Alaska without the Cruise Ship Part 7: Exploring Juneau

Alaska without the Cruise Ship is a 17-part series exploring the ease and advantages of touring Alaska on your own steam and at your own speed.

The second destination on our self-proclaimed Alaskan Land Cruise was the city of Juneau.

Juneau is the third largest metropolis in Alaska and is also the state capital, despite that it is completely unreachable by road–a fact that every local seemed proud to point out to us throughout our stay.

That means there are only two ways to get to Juneau; by air or by sea.

Most tourists simply go to sleep on their cruise ship and find themselves docked the next morning. Since my friends and I were enjoying Alaska sans cruise ship, however, we had to pick between Alaska Airlines or the Alaska Marine Highway.

The Marine Highway is a 3,500 mile-long network of ferries which stretch from Bellingham, Washington all the way to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. The route is traveled by 350,000 passengers annually and is part of the federal National Highway System.

If I had more time to tour Alaska, this would be my route of choice. I would rent a car and load it up on a ferry every time the road failed to connect to the next town. Ferry travel can be slow, however, and since my friends and I did not have the luxury of time, we passed on the 18-hour ferry ride from Ketchikan to Juneau ($108) and opted instead for the $150, one-hour flight.

Like so many Alaskan communities, downtown Juneau is tucked between the ocean and a large mountain. The most immediate way to enjoy the town is to take the Mt. Roberts Tramway 1800 feet straight up the side of the mountain. The $23.95 charge is a little pricey but was worth it for the comedic factor alone; a teenage guide in the tram car who painfully droned on about Juneau and the building of the tram in an emotionless, clearly rote-memorized speech. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or throw myself out the window.

The top of Mt. Roberts is quite beautiful. A number of trails crisscross the heavily forested mountaintop and some even lead back down to town for those looking for some exercise (or simply to avoid a return trip with the boring tour guide). For the more sedentary, a restaurant, 120-seat theater, and a gift shop provide enough entertainment to make the tram journey worthwhile.

The real draw, however, is the spectacular view–or so I was told. The cloud layer was thick and misty and visibility was limited to gawking at the cruise ships docked far below. And what amazing ships! I count five pools and one miniature golf course on that behemoth above.

After our aerial introduction to the town, we spent most of our first afternoon wandering around. Juneau grew out of a gold rush in the late 1800s and much of this prosperity can still be seen, especially among the old wooden structures on South Franklin; such as the Red Dog Saloon, and the Alaskan Hotel and Bar (which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places).

Juneau is still a big city, however, and as a result, tends to lack the small-town charm of a place like Ketchikan. Perhaps my opinion was dampened by the fact that five cruise ships were docked for most of our stay there. Tourists were busting out of every shop, restaurant, and gift store within walking distance of their ships. Sure, I was a tourist as well, but part of the reason I opted out of the cruise ship route was to avoid the very crowds which usually accompany them.

If you really want to plan your trip to avoid this, simply call up the local tourist office. Cruise ship dockings are known well in advance and calendars with this information are distributed to local businesses to gauge staffing for the ebbs and flows.

Planning around the cruise ship dockings also ensures that various excursions won’t be sold out when you’re in town. The excursions are, after all, the reason why most people visit Juneau. The real joy of the state capital is that it serves as a convenient base for phenomenal attractions just outside the city limits–some of which I will be writing about in the next few days. This is because Juneau sits in the middle of the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest–the largest temperate rainforest in the United States and Canada. The city has more miles of hiking trials (262.2) than paved roadways (41) and is also blessed with a very impressive 1,500 square miles of glaciers in the Juneau Icefield.

How many state capitals can claim that!

Yesterday: The Tasty Food of Ketchikan
Tomorrow: Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier