America’s most beautiful state capital, Juneau (pop. 30,000) is a thriving slice of civilization surrounded by rugged Inside Passage scenery. The city perches on a thin strip of land at the mouth of Gold Creek, and behind it rise the precipitous summits of Mt. Juneau and Mt. Roberts. Out front, Gastineau Channel separates it from Douglas Island and the town of Douglas.
The city abounds with cultural and artistic attractions, and the adjacent wild country provides a broad sampling of Southeast Alaska, from glacially capped mountains to protected coves where sea kayakers relax.
Juneau is the only state capital with no roads leading in or out. A government town, nearly half the local jobs are at state, federal, or city agencies. Tourism provides another mainstay for the local economy, fed by an annual influx of more than 700,000 visitors, primarily aboard luxury cruise ships.
On summer days, up to five different ships tie up simultaneously, disgorging thousands of passengers. (To avoid the worst of the rush, get here before July or after August.) Juneau has a small fishing fleet and provides workers for a silver mine on nearby Admiralty Island.
Juneau may be small in population, but its boundaries extend to the Canadian border, covering 3,100 square miles. Less than half of Juneau’s population actually lives downtown. The rest are spread into Douglas (across the channel), Mendenhall Valley (10 miles northwest), and other surrounding areas.
As might be expected, these areas exhibit diverse personalities. Even the weather varies, with an average of 92 inches of rain each year downtown, but only 55 inches in Mendenhall Valley.
Downtown Juneau is marked by a mix of modern government offices and older wooden structures, many dating from the early 1900s. Across the bridge are Douglas Island and its bedroom community of Douglas. The town now consists of a few shops, but at its peak in 1915, when the Treadwell Gold Mine was operating, Douglas housed 15,000 miners.
The road north from downtown Juneau is Southeast Alaska’s only divided highway. Heading north, you first reach Mendenhall Valley, Juneau’s version of suburbia: three shopping malls, a slew of fast fooderies, and hundreds of pseudorustic split-level homes and condos. But you can also see something most suburbs don’t have: a drive-up glacier spilling out from the massive Juneau Ice Field.
The road continues north from Mendenhall Valley for another 30 miles, passing Auke Lake, the ferry terminal, and scattered homes along the way, ending at scenic Echo Cove.
Getting to Juneau
By Ferry: Juneau’s Alaska Marine Highway ferry terminal (907/465-3940) is 14 miles northwest of town at Auke Bay. Ferries arrive and depart daily during the summer, headed north to both Haines and Skagway, southwest to Sitka, and south to other Alaskan towns. Arrivals are sometimes very late at night, so be ready to stumble off in a daze. Ferries generally stay 1–2 hours in Auke Bay.
The Fairweather is a high-speed passenger and vehicle ferry with frequent service from Juneau to Sitka and Petersburg. Unfortunately, the ferry suffers from frequent breakdowns, so check ahead to make sure it’s on schedule. The other state ferries are larger and slower.
Several covered picnic tables are behind the terminal, where you can crash if you have an early-morning departure. Make ferry reservations through Alaska Marine Highway (907/465-3941 or 800/642-0066, www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs).
A cab ride to town will set you back $35–40, but hitching to town is relatively easy during the day. You can also walk the two miles from the ferry terminal to De Hart’s Store, where hourly city buses will pick you up.
Alaska Fjordlines (907/766-3395 or 800/320-0146, www.alaskafjordlines.com) operates a high-speed catamaran with daily summertime runs from Yankee Cove (33 miles north of Juneau) to Skagway and Haines. Although primarily for day tours from Skagway or Juneau, it can also be used for one-way transportation north: $100 adults, $80 children; reservations are recommended.
By Air: Juneau airport (www.juneau.org/airport) is nine miles northwest of downtown. Express city buses ($1.50) arrive hourly in front of the airport between 8 a.m.–5 p.m. On weekends or later hours (until 11:15 p.m.) you can catch the regular city bus—which is very slow—behind Nugget Mall, a half-mile away. Taxis cost $25–30 to downtown. Inside the terminal, take a look at the glass cases with various stuffed critters, including a huge polar bear (upstairs).
A good place to see waterfowl and eagles is the Mendenhall Wetlands that surround the airport. An overlook provides a view from Egan Highway on the way into Juneau.
Alaska Airlines (800/426-0333, www.alaskaair.com) has daily flights into Juneau from Seattle and on to Anchorage. Alaska’s jets also connect Juneau with other Southeast towns and points north to Gustavus, Yakutat, and Cordova.
Options abound for small-plane service to communities around Juneau. Wings of Alaska (907/789-0790, www.wingsofalaska.com) has daily flights to Gustavus, Haines, Hoonah, Kake, and Skagway. Alaska Seaplane Service (907/789-3331 or 800/478-3360, www.flyalaskaseaplanes.com) offers serves Angoon, Elfin Cove, Pelican, and Tenakee. Air Excursions (907/697-2375 or 800/354-2479, www.airexcursions.com) has the cheapest flights to Gustavus from Juneau. Flightseeing and charter flights are also available from these companies as well as Wings Airways (907/586-6275, www.wingsairways.com).
Air Excursions (907/697-2375 or 800/354-2479, www.airexcursions.com) doesn’t have scheduled service but typically has seat fares between Juneau and the towns of Gustavus, Hoonah, Haines, Sitka, Skagway, and Tenakee Springs on a regular basis.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition