Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
A bear? Behind the espresso stand? No roads in or out? You have to come by boat or plane? What kind of a state capital is this? Probably different from what you’re used to…
Almost surrounded by high mountains and with a vast ice field—larger than Rhode Island—to the north, Juneau winters are substantially colder than Ketchikan or Sitka. Tlingit natives had fish camps near today’s downtown, but wintered in a more temperate and sheltered area near Auke Bay.
In 1880, Kowee, the local Tlingit chief, led two prospectors, Joe Juneau and Richard Harris, up Gold Creek, which runs through today’s downtown, to what is now Silver Bow Basin. The men found ample nuggets and quartz laced with gold, and Alaska’s first gold rush was on.
However, the easy to find streambed gold was quickly gathered up, and a new kind of enterprise was formed to follow the gold underground. This industrial scale deep tunnel hard rock mining was very different from other Alaska gold rushes where individuals or small groups of men worked creeks and beaches with essentially hand tools. At Juneau, high grade ore was quickly exhausted and massive stamp mills were built to extract gold; it wasn’t uncommon for 20 or more tons of ore to be dug and processed to yield a single ounce of fine gold. The tailings—the crushed rock that was left, was dumped along the shore, creating the flat land on which today’s downtown Juneau was built. At peak capacity, the big stamp mills of the Alaska-Juneau mine, still visible above the cruise ship docks, could crush 12,000 tons of ore a day. Working conditions were dangerous!
The entrance to the big Treadwell mine was nicknamed the “glory Hole,” for all the miners—sometimes one a week—that went to glory there. Eventually the gold played out, the tunnels—by then deep under the channel—filled with water, and today all that’s left is ruins of the old stamp mill on the hill above the cruise ship dock. But the gold is still there and a 21st century style mine—designed with minimal visual and environmental impact—is being built on a slope above Lynn Canal, 45 miles north of Juneau.
The gold made Juneau the economic capital, so the legislative capital was moved there as well from Sitka in 1906. As the gold played out, government jobs, both state and federal, assumed a dominant role in Juneau’s economy. Because of these government jobs, economic life in Juneau is much less seasonal than in other Alaska coastal towns which are more dependent on tourism and sport and commercial fishing. For this reason, the impact of the growing cruise ship industry sets a little less easy with Juneau residents. Cruise ship captains have learned that if they want to avoid an angry call from the harbormaster, they need to keep their deck public address systems off as they pass Douglas (across the channel from Juneau) as they approach and leave town. Another source of annoyance to locals is the noise created by the flightseeing helicopters and float planes, which echo up off the steep rock walls behind town. In order to avoid the air pollution that occurs when four or five big thousand footers are running their generators in the harbor, cruise operators have installed dock wiring to allow their ships to operate off local hydroelectrical power while in port. Like most cruise ports, the shops and galleries are concentrated right near the docks, and passengers will be pleasantly surprised at the peaceful pace of life on the streets if they take the time to walk up and out of the downtown commercial district.
The Mt. Roberts Tramway operates from right by the main cruise ship docks. Another good stop close to the docks is the Taku Fisheries Ice House, at the south end of the main downtown dock complex. This is an active fish processing facility with ice being delivered, boats unloading, as well as a great seafood restaurant and retail shop with some excellent seafood products.
Shopping: North Franklin Street, which runs right past the cruise ship docks, is the main passenger shopping venue. If you are at all interested in Native Alaskan Art, I recommend taking some time in the art galleries here.
Mendenhall Glacier: If there ever were a reason for the “See it before it melts,” motto used by some travel agents, it is this glacier.
Whale Watching: A special mention should be made of the whale watching excursions operating out of Auke Bay. There are usually resident populations of both killer and humpback whales in nearby Lynn Canal, and this tour has an excellent record of finding them and many passengers have reported seeing humpbacks bubble feeding or breaching on these tour boats. Red Dog Saloon: If you’re looking for a colorful spot for a modestly priced pub food style meal, stop in at the Red Dog Saloon, right on North Franklin, about two blocks from the tramway station. With sawdust on the floor, banjo playing and rustic decor, it’s full of local flavor.
Flightseeing: Getting up into the air should be part of your Alaska travel experience. The glaciers and ice fields around Juneau offer some exciting views. Helicopter trips that land on the glaciers, sometimes including a ride on a dogsled are also very popular.
Excursions: these change frequently, so check with tour vendors.
Mendenhall Glacier Explorer
Mendenhall Glacier & Salmon Hatchery Tour
Original Alaska Salmon Bake
A Taste Of Juneau
Guide’s Choice Adventure Hike
Dog Sled Summer Camp
Gold Panning & History Tour
Glacier View Bike & Brew
Rainforest Canopy & Zipline Expedition
Mountain Zip & Rainforest Bike Ride
Juneau Sportfishing Adventure
Juneau Fly-Out Fly Fishing
Juneau Steamboat Cruise
Photo Safari By Land & Sea
Alaska’s Whales & Rainforest Trails
Whale Watching & Wildlife Quest
Mendenhall Glacier & Whale Quest
Whale Watching & Orca Point Lodge
Mendenhall Glacier Float Trip
Glacier View Sea Kayaking
Mendenhall Glacier Canoe Adventure
Taku Glacier Lodge Flight & Feast
Pilot’s Choice Ice Age Exploration
Mendenhall Glacier Helicopter Tour
Four Glacier Adventure By Helicopter
Extended Helicopter Glacier Trek
Glacier & Dog Sled Adventure By Helicopter
Dog Sledding On The Mendenhall
Custom Hummer Adventure