As your ship or plane glides up the glacier-carved Gastineau Channel, the only U.S. capital not accessible by road comes into view. Juneau is Alaska’s third largest city and the modern capital is a hub for Southeast Alaskans on errands and summer cruise ship visitors.
My family spent three days in Juneau before our small ship Alaska cruise with Un-Cruise Adventures. It’s a place where you explore the wilderness in the morning, stroll the downtown shopping and sights in the afternoon and retire to a restaurant patio to watch the ships and seaplanes come and go in the evening.
The Juneau Ice Field is home 38 major glaciers, including Juneau’s number one tourist attraction, the drive-up Mendenhall Glacier, 13 miles from downtown. It’s my top pick for things to do with kids in Juneau and it’s an activity that you can arrange yourself. Blue Glacier Express buses leave from Marine Park near the main cruise ship dock.
Stop at the visitor center first for a Mendenhall Glacier orientation. Everything is impressive here: the views of Mendenhall Glacier, the hands-on exhibits and the staff. My kids loved looking for mountain goats with the telescopes and touching a piece of 200 year old glacial ice. The bears like it here so much that one camped out by the front door the day before we arrived.
Try the Nugget Falls hike with little ones or the more challenging East Glacier Trail with older kids for possible wildlife sightings. We saw a black bear and her cubs climb down a tree and a porcupine in the 15 minutes we had to spare waiting for the bus.
Note: The Juneau Icefield creates many opportunities to get up close with glaciers via helicopter landings where guests go dog sledding and trekking. It’s expensive for a family but unforgettable.
The waters around Juneau are considered a prime spot for whale watching and you have a good chance of seeing the cooperative humpback bubble net feeding. Look for the telltale bubbles forming on the water’s surface and within seconds a group of humpback whales will surge up to the surface with mouths open, ready to scoop up the fish that are temporarily disoriented by the bubbles blown by one of the humpbacks.
If you’ve ever wanted to be a dog sled musher the Temsco Dog Sled Summer Camp is the next best thing and it’s an alternative for families interested in the glacier dog sledding tours. I was afraid this would be a “puppy-petting tour” until I met, Tanya, our guide and the owner of the dogs in our group – she lives and breathes sled dogs.
Our tour began with a half-hour ride past the historic AJ Gold Mine area and up into the Sheep Creek Valley. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains you hear and smell the dogs before you see them. The guides explain how mushing works, introduce you to your dogs and then you hop aboard the wheeled sled for a run.
These dogs compete in races (some are Iditarod finishers) and bark excitedly when it’s their turn to run. The most memorable part of the ride for my kids was witnessing the dogs “pooping on the run” which they learn to do when they are racing. There’s a snack and cute and cuddly puppies at the end of the tour.
The Macaulay Salmon Hatchery is one of the largest fish hatcheries in the state, releasing 120 million salmon each year. The adult salmon return here, up to six year later, to spawn. If the salmon are running, this is a fascinating stop for kids who can watch them “climbing the ladder” – the zig-zagging ladder-like wooden platforms that simulate swimming upstream. If the salmon aren’t running, I’d skip this one with small children.
When you’re on a cruise you usually choose one excursion in each port and are left wondering what to do with the time left before you need to board the ship again. Juneau has a variety of one to two-hour mini-excursions that appeal to all ages.
The Mount Roberts Tramway can be as short or long as you have time for. The tram zooms up 1800 vertical feet in five minutes – it’s a fast ride with views of the Gastineau Channel. At the top, there’s a bald eagle, a film about the Tlingit culture and restaurants but hiking around the mountain top and to the snowline is the highlight.
There’s a lot to see and do strolling in downtown Juneau. If you need a pick-me-up the Silverbow Inn & Bakery has cookies and other treats while Heritage Coffee Company & Cafe has a variety of coffees and ice cream. The Hangar on the Wharf has patio views of the seaplanes and cruise ships.
Our favorite dining experience was at Tracy’s King Crab Shack near the main cruise ship dock. While it’s tempting not eat out if you’re on a cruise, this is an exception. And yes, they do get crab from The Deadliest Catch crew. Tracy thought we were munching on crab from the Northwestern – I waited, but Sig didn’t show up.
If you’re not on a cruise ship, the elegant Westmark Baranof Hotel is located in the middle of historic downtown and its art deco design and fancy dining room standout in laid back Juneau. Room categories vary and some have water views.
If space is a priority, the two-bedroom suites at the Prospector Hotel have wet bars, huge living rooms and views of the Gastineau Channel, Douglas Island and the cruise dock. Although, the rooms have recently been renovated, the outside is still waiting for its makeover. The restaurant is hopping with guests and locals taking advantage of the outdoor patio and views.
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Editorial Note: Kristi’s accommodations and activities in Juneau were hosted. As always, her thoughts and opinions are her own. Photos by Kristi Marcelle unless noted.
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