View from the Cross on Mt Roberts Juneau, Alaska. Photo by Dana Deedy.
Next time I go to Juneau, I’ll rent a kayak and paddle past the Shrine of St. Therese on a bluebird day. Next time, I’ll backpack from Mt. Roberts around the ridges and through lush valleys to Mt. Juneau. Next time, I’ll visit all the art galleries. And next time, I’ll bring more friends so they, too, can discover the treasure that is Alaska’s capital city.
Last summer for a four-day adventure, a favorite travel buddy, Dana, and I flew from Anchorage to Juneau, a 1.5-hour excursion on Alaska Airlines. One of her sons lives there, so we scored free accommodations, but otherwise played tourist to a T—dining out, seeing the sights, and almost driving headfirst (albeit at five miles per hour) into traffic on downtown’s narrow one-way streets. Packing as much action as possible into our brief visit only left us adding more to our list for a future foray. As Liz Perry, the president and CEO of Travel Juneau told us, the city has so much for locals and travelers to experience. “Don’t let its 2,700 square miles throw you off,” she said. “Downtown Juneau is walkable and you can drive to the literal end of the road in way less than an hour.” Wilderness and walkable? Sounded great to me.
Upon arrival, we met with Travel Juneau’s Destination Marketing Manager Kara Tetley, who graciously gave up all her secrets to having fun in her town. Sipping lattes at the Heritage Coffee Roasting Company’s Baranof Hotel location (they have several), we chattered over maps and brochures, paring down our options.
To get our bearings that first afternoon, we walked the cruise ship docks, marveling at the massive ships tied up while their precious cargo—tourists just like us—shopped, ate, rode the Mount Roberts Tramway, and were whisked away on day tours for everything from whale watching in Tracy Arm to bear viewing on neighboring Admiralty Island.
But we had other plans: The sun was already beginning its slide toward sleep, and we needed beer. Devil’s Club Brewing Co. magically appeared on N. Franklin St., drawing us in to sample a flight of three unique flavors from their eight “Adventurous Ales.” Founded by three local guys, this hoppin’ place serves craft beer and gourmet grub. By the time we’d whet our whistle and headed elsewhere in search of dinner (we could’ve stayed for pizza but wanted to patronize as many local businesses as possible), the din was deafening, and revelers lined up nearly out the door.
Deckhand Dave’s famous fish tacos did not disappoint; I chose blackened rockfish, but I’d wager the halibut and salmon versions are just as tasty. As we noshed at our outdoor table, we eavesdropped on groups gearing up to attend the spendy Norah Jones concert at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center’s Centennial Hall.
Not yet ready to turn in, we drove out to North Douglas Boat Launch and watched the sun sink into the treetops while ocean waves gently brushed the shore.
The next day, we visited the Alaska State Museum, home to an impressive permanent collection of Alaskan minutiae on Native life, early aviation, mining, WWII, and more. “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline,” an exhibition by Alaskan artist Ray Troll and paleontologist Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, demonstrated with humor and remarkable detail how far humans have come yet just what a teensy blip we are on the screen of geologic time.
To remedy feeling like a speck (or perhaps to further immolate my delicate ego), I wanted to wield my constituent power on the self-guided walking tour of the Capitol, perched part way up a typically steep Juneau slope; we trudged what felt like a hundred stairs to get there. I’d never been, and though in recent years I’ve paid close attention to politics, my assumption was that we’d breeze through the building in 20 minutes and move on. Gosh, was I ever wrong—despite the halls being eerily empty (a special session, of which Alaska seems to be having many lately, had ended one day prior, with legislators and aides fleeing for some much-needed rest), I found myself lingering on each level to peer at old photos by Winter and Pond, ponder the tension lingering in the deserted house and senate chambers, and reel from the apocalypse of volume after volume of blue budget notebooks (I’m a word nerd, not a numbers person) aligned along the shelves of the silent Senate Finance Committee Room. Thank goodness, then, for a whimsical touch—a blond, carved wooden bust of a bearded man on a sill at one end of the cavernous cell, a typed nametag his only explanation: Uhtred Permanentfundsen, Defender of the Permanent Fund. Turns out that Senator Bert Stedman of Sitka bought the carving from artist Robert Fudge of Petersburg (another Southeast town, founded by a Norwegian immigrant) earlier in the year when a caustic political fight over the health of Alaska’s unique dividend had reached peak rancor. There are strange things done in the midnight sun, indeed.
Back down on the docks at Tracy’s King Crab Shack for lunch, Dana and I ordered the infamous mini crab cakes. The establishment brags of having “the best legs in town”—king crab, that is. While waiting at a breezy outdoor table amid the hubbub of diners sharing elbow room with strangers and waiters hollering names of the hungry, a raucous bell suddenly clanged from inside the restaurant—someone had ordered something special—perhaps the large king crab bucket, replete with giant, sharp crustacean claws reaching over the lip as if trying to escape.
“Here!” we sang in unison, subjects beckoning to our royal savior serving up the nectar of the sea with a side of spicy dipping sauce. I dove in, promising myself extra gym time when I got home.
A visit to Juneau is not complete until you’ve seen Mendenhall Glacier, a 20-minute drive from downtown. We’d heard that black bears had been catching spawning salmon in the creek below the viewing deck just paces from the parking lot, so we motored out to have a look that afternoon. Rangers patrol the grounds during open hours and sometimes temporarily close trails to help keep people—and bears—safe, but the bruins remained elusive. After snapping a few photos of the receding ice across the lake and perusing the visitor center, we walked the hard-packed trail to Nugget Falls, two miles round trip. Figuring dusk would be a likely time to catch the carnivores in the act, we returned to the viewing deck later that evening, but all was quiet except for pairs of blushing red salmon endlessly circling their two-foot-wide territory.
Since our donated digs were on Douglas Island west across the bridge from downtown Juneau, bright July sunshine beat in our windows while the city still hunkered in morning shade at the base of soaring peaks—but not for long; soon, light bathed the entire area. With clear skies and a gentle wind, we set off to ride the Mount Roberts Tram six vertical minutes to its perch 1,900 feet above Gastineau Channel; from there, we followed the skyward trail up to Father Brown’s Cross, a remnant from the early twentieth century. After wandering another hour or so upward, we rested in a sparse patch of unripe blueberries and drank in the view of the channel leading north toward the airport, and beyond that, coastal mountains marching forever up the Inside Passage.
Totems grace the woods near the tram station on Mt. Roberts. Photo by Susan Sommer.
Back down at sea level, our bellies growling, we dropped into the cool, dark oasis of V’s Cellar Door, a Mexican-Korean fusion hideaway—yes, you read that right, and it tastes nothing like you think it does, trust me—for an amazing meal. I chose the Fusion Nachos, a gigantic plate of organic corn tortilla chips, melted jack and cheddar cheeses, tomatoes, and pinto beans, with cilantro onion relish, Korean cabbage slaw, sour cream, guacamole, and V’s signature fusion sauce—all this topped off with sweet and spicy Korean chicken. Dana tried an equally interesting combination of flavors in a quesadilla, but my dish was so large it all but blocked my view of hers; I could hear her exclaiming across the table, though, so if you get a chance to try V’s, do it. Of course, after all that (ahem, I did get a to-go box), I desired ice cream (who doesn’t?). The locally owned, award-winning Coppa filled the bill. Juneau is small enough that finding recommended places takes all of five minutes, and surprisingly, we always found a handy parking spot.
That evening, we strolled along the shore of Savikko Park, also prosaically called Sandy Beach, making an easy loop through the forest and past ruins of the Treadwell Mine, the most productive gold mine in the nation around 1910. Today, its crumbling structures look like something from a horror movie, but strategically placed interpretive signs keep the potential creepiness at bay.
Not quite hungry yet, Dana and I descended upon Alaska magazine’s very own Bjorn Dihle and his family for a truly Alaskan feast of freshly harvested venison with a side (ok, another entrée) of fresh sockeye salmon. Plus fresh bread, salad, and wine. It’s a wonder I didn’t fall asleep with my face in the plate after such an indulgent day. Bellies bulging and gossiped out, we said goodnight.
Juneau’s airport is small enough that arriving two hours ahead of your flight isn’t necessary, so as our last day in the southeast Alaska paradise dawned clear again—where was the usual precipitation for this temperate rainforest?—we hopped in our zippy hybrid rental car and took off up the only other main road: Glacier Highway, which leads 40 miles north from town (“out the road” as locals say) to, wait for it…a gravel turnaround at Echo Cove. Plans for an extension linking Juneau to the rest of the state’s road system were scrapped a couple of years ago, but kayakers regularly use the route to launch into Berner’s Bay. The small town of Auke Bay, home of the state ferry terminal, is tucked along the road, too.
We stopped at the old stone Shrine at St. Therese, a peaceful point to explore, especially when flat-calm waters lap the rocky perimeter. Those patient enough, or seeking patience, can walk a labyrinth here.
Next up was Eagle Beach State Recreation Area, where all of Juneau and everyone with a dog walked, picnicked, and enjoyed a sunny Saturday, yet it didn’t feel crowded. Dana and I meandered along a riverside trail, stepping over rotten salmon carcasses likely dragged up the bank by black bears and only partially eaten. Very lively salmon on their way to the spawning grounds swished upstream and back down, gaining ground only to lose it, then blundering out of the water and slapping their bodies in a frenzy of suffocation until they slid back into the flow, only to repeat the process a few minutes later. We found ourselves rooting for them, even though we knew what necessary demise lay ahead.
We could’ve stayed for days, but life at home drew us back to the airport and our scheduled departure, although we did almost miss our boarding call while hunched over pen and paper intently playing a word game. Getting stuck in Juneau wouldn’t have been a bad thing, though. Next time, I’ll plan to stay longer.
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