Thinking of having a northern adventure? Juneau is the capital city of Alaska, and while it might not be the first place you’d think of visiting, there is so much to do here that you could easily spend a couple of weeks really getting to know the area.
Juneau is famous for its wildlife, both on land and at sea. Hundreds of species of birds, including bald eagles, black and brown bears, salmon, and orca whales, are just some of the normally-elusive animals you are likely to spot.
A lot of the tourism here is based on getting out into nature, so if you love hiking, camping, or anything of the sort, then you’ll have the time of your life in Juneau. Juneau is Alaska’s capital city, so it can get busy when multiple cruises are in port. Juneau is a cruise ship terminal that is visited by almost every Alaskan cruise.
How do I get to the best places in Juneau?
Juneau isn’t accessible by car, but you can cover most of the journey there by taking the Alaska-Canadian Highway, which runs about 1500 miles. Then, it’s just a short ferry ride until you reach Juneau. If you are driving, be sure to book ahead, as vehicle slots sell out quickly and aren’t always available on standby.
No matter how you arrive, by plane or car, or cruise ship Juneau is a photogenic city to visit, with astonishing natural beauty right in its backyard. If you want an idea of what to expect from a trip to the Alaskan capital, read on for our list of the top 10 Things to do in Juneau and the best place to visit.
If you have read some of our other articles, you may remember our first trip to Alaska we drove. You can read more about driving to Alaska here. Since we drove, we didn’t visit Juneau. On our last trip, we took an Alaska cruise with Holland America and had both kids with us. It was a great family vacation to Alaska, and cruising was great for us.
1. Mount Roberts Tramway
This isn’t your average tram ride. The Goldbelt Tram is one of the best ways to see Juneau, as long as you’re not afraid of heights (but even then, it’s only five minutes to the top). It’s the best view you’ll get in Juneau and is not to be missed!
The Mt. Roberts tramway starts from the cruise ship pier, ascending 1800 feet up the side of Mount Roberts. As the carriage gets higher, the notable sights of downtown Juneau, the Chilkat Mountain range and surrounding islands appear before you in a breathtaking view you won’t believe. A pair of binoculars, a camera, and a zoom lens (if you have one) are a good idea so you can make the most of the view.
Once at the top, you’ll find the Mountain House, a cultural center run by a native group. They have an educational theater, a gift shop, and the Timberline Restaurant, which is a great place to sample local beers with some freshly-caught Alaskan seafood.
If you are looking for things to do in Juneau that are super close to the port, this is it. I would just walk up and buy tickets the day of.
2. Mendenhall Glacier(ice caves)
Located just 12 miles from Juneau’s city center, the Mendenhall Glacier is a must-see if you’re visiting this part of Alaska. The Juneau icefield is most famous for its enchanting, magical ice caves.
We went on this tour. It was a combo tour that included wildlife& whale watching and visiting the Mendenhall Glacier. This was a great tour as you got to do two of the best things to do in Juneau with one tour. The only downside was that we didn’t have enough time at the Mendenhall Glacier to hike to Nugget Falls.
Visitors can stand inside the hollow glacier’s caves made entirely of ice while water runs overhead and underfoot, creating the illusion of being inside a frozen bubble. Be sure to stop at Mendenhall Lake, as it is part of the Mendenhall Valley Glacier Recreation area. Be sure to stop at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors center to learn more about the past of this amazing glacier.
Since glaciers are constantly evolving in a globally-changing atmosphere, they can shift and even collapse. Old caves collapse or disappear over time, and new ones form over the years, so there’s no guarantee that any caves will be there to explore if you visit. But the sheer possibility is enough for a visit since this is one of the most unique experiences most people will have in their lifetime!
If you are new to glacier hiking, it’s best to hire a tour guide whose expert safety knowledge can keep you from any dangerous situations on these hiking trails. Be sure to wear warm and waterproof boots and a jacket since it is cold and damp inside the caves.
3. Glacier Garden Rainforest Adventure
How does a botanical garden inside a glacial rainforest sound? That’s what you can expect if you visit the Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure, an engineered and artfully-designed botanical garden located inside Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.
This is a guided tour in a partially-covered van that takes you through the garden, up to quite a high elevation to a viewing area with panoramic views of Juneau, and back down. Cascading ‘flower towers’ spill from fallen trees, natural pools are surrounded by lush trees and creeping vines, and bright wildflowers bloom from every corner of the designer landscapes.
Click here to get current pricing and make reservations. After your tour, stop by the plant nursery and learn about how the staff are seeding new plants to be ready for transfer to the gardens. Part of the nursery also sells potted plants and seed packets, specifically those that can survive a cold climate like Alaska’s. If you live somewhere similar and are interested in a grow-your-own souvenir, be sure to visit the nursery to see what’s in season and bring back some of Alaska’s natural habitat.
4. Tracy Arm Fjord
The famous Tracy Arm Fjord is about 45 miles south of the state capital of Juneau and is a shining example of the astounding natural beauty for which Alaska is famous. The ice caves are extremely popular (and worth seeing), but Tracy Arm is the lesser-known hidden gem, full of unspoiled beauty.
Most visits to the fjord are run by excursion companies aboard comfortable catamarans, so you can relax while seeing this amazing wonder of Alaska’s spectacular scenery. Boats are small so they can navigate the ice-ridden waters. Literally, because you’ll be gliding through waters with floating ice chunks!
Another amazing viewpoint for this legendary glacier is to explore it by air from a seaplane tour or helicopter tour. Alaska Seaplanes runs half-hour tours from Juneau International Airport (only 15 minutes from downtown) for $300.
