Juneau has a rich diversity of people, stunning landscape, natural wonders, historic landmarks, and outdoor activities enjoyed by visitors from around the world. Built on a narrow strip of shoreline wedged between the Juneau Icefield, the 5th largest icefield in the world, and the ocean, Juneau lies in the shadow of mountains towering up to 3800 feet above downtown. Virtually an island, the capital can only be reached by sea or by air. Once covered in ice only 300 years ago, Juneau emerged from the slowly receding glaciers to become home to the first, second, and third-largest gold mining operations in the world. The motherlode was discovered in 1880 along the banks of Gold Creek after Chief Kowee encouraged George Pilz, a German-born gold prospector in Sitka, to send an expedition. A member of the Tlingit tribe, Chief Kowee’s ancestors, were the first to make Juneau home. Due to its abundant salmon, plant, and wildlife, the Tlingit had time to develop a culture steeped in art and family traditions. Chief Kowee led Pilz’s men, Joe Juneau and Richard Harris, to the most massive gold strike since the San Francisco 49’ers set off a feverish stampede in 1849. Arriving hundreds of years before Russian explorers came sailing up the Gastineau Channel in the late 1600s, the Tlingits attempted to live alongside the British, French, and finally, American explorers who followed. Marveling at the vast, unparalleled beauty and economic potential of the nearly untouched region, western explorers often clashed with the locals, eventually denying Native Americans full citizenship after the United States acquired Alaska from Russia in 1867. Disputes over land and leadership persisted until the 1970s when state legislation granted large portions of Alaska as well as money, leading to the formation of native corporations involved in business globally to this day.
Alaska's Capital City
Juneau ranks among visitors as a high point on a cruise to Alaska. Whale watching, the majestic Mendenhall Glacier, one of only a few glaciers accessible by public roads, are just two of the many options to experience Juneau. The historic downtown, which sprung up virtually overnight, a boomtown that became Alaska’s largest city in 1881, features original buildings from the Gold Rush era. The Governor’s Mansion, constructed in 1912, perches over the ancient fishing camp of the Tlingits, in the heart of the city.
To see The Mendenhall Glacier up close, the abundant Humpbacks that travel to Alaska’s feeding grounds every summer, and visit Juneau’s natural and historical landmarks, take one of the many tours offered by Juneau Tours. The Juneau Tours Glacier Shuttle, and The Whale Watching and Glacier Combo Tour depart from the cruise line terminal on Franklin Street in front of the Mount Roberts Tramway, travel through downtown and along the Gastineau Channel to Auke Bay and then on to the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area. A City Trolley provides an easy way to see the city with stops at Front and Franklin Street next to the Food Court, the Alaska State Museum, Macaulay Salmon Hatchery, and the world-famous, life-size Humpback whale statue. Every 15 minutes, water shoots out, making it appear as if the bronze whale is breaching – a perfect photo opportunity.
The Tongass National Forest, the 2nd biggest rainforest in the world and the largest forest in North America is the backdrop for all tours in Juneau. Extending from Ketchikan in the South to Skagway in the North, the Tongass surrounds Juneau with millions of acres of Sitka Spruce, Red and Yellow Cedar, and Hemlock trees. By some estimates, 20,000 – 30,000 Bald Eagles live in Juneau, as well as Black Bears, Porcupine, Badgers, Salmon, 1000s of types of birds, and the largest population of Grizzly’s on the nearby Admiralty Island.
To the West, the calm waters of the Inside Passage, offer excellent fishing and wildlife viewing opportunities. Tides rise and lower the docks up to 20 feet twice per day. Moss covered rocks appear below the faded cliffs along the Lynn Canal as the tide ebbs and flows. The deep Fjord reaches nearly 2500 feet in depth and breeds teeming schools of the Herring, Krill, and Salmon upon which the whales feed. From Auke Bay, approximately 12 miles from town, boats depart, spotting whales feeding, breaching, teaching their young, and frolicking in the narrow channels between the numerous islands only minutes away. Forming a natural barrier to wind, the Inside Passage makes Juneau a premier whale-watching destination. In the summer, it is smooth sailing, and the whales are always present. Orcas also pass through the region, creating high drama as they chase sea lions, sometimes in the view of whale watching passengers.
At its peak, at the end of the little ice age in the 1700s, half of Alaska was covered in ice up to one mile deep. The Juneau Icefield, stretching from Juneau and flowing 90 miles north to Skagway, Alaska, creates a natural barrier isolating Juneau from the rest of the world. The Juneau Icefield, with its 30 massive glaciers and approximately 100 smaller glaciers, forms a natural and insurmountable boundary with Canada, about 30 miles to the East. Occasionally, when the weather is warm, an adventurous Moose follows the banks of the Taku River and spends the summer in Juneau. For all other living creatures, except birds and fish, Juneau is a remote destination inaccessible by road or overland.
The Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area
70% of Juneau Tours’ passengers make a stop at the Mendenhall Glacier. A permit from the USDA Forest Service allows our buses to bring guests seven days a week from April to October. Endless trails, the Nugget Falls plunging 380 feet down a cliff into the glacial lake, and a Visitors Center are just a few of the ways to enjoy the park. Rangers, at posts throughout the park, offer valuable insights into the history of the area, its wildlife and natural features. The glacier, flowing down from its accumulation point 12 miles high in the mountains, spills out into the Mendenhall Lake, which has been growing in size since the 1930s when the melting ice began its slow retreat up the valley. Soon, as the planet continues warming, visitors will be able to hike around the lake to the glacier’s face. Until then, panoramic views are visible from numerous locations in the park, beginning immediately as passengers exit the bus.