Juneau is Alaska’s largest city — in area, not in population. The over 3,200-square-mile area of Juneau is larger than either Rhode Island or Delaware, and almost as large as both these states combined. But the population is just over 31,000 and most of the residents work for the government.
Tourism is the second largest industry in Juneau, followed by fishing and mining. Juneau has been the capital of Alaska since 1906 when the territorial government was moved there from Sitka.
It is the only state capital that cannot be reached by car. It is located on the Gastineau Channel at the base of steep Mounts Roberts and Juneau. Atop these mountains is the Juneau ice field, which is the starting point of 30 glaciers. The town was named after gold prospector Joe Juneau, who was guided by local Tlingit Indians to the head of Gold Creek where he found gold nuggets the size of peas. Juneau marked a town site in 1880, which soon became a bustling mining camp. And the rest is history.
North of downtown is the Mendenhall Valley, where the airport and ferry terminal are located. Juneau is known for its 16-foot tides, weather-canceled flights, torrential rains in summer and avalanche hazards in winter. Twelve miles from downtown is the retreating Mendenhall Glacier, one of the state’s most visited attractions. The face of the 200-300-foot-tall and 1.5-mile-wide glacier is visible across Mendenhall Lake. A Forest Service visitor center, built on the bedrock of the retreating glacier, is accessible by ramp or elevator. The glacier itself is the site of many tourist attractions, from helicopter-guided hikes to dog sled rides.
Mount Roberts Tramway is another top tourist attraction. Located across from the cruise ship docks, the tram takes only six minutes to transport you over 1,700 feet to the mountain top. The view from there is breathtaking. Your cruise ship looks like a bathtub toy. Alaska Native owners have established a center, which shows a film on the Tlingit culture, a shop where you can see native artisans at work, and a bald eagle enclosure. The resident eagle was injured while hunting and has lost the use of one eye, so she cannot be released back into the wild.
The Alaska State Museum’s large art and historical artifacts collection is displayed in its functional setting. There is an Alaska native clan house, the Lincoln totem pole, whose native carver used a picture of Lincoln to represent his clan’s contact with the white man, and a two-story-high eagle-nesting tree. The museum gift shop carries quality Alaska art and books.
A great place for inexpensive souvenirs is the Alaska Shirt Factory, across from the cruise ship docks. Here you will find Alaska logo shirts and outerwear, as well as books, DVDs, postcards, and smoked salmon in tins.
The Alaska Brewing Company offers free, guided beer tastings, as well as unique Alaska apparel and souvenirs.
Juneau is closely situated to both Tracy Arm Fjord and Glacier Bay National Park. If your cruise ship does not sail to these spectacular natural wonders, a side excursion would be worthwhile.
Tracy Arm Fjord is within the Tongass National Forest, off the Stephens Passage south of Juneau. Steep granite walls rise from the water’s surface. The arm is full of calving glaciers, icebergs and wildlife.
Glacier Bay is a larger marine park. The number of daily cruise ship visits is limited to preserve the ecosystems, and most spend the whole day cruising the bay. The scenery and sunsets are fabulous. A park ranger will board your cruise ship for an educational presentation and to offer hands-on displays including the fur of many of Alaska’s native animals, from sea otter, to seal, to bear.
Juneau is a great place to go whale watching in the calm waters of the Channel. There are also opportunities for jet boat tours, sea kayaking, hiking, zip lines, mining and salmon hatchery tours. The Pack Creek Bear viewing area on nearby Admiralty Island has a platform for viewing bear as they feast on salmon in July and August.
Of course, there are numerous jewelry and art shops lining Franklin Street, as well as the Red Dog Saloon, with its frontier atmosphere and unique décor.
Farther up the street in the historic Senate Building there is a wonderful quilt shop. History, culture, adventure, and wildlife are all available from Alaska’s capital city.
For help planning an independent Alaskan vacation, land tour or cruise, stop in at Cruise Port Travel, 900 W. Driftwood Dr. in Payson, call (928) 472-7878, or go to the Web site www.travelpayson.com to send an e-mail. Previous Alaska articles are under the blog spot.