Another option, if you really want something luxurious, is to hire a private chartered tour guide. There are many options for this, whether you want to go by sea or by air. You’ll see larger-than-life glaciers, cascading waterfalls, and plenty of wild animals like humpback whales and seals. Bring your camera for this unforgettable experience!
5. Whale Watching
If whale watching is on your bucket list, then Juneau is the perfect place to do it. Alaska is well-known for its marine wildlife, and just off the coast, there are humpbacks, orcas, and belugas aplenty. We went on this whale watching tour in Juneau and had a great time.
Although there’s a chance of seeing whales year-round, the best times of the year for whale watching in Juneau is April through November. Hundreds of humpbacks pass through the channel, and most whale watching tours guarantee at least one sighting, although you’re likely to see several on your excursion.
Most whale watching tours in Juneau will run for a minimum of 2-3 hours and tend to start at around $150-200. Most tours guarantee sightings, so you won’t want to leave your camera at home! But maybe invest in a waterproof cover, just in case.
6. Alaskan Brewing Company
There’s nothing better than an ice-cold beer after a day exploring the fjords, forests, and oceans of Alaska. Fortunately, we’ve got the perfect spot to do just this: the Alaskan Brewing Company, otherwise known as Alaska’s largest brewery.
They have seven year-round beers and release additional seasonal, specialty, and even limited-edition brews throughout the year, often in the summer months. For anyone along for the ride who isn’t into beer, one of their hard seltzers or sodas might be just the refreshment you need.
They run brewery tours and tastings in their tasting room in the summer months, the perfect end to a warm day. If you like what you’ve tasted, grab a six-pack or fill a growler, and take it home with you.
The Alaskan Brewing Company is just a 10-minute drive from downtown Juneau area, but if you can’t make the drive then their Depot to buy their beers or grab their summer shuttle that will take you straight to the main brewery. Kids are allowed in if accompanied by an adult, but it’s probably better suited to a child-free day.
You may see an Alaskan Brewing Company right in downtown, but note they do not serve or sell any beer here. They only sell shirts, glasses, and other merchandise. We know because we sadly found out the hard way.
7. Last Chance Mining Museum
With Alaska’s history and involvement with the gold rush, mining forms a huge part of its recent cultural identity. The Last Chance Mining Museum is a testament to the natural history, with a seasonal exhibit located at the museum’s main building, which stands on the site of a former gold mine just a mile north of downtown Juneau.
The camp, although not in operation anymore, was the site of Juneau’s largest gold mine, which produced over $80 million dollars worth of gold before closing in 1944.
The jewel of the Last Chance Mining Museum, and the last surviving piece of the original mine, is the air compressor building. The original compressor is still inside, untouched since the mine’s golden age (literally). There are also various remnants of the railroad, which were used to transport workers, goods, machinery, and tools to and from the mine.
The museum is open from mid-May through September, Friday through Monday. Tickets are $5, and hours can be sporadic, so it’s always a good idea to call ahead and confirm opening hours before arriving.
8. DIPAC Macaulay Salmon Hatchery
Salmon is one of Alaska’s biggest exports, with over a billion dollars worth of annual export. There are many salmon hatcheries throughout the state, and if you’ve ever wanted to visit one, you’re in luck because the DIPAC Macaulay Salmon Hatchery is located a 20-minute drive from downtown Juneau.
Visitors get to see the spawning process firsthand, from the millions of baby salmon growing from eggs to the thousands of salmon fighting to swim upstream. There is also an aquarium with over 150 species of marine life animals, and a touch tank that kids will love.
In addition to learning about the process of salmon hatching and rearing, visitors can find souvenirs in the gift shop, sample different types of smoked salmon, and even ship some tasty goods home to continue enjoying after your Alaskan adventure ends.
The hatchery is open for walk-in tours daily from May through September, and by appointment from October through April.
9. Nugget Falls Trail
For outdoor enthusiasts, the Nugget Falls Trail is your one-stop shop. It’s an extension of Mendenhall Glacier and leaves from the visitor’s center. This is a great activity you can do with your kids since it’s a pretty relaxed self-guided walk, and the whole trail takes less than an hour, or you can take your time and make it a leisurely stroll. Leashed dogs are welcome on the trail too, but make sure to pick up after them.
The waterfall itself is a staggering 375 feet tall, and you can get very close to it from the shoreline. The Falls also fan out at the base, covering close to 100 feet in width. If you’re lucky, you might spot some black bears fishing for sockeye salmon and enjoy other wildlife viewing. This species of bear tends to keep their distance from people, but exercise appropriate caution if you do spot any. This trail is the perfect addition to any day trip near Mendenhall Glacier and is a highlight of the inside passage.
Aside from the spectacular views of the glacier and Nugget Falls, this is a beautiful trail for birdwatching, wildflower spotting, and by extension photography. So bring your camera!
10. Alaska State Museum
The final thing on our list of things to do in Juneau is the Alaska State Museum. Sometimes called the APK, this is one of the most important cultural museums for preserving and displaying information and artifacts from the history of indigenous peoples from the region.
Many native cultures are represented here, including Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian, as well as smaller bands from the surrounding Prince William Sound and Kodiak Island. The museum unifies these cultures and showcases their stories, art, and history through rotating seasonal exhibits.
If you’re visiting in the summer, ask about their guided tours, where an expert will give deeper context on the artifacts. And when you’re done, be sure to check out the arboretum, which houses many trees and plants native to Alaska.
The museum was renovated in 2016 and given a fresh, updated design to better suit the subject matter. Entrance fees help support the continuing preservation of native heritage.
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