outdoor deck, check out a master Tlingit carver as he works on a totem pole, or meet an eagle saved by the Juneau Raptor Center. Yes, it’s a little touristy, but it’s also where the locals take family when they’re in town because it’s just that cool.
7. Anywhere on the Water
Even if you don’t fish, you have to get out on a boat when you visit Juneau. Some of my favorite times were spent surrounded by frolicking whales, catching a king salmon, or pulling in Alaskan king crab, and these are memories that will last a lifetime. Find a captain for local fishing, or take a guided tour up to Tracy Arm—I promise you won’t regret it.
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