Let’s get something straight about visiting Juneau:
Three days are never enough. A week won’t even cover it. Why, a daily hike could take up a month’s visit while still leaving plenty on the wish list for the next trip.
Still, with airfare more competitive, Juneau has become increasingly accessible for weekend warriors looking for a quick getaway.
Visitors arrive eager to see bears or eagles, particularly when the salmon begin spawning. They want a glimpse of whales, harbor seals or sea lions in their natural habitat. They’re hoping to get face-to-face—or as close as possible—with glaciers that are part of icefields set back well beyond the U.S.-Canadian border. They want a menu that features the latest catch, which could be salmon, halibut or cod as well as fresh steamed Dungeness or king crab.
Funny thing. The locals want the same experiences for themselves, and they are willing to share.
Here’s an itinerary taking in the best of Juneau in two days.
DAY 1: NATURE
One of the best ways to check off several boxes at once from the wish list is a trip from Juneau south to Tracy Arm fjord, a daylong excursion that leaves from downtown Juneau’s wharf.
It’s not just the sights—small pods of killer whales, eagles, icebergs, seals, plus the mountain goats or bears foraging along the shoreline—that create memories. It’s the other passengers and crew on the vessel, which typically feature a mix of locals and visitors from places worldwide.
It starts with boarding either the Captain Cook or the Adventure Bound for a day at sea, traveling 45 miles south of downtown Juneau. Captains Steve or Alyssa, who engage with their knowledge of Juneau and the water as well as their sense of humor, will be at the helm.
As the boat plies Stephens Passage, the trip’s features begin to emerge. A humpback whale may follow for a few miles. Eagles will soar overhead looking for food and sometimes a place to rest. Icebergs at Holkham Bay—the entrance point to Tracy Arm and gateway to North and South Sawyer Glaciers—provide a good resting spot for eagles.
Some of these icebergs are as wide as the cruise ships that pass by and as tall as cliffs, taking on different shapes: humped and crested like camels, squared and sometimes tilted as if they are ready to overturn, and sometimes they do, revealing even larger portions that once were submerged.
By the time the vessel returns to Juneau around 6:30, visitors will have cameras full of photos and know a little history of Juneau and its unique features as a coastal community accessible only by plane or boat.
Access to South Sawyer can be impeded by the number of icebergs at the mouth of the glacier. If so, it produces tremendous photo opportunities for wildlife fanatics. Often resting on the icebergs are seals and their pups. They appear as curious about us as we are of them, but sometimes make a quick dash back in the water.
Reaching the glacier face engages the senses. Even in summertime it’s suddenly cold, much colder than when boarding in Juneau, but worth spending time on deck to hear the glacier face cracking, emitting thunderous sounds, and to watch ice chunks crash down into the water.
Juneau sits in a rain forest, so low clouds and rain are possible, but that doesn’t interfere with enjoying any of these sights, even from inside the warm vessel.
Upon returning, dinner awaits—someplace. Not long ago, some derisively considered Juneau’s best dining option to be Seattle. That’s no longer true. Meals can be enjoyed overlooking the Gastineau Channel. Indoor meals can come with a big screen television and the game of the night, or a quieter mood with white table cloths and candlelight.
DAY 2: AN INSIDER’S JUNEAU
Heads up, foodies. Dining choices have become expansive enough that Juneau now features two guided food tours that take hungry and curious travelers through downtown, tasting along the way. Choose either Alaskan Food Tours, or Juneau Food Tours or (for a truly gluttonous experience) both.
Alaskan Food Tours’ 3.5-hour food tasting and cultural walking tour of Juneau combines delicious food and drink with an insider’s glimpse into this unique city’s culture, history and lifestyles.
Juneau Food Tours takes guests on a 2.5-hour guided walk that includes seven tastings (plus two tastings to go) in addition to tales of local history and lore along the way.
Visitors who prefer not to eat their way through Alaska’s capital city can opt for a city tour without the food. Juneau Tours runs a 2.5-hour city and glacier tour via motor coach that introduces guests to the region’s history and then visits the Mendenhall Glacier, just outside of town. The perspectives and stories of a Tlingit Native guide enrich the guest experience with a true insider’s viewpoint.