Destination of the week: Juneau, Alaska
Nature is right outside the door in Alaska's capital city, where terrestrial and marine pursuits keep visitors busy.
Thu, Apr 28, 2011 at 08:01 AM
Juneau is Alaska's unassuming capital city and one of the easiest places to be an eco-tourist or to get an introduction to the largest state in the U.S. There is no need to hire an army of guides or sign up for an expensive expedition. When you visit Juneau, natural Alaska is, literally, right outside the doors of your hotel.
Since it is located on the state's southern panhandle, it is influenced by the weather patterns of the Pacific Ocean, not by Arctic air. January is the only month when the average high temperature drops below freezing.
The city has only 30,000 residents, giving it a small-town vibe unlike many other state capitals. The capitol building itself could easily be mistaken for an office complex. This semi-rural feel is bolstered by the fact that nature is easily accessible from central Juneau. Some trails start in the city, while others are only a short drive or ride away. Of course, this is still Alaska, so things like glacier-side hikes and whale watching are on the agenda as well.
Juneau is a compact city, and it is entirely possible to walk from one end of the downtown to the other. Several trailheads and attractions are within walking distance of major hotels. Trips on public buses, run by Capital Transit, are $1.50 and serve the city and its environs. Tour companies also run regular bus routes to major sites like the Mendenhall Glacier.
For those who want to explore this region of southern Alaska further, a car is necessary. Cycling is an option, with several tour companies offering guided pedals through the Juneau area. That said, some of the most scenic trails rise in elevation quickly and are meant to be hiked, not biked.
Visitors looking for an unusually recycling-oriented hotel need look no further than the Westmark Baranof, which heats its building, in part, with used cooking oil. The hotel collects oil from businesses around Juneau that would otherwise be unable to easily dispose of it legally.
Camping is also an option in and around Juneau, with rental cabins available from the U.S. Forestry Service and the state of Alaska. The cabins run $25 to $45 per night and can accommodate multiple people. Tent campgrounds are open during the summer, with the Eagle Beach Recreation Area being one of the most convenient options.
The Juneau Farmers Market is one of the better places to find fresh food in the city. Vendors sell locally grown produce and locally produced artisanal foods on Saturdays during the summer at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center.
Rainbow Foods is the city's primary health food store. Aside from natural and organic products, the store serves fresh food daily at lunchtime, usually soups, salads and sandwiches.
The popular Chan's Thai Kitchen is a good option for vegetarians (the menu has non-meat options and vegetarian substitutes) and is one of the most popular places for Juneau residents. It is a bit away from the downtown area, however, and cannot be reached on foot. For a more convenient, though not completely meat-free set of choices, the waterfront has a few seafood eateries.
Heritage Coffee Co., with six locations in the city, is Juneau's answer to Starbucks. The cafes roast their coffee in small batches. The company supports small coffee farmers and fair trade practices and also purchases coffee from farms that use sustainable farming techniques.
The Mendenhall Glacier, only 13 miles outside the city in Tongass National Park, is a popular attraction in southern Alaska. Like many of Juneau's natural attractions, it is easy to reach, with a bus stop a half-mile from the visitors center. For a $3 admission fee, visitors can see exhibits on the nature and history of the glacier and surrounding lands. Hikers can walk within a quarter mile of the glacier and see it from an elevated viewing platform, and an elevated boardwalk allows safe viewing of the park's bear population in August and September. The visitors center regularly holds lectures and educational programs geared toward kids and families.
Juneau's Alaskan Brewing Co. offers free tours of its facility and free tastings every day during the summer (and on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays during the rest of the year). The brewery donates any “tips” received from visitors to local charities. ABC has an impressive environmental record. Carbon dioxide, a natural byproduct of brewing, is recaptured and reused, and chaff from the brewery's grain supply powers a grain dryer.
The most convenient way to see the nature of Juneau is to take a trip on the Mount Roberts Tramway. Popular with visiting cruisers, the tram takes off from the cruise ship terminal in Juneau and climbs 1,800 feet. Since the trams are enclosed, this is a good inclement weather attraction. The upper tram terminal has overlooks, and trails circle the highland areas. The Mount Roberts Nature Center is a tourist-focused venue that has exhibits about area wildlife.
If the tram seems a bit touristy, plenty of trails can be reached from Juneau. The Perseverance Trail is the easiest to reach, accessible on foot from anywhere downtown. The trail rises 700 feet and passes abandoned mining camps, local wildflowers and plant life and a waterfall. Ambitious hikers can attempt the steep, challenging Mount Juneau Trail, which offers a daylong hike. The trail is difficult, even in good weather, with a rise of over 3,500 feet occurring over a span of two miles. This trail branches off the Perseverance Trail (about a mile from its trailhead). The Granite Creek Trail, which also branches off Perseverance, is another challenging hike that lasts three or four hours.
With so many hiking options, it is easy to forget that Juneau is a coastal town (located on the Gastineau Channel) with many water-centered attractions, and also is a major port of call for cruise lines that tour southern Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The Boat Co., a nonprofit cruise line, offers weeklong luxury “eco-cruises,” providing educational experiences as well as plenty of time for trekking, fishing and whatever else suits individual travelers. The Boat Co. is also heavily involved in the sustainable eco-tourism movement. On the other end of the price and comfort spectrum is kayaking. Historically the way people in coastal Alaska traveled, kayaking is still popular with outfitters offering equipment rental for serious paddlers and guided tours for those who aren't comfortable trying the challenging, sometimes-dangerous waters on their own.
Whale watching is the main form of marine sightseeing. In season, tours leave from Juneau to view the feeding grounds of humpback whales, and can encounter other sea life such as killer whales.
Alaska might be among the most remote of the 50 states, but it is hard to believe that if you vacation in Juneau, where nature is always only a few footsteps away.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.