Our very first taste of Alaska on our 7-night cruise with Holland America was state’s capital, Juneau. Situated on the Gastineau Channel in the Alaskan panhandle (southeast region), this city was the birthplace of the Alaskan gold rush in 1880.
Most people aren’t aware this is the second largest city in the United States (by area), making it larger than Delaware! But the only way to access it is via plane or boat.
So with only 6 hours in port, how were we going to cover such a vast area? With a bit of help from Travel Juneau we were able to squeeze in an ample number of kid-friendly activities and attractions.
We were on the last cruise of the season and several popular activities around Juneau had already closed for the season (such as dog sledding). However we still thoroughly enjoyed our day. Here are our 5 top things to do on your first visit to Juneau.
1. Take a gondola ride
Better known as the Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway, this scenic ride from downtown Juneau transports guests to the summit of Mount Roberts, towering 1,800 feet above the city. This is the only aerial tramway in Southeast Alaska, one of the steepest in the world, and one hell of a ride.
Unparalleled views of Juneau, the Gastineau Channel and our cruise boat greeted us at the apex. In fact, locals call it the best view of Juneau without a plane ticket. In addition we met a friendly Bald American Eagle, compared our arm spans against an eagle’s wingspan, learned about the fascinating local environment in the Nature Centre, watched an informative movie and more. If you want to stretch your legs, well-marked hiking trails extend further into the forest.
Tip: Even if the weather is warm, bring a jacket, as the peak is around 10 degrees cooler than sea level.
2. Get up close to a glacier
Of course you must see a glacier in Alaska. And not just any glacier, the Juneau Icefield is the fifth largest icefield in North America (covering 1,500 square miles), and home to 38 glaciers.
We took a 20-minute taxi ride out to Juneau’s most popular attraction, Mendenhall Glacier (part of the Tongass National Forest). The Mendenhall Glacier measures 12 miles long, half a mile wide and up to 1,800 feet deep.
Since it was near the end of our day and both kids had fallen asleep in the warmth of the car, we left them with our tour guide and set out for our first sighting of a real glacier.
My first thought was how dirty it was. My second was how giant it was. My third was how could I get onto it? Fortunately, we’d get a chance later in the cruise to walk on Meade Glacier.
Tip: The best view of the glacier is a photography lookout point, about 15 to 20-minute walk (round trip) north of the visitor centre. If you have more time, take the 2-mile Nugget Falls trail to get up close to a majestic waterfall.
3. Visit a gold mine
Juneau once held the world’s largest gold-producing mill and it’s mining heritage runs deep. We took a tour of the AJ Mine constructed in 1913. After being picked up from the port and taken on a quick drive through the mountain rainforest, we made it to the mine. Hard hats on, our guide led us through part of the old mine demonstrating mining techniques used 100 years ago, through to the modern day.
The kids’ favourite part came afterwards with the opportunity to pan for gold. Any gold flakes we found were ours to keep (and we caught a few!). It was a little tricky to spot those golden specks, so I probably won’t swap my laptop for a gold pan just yet.
Tip: The gift store had quite a few nifty souvenirs on display. And if you’re a little chilly, grab a free hot chocolate.
4. Go shopping
We didn’t have much time up our sleeve, but we wanted to help the local economy. And no better place to do that than at the Alaska Shirt Company, with 100,000 shirts in stock and 6,000 feet of wall-to-wall souvenirs.
Since it was the end of the season our kids picked up a bargain on a pair of new bear-styled beanies, while I picked up a toasty warm jumper (sweater) and gloves.
5. Find a bear
Alaska is home to three types of bears and chances are you are going to spot one. For us it was on the way to the Mendenhall Glacier - we spotted a crowd of tourists near the car park.
We raced over, and in the bushes was a Black Bear. Rangers were on hand to keep the rubbernecking tourists back, especially when she decided to leave the forest and cross the road.
Our first wild bear sighting – so cool!
6. BONUS. Watch salmon swim upstream
As we cruised Alaska in late September, it was the season when salmon return upstream to their places of birth for mating and ultimately, death. On the way to Mendenhall Glacier, we stopped at Macaulay Salmon Hatchery. Although this small, quaint aquarium may entertain young kids; it was already closed for the day by the time we got there. So we watched the sea on the north side of the complex where wild salmon were gradually leaping their way up a ramp into the hatchery. Fortunately we spotted several sea lions looking for their dinner, which caused the salmon to leap out of the water. Quite a sight.
There is so much more to do in Juneau including dog sledding, whale watching, floatplane tours, helicopter tours, and even the Alaska State Museum. A 6-hour port stop is hardly enough time to get completely immersed in Juneau. But if you are on a cruise with limited time, I hope this list provides a handy starting point for your first visit.
And if gold fever strikes, it won’t be the last.