Travel: Juneau, Alaska, offers glaciers, bald eagles, isolated beauty
JUNEAU — My plane was landing in Alaska’s capital city when a massive and beautiful glacier went by the window. And then another. And another.
I was still agog when I hopped on a city bus headed downtown, even more so when I spotted several bald eagles swooping low over the highway.
But around me, the riders I had joined were seemingly oblivious to the wonder of their surroundings, talking of trips to the mall, nail salons, recent operations.
Even in a land of such tremendous natural beauty, life goes on, especially in a city where state politics is as big a concern as the humpback whales frolicking out beyond the harbor.
Anyone who lives in such magnificent surroundings has to get accustomed pretty quickly, or spend their life with pointed finger and dropped jaw. Even the bald eagles seemed indifferent to their surroundings, and so numerous that they didn’t bother to be cool or majestic, but hung around on light poles like juvenile-delinquent seagulls.
There are plenty of folks who still gape, though. Juneau is a major cruise-ship destination, with hundreds or even thousands of visitors disembarking daily. Other visitors arrive on an Alaska Marine Highway ferry or, like me, at the small Juneau airport.
The 1,500 square miles of glaciers known as the Juneau Ice Fields cut off the city from any road link to the outside world.
Because it’s the Alaskan capital, Juneau is not just a land of natural wonders, but also a great place to explore the fascinating history of the “Last Frontier.”
The newly upgraded and renovated Alaska State Museum offers extensive exhibits about the pre-European native inhabitants of Alaska, the early Russian influence and the American purchase and settlement of the past 150 years.
The State Capitol, a former federal office building built in 1931, is one of the most unimposing capitols in the United States. But it’s an interesting building to explore. Visitors will find brochures that lead them on a self-guided walking tour through the six-story building, which is decorated with Alaskan paintings, photos and artwork. A historic Masonic temple next door also has been converted into capitol office space, the old fraternal mysteries replaced with those of contemporary politics.
The state’s frugal citizens have never seen the need to spend money on a more ornate capitol. And though they have voted several times to move the capital city to a less isolated spot (“isolated” being a relative term in Alaska), residents have never been willing to fund the move — fortunately for Juneau.
Juneau also is the home of the Alaskan Brewing Company, whose award-winning suds are sold as far away as Ohio. The brewery tour is fun and informative and ends with a tasting of some brews that are available only in Juneau. There also are plenty of interesting shops and restaurants throughout the small downtown area.
What really sets Juneau apart from any other place I’ve visited, though, is the drive-up glacier.
Mendenhall Glacier, just 13 miles from downtown, is said to be one of the most accessible and visited glaciers in the world. It is one of 38 glaciers flowing from the Juneau Ice Fields.
It’s no wonder that Mendenhall is the site of the very first U.S. Forest Service visitors’ center, built in 1962.
Today’s visitors’ center offers great views, exhibits and documentary films about the glacier and surrounding Tongass National Forest, which includes part of one of the largest temperate rainforests in the world.
It’s also the stepping-off point for several short hiking trails that offer more panoramic vantage points and views of the glacier and Nugget Falls, which drop into Mendenhall Bay near the glacier.
The glacier is so large that it was difficult for me to grasp its scale until a tiny tour canoe passed in front, about a mile across Mendenhall Bay from the visitors’ center.
Mendenhall is a lesson in nature’s extensive palette. Although the misty weather had turned the skies grayish white, the glacier presented an icy wall of sky blue smattered with cobalt where ice blocks calve off into the bay. Higher up, arctic shades blended with patches of indigo and the dirty white of old snow.
Green wasn’t neglected, either. Deep emeralds of the lower mountains merging — sometimes smoothly, sometimes abruptly — with the olive and chartreuse of upper elevations.
Because Juneau is landlocked, many visitors forgo a rental car. But Juneau’s public transportation system isn’t the easiest to navigate; the city bus doesn’t run to the airport on weekends. It also stops about 1.5 miles short of the Mendenhall Glacier visitors’ center.
If you’re not up to the walk or the weather is rainy (which it usually is), the best option is to book a shuttle from the tour booths near the cruise-ship docks downtown. A round-trip fare to the glacier runs about $35, but includes the $5 admission to the visitors’ center — and is cheaper than a taxi.
The shuttle drivers usually provide a bit of local information and color, too, pointing out historic sites and much-photographed features.
“Look — eagles!” exclaimed a woman visiting from Kansas, gesturing to a few dozen of the birds nosing around the banks of pretty Salmon Creek on the shuttle’s way back to town.
I didn’t even bother to raise my camera. The Kansan gave me a quizzical look, but I just shrugged. She’d get used to eagles, soon enough.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SteveStephens.