Amazing Alaska: wandering around Juneau

This trip had me exploring a place that never in my wildest dreams (okay fine, maybe in my wildest, most fervent dreams) did I think I’d ever visit. Alaska always seemed so remote, and yes, so amazing, that setting foot there just didn’t seem possible. That changed because of a semi-serious joke that an Alaskan cruise would be the perfect venue for a family reunion. Because why the heck not?

Our cruise started out in Seattle, then went on to Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay, Ketchikan, then Victoria in Canada. Each place stole my heart in its own way.

Juneau is the state capital of Alaska and is one of only two state capitals that aren’t accessible by land (the other one is Honolulu, Hawaii). Because of the rugged terrain surrounding it, there are no roads leading to Juneau. The city is only accessible by sea and air (cars are loaded on a ferry). Our tour guide told us that Juneau International Airport qualifies as “international” because of the one flight a week to Canada via Alaskan Airlines but alas, I have yet to find that route (yes, I actually checked Alaska’s website).

01 Juneau downtown

Juneau’s modern history, as with most Alaskan towns, started because of the gold rush. The city is named after prospector Joe Juneau. It used to be called Harrisburg, after Juneau’s co-founder Richard Harris, but the local Tlingit ended up not liking him very much and shifted their allegiance to Juneau. Tlingit Chief Kowee guided Harris and Juneau to the mouth of Gold Creek in 1880, where the two struck gold.

So what’s there to see in Juneau?

Juneau introduced me to the magnificent Mendenhall Glacier, located inside Tongass National Park. I felt so tiny compared to this 1.5 mile long river of ice. This glacier is just one of the 38 major glaciers that flow from the Juneau Ice Field. The Mendenhall Glacier is also retreating, meaning the snowfall isn’t enough to compensate for the melting so it’s slowly melting away and leaving open land.

03 mendenhall glacier

Nugget Falls, which is fed by Nugget Creek, which comes from the Nugget Glacier, is also a spectacular sight.

05 mendenhall glacier with nugget falls

04 me in front of mendenhall glacier

I asked one of the park rangers how many visitors they get in a year and she said more than 400,000 visitors, most of them from the cruise ships. Then I asked how long each person stayed in the national park and she just shook her head. That’s just sad.

If you feel like exploring (and you should!), there are several trails that will take you around the less-populated areas near the glacier. Well, except for Photo Point Trail because it gets you the closest to the glacier so everyone goes there. But once you do that and finish taking pictures, then you can take the paths less traveled. It’s a nice way to get some peace and quiet from your fellow cruisers.

02 walking Photo Point trail

And speaking of the visitors’ center, make sure to take a look around before you go! I loved their exhibits on how glaciers form, how glaciers affect the land they crawl over, what animals call the Mendenhall Glacier home, and the like. There’s also a short film you can catch.

Another stop in Juneau was the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery. There are 5 types of salmon in Alaska: chum, king, sockeye, coho (or silver), and pink. The hatchery releases 120 million baby salmon each year. These salmon then spend 1-5 years in the ocean before coming back to Alaska at the end of June.

06 Macaulay Salmon Hatchery raceways

I found the place okay for a short visit. I imagine that it’s a more interesting place to visit when they have actual salmon in the raceways. It was pretty difficult to get excited over a bunch of empty raceways, even if they have cute paintings of salmon on the side. If the raceways are empty, just cancel the hatchery from the itinerary and spend more time in the national park.

For those who really, really have to check their email while in Juneau, the Juneau Public Library is your best bet. The Wi-Fi is free and you can see all the way to the Gastineau Channel where the cruise ships are docked. The cruise ships also block the view of the Gastineau Channel, but I digress. During the summer, Juneau gets an average of four cruise ships per day, which is the maximum number of berths in the harbor. The harbor can actually accommodate six cruise chips but the other two have to park out in the water and take smaller boats in.

There are also numerous stores selling all sorts of trinkets and souvenirs (of course). I ended up buying a business card holder with a whale tail design that was made of recycled leather. Not a bad find, I think.

Our next stop for the cruise: Skagway!

This is a Back Blog, AKA something I should have written as soon as the trip was over but responsibilities got in the way. The actual trip took place in May 2013 but I wrote and posted this in April 2015. The post is dated for May 2013 to just keep everything neat and tidy in the calendar.

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