Local guide to what to do in Juneau, Alaska

Alaska’s state capital is packed with adventure. As one of the largest cruise hubs and airports in the state, Juneau has established itself as a tourist destination.

Nestled beneath towering mountains, this town offers something for everyone on an Alaskan cruise. Whether you want to stroll the historic streets of downtown, cast a line in a scenic cove, or hop on a seaplane to see glaciers from the sky, Juneau has it all.

Mollie is an Alaskan resident, who has spent many years touring everything her state has to offer, including many tours throughout Southeast Alaska.

You can easily find recommendations for the best things to do or see in this vibrant Alaskan community, but we’ll take you off the beaten path. In this guide, I’ll provide you with a list of the best places to visit in Juneau from a local’s perspective.

5. Spend an afternoon on South Franklin Street (downtown Juneau)

Juneau boomed in the late 1800s. With the discovery of gold, miners, traders, swindlers and more made the journey north to America’s final frontier. Fishing villages quickly turned into bustling towns (well, towns by Alaskan standards), and many old buildings still stand today.

Strolling through downtown Juneau is like stepping back in a time machine to the 1890s. Visitors can head down South Franklin Street to reach the heart of the historic district. The wide sidewalks and quaint buildings have hosted a variety of shops and restaurants through the ages. The multitude of stores offer souvenirs, local Alaskan crafts, fine arts, books on Alaskan history and nature, and handmade jewelry.

The city center is easily accessible on foot from the main cruise port. During your shopping experience, be sure to head to the marine park with your binoculars to take a look at Mount Juneau.

It’s a popular place to see mountain goats, especially in late summer when their white coats stand out against the green landscape.

local council: If the weather is good, be sure to ascend to the summit of Mount Roberts via the Mount Roberts Tramway.

Although this trip isn’t worth it on a cloudy day, the views are unparalleled on a clear day. Be sure to pack extra layers. It is often much windier or colder at the top.

You can also hike to the top if you’re feeling more adventurous. The downtown trail is 6 miles round trip and takes about 2-3 hours (depending on stops). You can also walk to the top and down (or vice versa).

Treat yourself to a beer at the tram bar, and the descent is free!

4. Visit the Touch Tank at Douglas Island Pink and Chum Hatchery

The Douglas Island Pink and Chum Hatchery (DIPAC) is a great place to learn, observe and touch the marine life that inhabits the waters around Juneau and Southeast Alaska. This hatchery is vital to maintaining salmon populations, but it also offers a variety of interesting activities for visitors wanting to learn more about the infamous salmon run and other wildlife.

If you are visiting between July and September, the hatchery is one of the best places in the area to watch the salmon run. Head to the Ladd Macaulay Visitor, located inside the hatcher, to watch this natural phenomenon unfold.

In season, salmon swim up the hatchery fishway. Sometimes the track is so thick that you could cross the water on your back (of course this activity is not allowed. But you get the picture). It is also one of the best places to watch bald eagles fishing in the waters. With the salmon so thick, the eagles are almost guaranteed to get a meal on every dive.

The hatchery also has viewing windows where you can watch the salmon struggle upstream below the surface. Educational panels will help you identify the species of salmon you observe.

If you are visiting outside of salmon season, there is still plenty to see and do. DIPAC’s touch tanks invite young and old to get up close to Alaska’s beautiful sea creatures. You can touch sea urchins, crabs, starfish and sea cucumbers, and staff are on hand to educate curious visitors. There is also a salmon farming facility and an aquarium on-site, where salmon and other marine life can be observed year-round.

3. Drive to Echo Cove

Juneau is only accessible by plane or boat, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any roads in the area.

There are approximately 250 miles of road through the city and borough of Juneau, with stretches of road extending into the beautiful wilderness surrounding the city.

One of the best stretches of road runs from downtown Juneau to Echo Cove via the Glacier Highway. This 80-mile round trip offers visitors the chance to hike and view wildlife at their own pace.

Car rentals are available throughout the Juneau area, and many offer cruise port pickup services. Be sure to pack lunch, water, sunscreen, and insect repellent for this trip, as services are scarce outside of town.

This road can easily fill a day with all the scenic viewpoints and trails along the way, or you can choose to camp along the road if you’re staying longer in Juneau.

