Port Profile: Juneau, Alaska

Soaring over Juneau on our dog sledding adventure by helicopter. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Juneau, Alaska and the Gastineau Channel, as seen from the air. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Situated just north of Alaska’s Tracy Arm Fjord, Juneau retains the unique distinction of being the only U.S. state capital accessible by plane or by ship; there are no roads connecting Juneau with other parts of Alaska or the mainland. Given that, it’s perhaps unsurprising that so many tourists visit Juneau each year aboard the massive cruise ships that pull up along Franklin Street each year between April and October. Today, Juneau is a bustling town that has equal parts tourist-friendly charm, and authentic, rough-and-tumble frontier spirit.

Juneau History

Juneau, Alaska. One of the "big three ports", Juneau is frequently overcrowded with tourists arriving on multiple megaships. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Juneau, Alaska. One of the “big three ports,” Juneau is frequently overcrowded with tourists arriving on multiple megaships. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Juneau became the capital city of Alaska in 1906, after the United States congress requested the capital to be moved from Sitka. The town’s name actually comes from a Canadian named Joseph Juneau, who was born in Quebec and co-founded the future Alaskan capital along with Richard Harris. Founding cities must run in the family, because his cousin Solomon Juneau – also a Canadian – helped create the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He initially dubbed Milwaukee “Juneautown,” though the name didn’t stick entirely. Today, there is a part of Milwaukee named Juneau Town.

Back in Alaska, Juneau the city would go on to outlive Juneau the man, who died in 1899. The city today is a fascinating study in architecture, combining structures that were built dating back to 1889 (the Franklin Building at 369 South Franklin Street), through the turn of the century, through the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements, on to the low, squat, utilitarian style that characterized buildings of the 1960’s, to glass-encased structures built in the 1990’s and 2000’s.

What to Do in Juneau

The dog-mushing camp on Norris Glacier is here during the summer season. Due to the melting snowpack, our guides explained they'd have to move the entire camp further to the west in about two weeks' time. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, take a helicopter ride to a nearby glacier in Juneau for a dogsledding excursion. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

At first glance, you might be disappointed if you’re in Juneau to do anything other than to shop until you drop. Retail stores built adjacent to the piers contain the usual Alaskan trinket souvenirs, which tend to get tiresome after seeing them in so many ports in Alaska. The more unique, authentic Alaskan stores are situated farther in the downtown core. You have to do a bit of searching, but they are there. Some of our favorite diversions while in Juneau:

  • The Mount Roberts Tramway. Buy tickets through your cruise ship’s shore excursions desk or by walking right up to the ticket booth on 490 South Franklin Street adjacent to Berth 2. Ticket prices for the 2016 season are US$33 per person for a full day pass that allows you to ride the tramway as many times as you’d like, or US$16 per person for Youths aged 6-12. Children five and under ride free. At the top is a gift shop, a Raptor Center, and a number of fun trails – not to mention beautiful views of Juneau and Gastineau Channel.
  • Tracy’s King Crab Shack. We resisted this for a long time. Told ourselves it was “too touristy.” Well, the main patrons may be your fellow cruise ship passengers, but the fact remains that Tracy’s King Crab Shack makes a heck of a good king crab bisque … and pretty much anything else on the menu. If seafood is your game, you can’t go wrong with this conveniently located eatery at 406 South Franklin.
  • Alaska Brewing Company. The first brewery opened in Juneau since Prohibition, the Alaska Brewing Company has only been in business since 1986. You’ll find its brews in nearly every pub and restaurant in the state, and chances are good your ship will stock the brewery’s smooth Alaskan Amber Ale as well. Stop by the company store at 219 South Franklin for some goodies and maybe even partake in a tour and a tasting.
  • Alaskan Fudge Co. Another Juneau staple, the locally owned-and-operated Alaskan Fudge Co. makes some of the best fudge we’ve ever had. 195 South Franklin Street.
  • Mendenhall Glacier. One of the least expensive shore excursion options in Juneau will typically be nearby Mendenhall Glacier, which features a number of forested trails and a better-than-you’d-expect visitor’s center. And, of course, a magnificent glacier.
  • Go Flightseeing and Dog Sledding. This one will set you back the most out of anything we’ve listed here, but chalk it up to a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Book this one through your cruise ship for shuttles to and from the helipad, or research options independently. Expect to pay about US$399 per person or higher, but the chance to go dogsledding on a glacier is truly an event worth experiencing.

Why We Love Juneau

Taking the Mt. Roberts Tramway 1800 feet to the top! Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Taking the Mt. Roberts Tramway 1800 feet to the top. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Juneau may be a tourist town, but it’s a tourist town with an authentic edge to it. Amble up to one of the more colorful bars and swap tales with fishermen straight off the boat. See Juneau’s early history and virtually unchanged downtown core. Experience the wilderness that surrounds Alaska’s capital city. In short, there’s something for everyone in Juneau.

Who Sails Here?

Great views of the Star Princess at her berth from a level playing field...Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders
Prinecss Cruises’ Star Princess berthed in Juneau, Alaska at the AJ Dock. Photo © 2015 Aaron Saunders

Every major cruise line sailing to Alaska offers calls on Juneau. Some small-ship lines, like Lindblad-National Geographic, Ponant and Un-Cruise Adventures, even offer Juneau as a port of embarkation for select sailings.

Also see Juneau, Alaska – America’s Most Isolated State Capital