Juneau: America’s Most Scenic State Capital

Visitors tour Mendenhall Glacier, which is just 12 miles from downtown Juneau, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Sharon Whitley Larsen.
Visitors tour Mendenhall Glacier, which is just 12 miles from downtown Juneau, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Sharon Whitley Larsen.

By Sharon Whitley Larsen

“If you encounter a bear, remain calm. Do not approach, chase, feed or run from a bear.”

As I strolled along a marked pathway to take a good photo of Mendenhall Glacier, I read the brochure from the visitors center, where, according to my guide, Elizabeth Arnett of the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, mother bears and cubs occasionally come to visit. Just 12 miles from downtown, the huge glacier — unique since you can drive up fairly close to it — is a popular tourist spot with 400,000 annual visitors.

As we stood on a walkway overlooking a salmon stream, Arnett pointed out the nearby spot where she recently had seen such a bear family. Nervously looking around, I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to see a bear THAT close up. We had been warned earlier not to bring any food with us — not even a cup of coffee to sip.

“Bears like coffee. They’ll lick every bit of it,” she warned.

I had even heard about the occasional bear roaming downtown Juneau as tourists excitedly snapped photos. Nothing surprised me in the Last Frontier, which is home to eagles, harbor seals and other wildlife.

In the heart of the Tongass National Forest — the largest temperate rainforest in North America, covering nearly 17 million acres — the Juneau area has more than 260 miles of hiking trails surrounded by rugged mountains, glaciers, intercoastal waterways and lush rainforests. Kayaking, skiing, biking, whale-watching and fishing are popular outdoor activities, and the town boasts museums, native art collections, theater, opera, jazz and symphony events.

With a population of only 31,000 — and with an economy supported by numerous agencies and industries, including government (the largest public employer) and tourism (the largest private employer), a major salmon hatchery, fishing, mining, education (it’s home to University of Alaska Southeast) — this is the nation’s only state capital with no roads in or out, accessible only by boat or plane. Often referred to as America’s most scenic state capital, Juneau’s airport is a 10-minute drive from downtown, and seaplanes are plentiful.

“A lot of people have boats,” Arnett said. “It’s so remote, getting on the water is so special.” As she noted, travel elsewhere can involve an expensive air ticket or a time-consuming ferry ride. This is also a popular stop for cruise ships between May and September.

“A lot of people on cruises come back to do their own trips to the interior of Alaska,” she added.

My husband and I had arrived here via our Royal Caribbean cruise ship, our second visit to Juneau in a year. We were lucky to have gorgeous, sunny weather both times, with day time temperatures in the comfortably crisp mid-50s. On the longest day of the year, June 21, there are more than 18 hours of sunlight; on the shortest day, Dec. 21, about 6.5 hours.

“On days when the sun does shine, the setting is nothing short of spectacular,” wrote Penny Rennick in Alaska Geographic’s “Juneau: Yesterday and Today.”

“May, June, and July are normally our dry months,” added Arnett.

This is the only state capital that borders a foreign country, Canada. The governor’s 1912 white colonial mansion boasts not only a flagpole with the American flag in the front yard, but also a totem pole. (A totem pole hosts the coat-of-arms for the family who lives in the house or tells a story or a legend, according to Arnett.) Famous visitors have included Charles Lindbergh and President Gerald Ford.

Since 1913 there has been an annual open house each December at the mansion for the townsfolk; currently Gov. Sean Parnell resides here. When Sarah Palin was governor, her youngest daughter, Piper, had an enterprising lemonade stand in front, and a trampoline was set up in the side yard for the Palin children. The mansion is very accessible, right on the street, with no guard. Tourists can pose for photos on the front step.

“In Juneau everything is fairly close to downtown. You don’t have to spend half a day to find it,” Arnett said. Some houses, located up steep hills, are reached via special stairways maintained by the city.

Juneau, which became the state capital in 1959, when Alaska was granted statehood, was the first new town to be founded in Alaska following the territory’s. purchase by the United States from Russia in 1867. (St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, built in 1894 and still used today, remains a landmark.) For centuries the Tlingits resided here, hunting and fishing along the Gastineau Channel. Later European and Russian explorers arrived, then gold-rush miners.

The capital was named after Joe Juneau, who — with the help of Kowee, a local Tlingit chief — discovered substantial gold nuggets with fellow prospector Richard Harris in nearby Gold Creek and then in Silver Bow Basin back in 1880, sparking Alaska’s first gold rush.

As we drove by the historic Gold Creek site, several tourists were trying their hands panning for leftover nuggets or wading knee-deep in the chilly water. A few residents sat at the water’s edge, easels set up as they captured the scenery in oil or watercolor paintings.

“Our mining history is a very colorful part of our past,” Arnett said. “Most of the buildings in downtown’s historic district were built around the turn of the 20th century for miners who came to town.”

Leftover crushed rock from the mines, dumped shoreside, created “the flats,” where houses were built during the 1930s and 1940s near downtown. There’s a large Filipino community here; many single men arrived during the 1920s to work in the mines, then later opened laundries and restaurants. The Alaska-Juneau Mine closed in 1944.

Other popular tourist attractions worth visiting are the Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure, Macaulay Salmon Hatchery and, across from the cruise ship pier, the Mount Roberts Tramway, which takes riders up 1,800 feet to see the gorgeous views. The Red Dog Saloon, a longtime colorful hangout that has seen various locations over the years, is in the heart of downtown. It’s a fun place to sip a beer or grab a bite to eat, listen to the music and mix with the locals. Numerous shops that sell jewelry, fur, Alaskan and Russian items proudly boast signs in the windows: “Owned by a Juneau family.”

Since 1982, a biennial event called “Celebration” is held the first week in June, when several thousand Tlingits, Tsimshians and Haidas and their friends, families and tourists gather for a parade and to perform dances, singing, art and cooking demonstrations in their native regalia.

“This helps them perpetuate their culture because they don’t want to lose it,” Arnett said.

IF YOU GO

For more information: www.traveljuneau.com

Mendenhall Glacier: Twelve miles from downtown, reached via taxi, rental car, tour or city bus (about $14 round trip, drops passengers off just over a mile from the entrance): www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/districts/mendenhall (click on “Visitor Information”)

Tongass National Forest: www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass

Macaulay Salmon Hatchery: www.dipac.net

Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure: www.glaciergardens.com

Mount Roberts Tramway: www.mountrobertstramway.com

Red Dog Saloon: www.reddogsaloon.com

Pearson’s Pond Luxury Inn and Adventure Spa, Alaska’s only AAA Four Diamond Mini-Resort. Rooms range from $150 to $500 per night. Check website for current rates: www.pearsonspond.com

Royal Caribbean International: www.royalcaribbean.com

Sharon Whitley Larsen is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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