Here are some of my favorite stops along this route:

  • Eagle Beach – This beach offers great views of the Lynn Canal, the Chilkat and Juneau mountains, and plenty of easy hiking trails. It’s also a great vantage point to see humpback whales from shore.
  • Jensen-Olsen Arboretum – An idyllic public garden which is a miniature version of the famous Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia
  • The National Shrine of Sainte-Therese – a historical monument about 20 miles outside of Juneau. This stop has a beach stone chapel, scenic views and peaceful gardens. There is also a gift shop and lodge on site.

local council: Complete part of this trip at sunrise or sunset (assuming your ship arrives quite late).

This is when wildlife is most active and you are more likely to spot a fox, wolf or bear along the route. The lighting also creates dramatic landscapes as backdrops for your photos.

2. Go bear watching on Admiralty Island

Juneau is home to both black and coastal brown bears. Both of these bear species can be seen in and around Juneau, especially on the road. In late summer, two bears are commonplace in salmon streams and berry bushes. Due to their dense population, it is always recommended to carry bear spray and a small blow horn when hiking or exploring. Both are readily available at downtown stores and Juneau outfitters.

If you’re heading to Juneau to spot the infamous grizzly bear, there’s no better place than the Pack Creek Bear viewing area on Admiralty Island. While black bears can weigh around 400 pounds, their distant cousin, the coastal brown bear, can weigh over 1,000 pounds. Brown bears are grizzlies, but they are considerably larger than the grizzlies found indoors. This is thanks to a diet rich in salmon, berries, and other high-fat foods readily available along the Alaskan coast.

While the two species coexist elsewhere, Admiralty Island is home only to the brown bear. It is estimated that around 1,600 brown bears live on Admiralty Island, making it one of the densest brown bear populations in the world.

The Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area is located inside the Pack Creek Bear Sanctuary. This sanctuary is only accessible by boat or plane, so most visitors take a 30-minute seaplane from Juneau. The sanctuary is open from June 1 to September 10, with high season running from July 5 to August 25. During peak season, visitors are limited to 25 per day.

A permit is required to visit the shrine, with half of the permits available for public purchase. Due to the difficulty in reaching the sanctuary and obtaining a permit, I recommend booking a bear guide to solve both of these issues. Bear guides are also knowledgeable about bear behavior and help keep you safe while you view these majestic animals in the wild.

Although it’s no local secret, this is one of the best places to view brown bears en masse in Alaska.

But don’t worry if you can’t swing a permit here. Black bears are plentiful in Juneau and on the road, and brown bears are incredibly common throughout mainland Alaska.

When you visit Alaska, it’s never if you see a bear, but when.

1. Take a Guided Kayak Tour at Lake Mendenhall

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Juneau is an aquatic destination. Surrounded by islands with countless coves and glacial lakes, it is the dream destination for water lovers. One of the most spectacular trips is a trip along Lake Mendenhall to the Mendenhall Glacier.

Visitors can opt for a guided kayak tour of Lake Mendenhall, where you can kayak between floating icebergs and experience the serenity of the Tongass National Forest for the water. Tours allow paddlers to view the glacier from a distance while learning about the history and nature of the area from the knowledgeable guide. Keep an eye out for otters, beavers and bears as they are frequent visitors along the shores of Lake Mendenhall.

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Permits are required to paddle near the glacier, so opting for a guide makes this trip easier and safer. The guides also provide all the necessary equipment. Although a certain level of fitness is required to participate in the 2-hour adventure, visitors do not need to be expert kayakers. Guides provide kayaking tips and lessons, and the lake remains calm on sunny days.

If kayaking seems too extreme, visitors can also enjoy the Mendenhall Glacier on a charter cruise. Helicopter tours are also often if you want to see the glacier from the sky. Both of these experiences are physically easier, but they lack the serenity only found with a paddle.

local council: If you are limited in time, you can also see the glacier from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.

If you have more time to explore, consider a hike to Nugget Falls from the Visitor Center. This trail will take you close to the glacier as well as Nugget Falls Lookout, a 377-foot waterfall plunging into the lake.

Just look for the visitor center signs pointing to the falls. The 2 mile hike is level and on gravel, making it the perfect option for families.

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