All aboard for Juneau

Thinking of your next trip? Why not Alaska? Even though its capital is inaccessible by car, and traveling does take some planning, it’s well worth the effort

Kayaking in the Juneau area (photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
Kayaking in the Juneau area
(photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
Everywhere you look you see mountains, glaciers, rocky coves and lots of water. Raise your eyes to the sky over the ocean and you will be rewarded with a glimpse of a magnificent bald eagle; look back at the water and you may spot the tail of a whale. You will be overwhelmed by the vast and amazing wilderness that is likely interrupted only by a distant fishing boat or a small floatplane.
Last summer we decided to travel to the southeastern strip of Alaska. We chose Juneau, Alaska’s capital, as the central focus as it is full of local charm and uniquely located to serve as a good headquarters from which to explore the area.
There are no roads connecting Juneau to the rest of North America, so you cannot drive there. No roads can cross the maze of ocean channels and passages from three directions, and on the northwest side there is a massive ice field and mountain range, making the practical building of any road impossible.
Due to the significant natural barriers, even the mighty mammals of Alaska, such as the grizzly bear and moose, cannot cross from the mainland. Even though southeast Alaska is not a particularly good habitat for moose, they were brought to the area from the mainland by man in the 1950s. Black bears can also be seen; somehow they got there. The only way to get to Juneau is by air or water – and that goes for humans, too. For this reason only marine life and birds are visible there (but in massive numbers).
A key element to embarking on your Juneau adventure is deciding how to get there. You will want to allow at least 10 days to enjoy this northern coastal area. We chose to make the journey to Juneau from Skagway, which is located about 170 kilometers north of the capital. Journeying south from Skagway to Juneau is more economical than boarding the giant cruise ships. While the inside-channel route of the cruise ships offers a variety of marine stops along the way, the route from Skagway provides a look into the past and the history of the Gold Rush.
To reach Skagway, fly to Whitehorse in the Yukon of Canada, rent a car there and cross the border into to the United States. As you drive along the famous Klondike highway, you will witness spectacular scenery.
The drive from Whitehorse to Skagway can be done in less than three hours, but we took the entire day and enjoyed the transition from the inlands of Northern Canada to the Alaskan shores.
The second and more popular way to get to Juneau is by air from Seattle or Vancouver. This faster route may better suit the time constraints of a shorter vacation. There is also the option of taking one of the “floating chandeliers,” which is how the locals refer to the giant cruise ships that are a well-known part of the summer scenery.
A delightful town located on the tip of the inside passage, Skagway serves as the most northerly stop on the popular cruise route. With deep roots in the gold rush era and many buildings dating from that time, there is a real feeling of stepping back in time. You won’t want to miss the White Pass Summit excursion.
This unique train trip will take you up on the mountains through the historic route of the gold passage that connected Skagway and the open sea passage to the remote gold discoveries in the Yukon Territory.
This vintage train travels the famous Chilkoot Trail and chronicles the journey of the gold prospectors and frontiersmen.
The town of Skagway is supported by the multitude of visitors that descend from the cruise ships during the summer, so there are many restaurants and stores where tourists can sample local specialties. Souvenir shops include items you won’t find in other places, such as original petrified mammoth tusks (real ones).
In addition to the train ride, activities include hikes and helicopter trips over the icefields.
To continue heading south from Skagway, board the car ferry to Haines. The Alaska Marine Highway System is well organized and will get you across the water to your destination in 45 minutes. You can enjoy the view from the cabin or stand out on the deck to breathe in and enjoy the wonderful scenery of the Alaskan mountains on both sides of the ferry.
Once in Haines, which is an even smaller town than Skagway, you will experience wilderness all around.
Enjoy a rewarding visit along the Chilkoot River to witness the summer salmon returning from the ocean where they spent their life and grew up to the exact same stream where they were born years ago. It is here, after their long and final journey when they will spawn that their natural predators are waiting. There is a good chance you will see a brown bear and bald eagle.
Now we embark on the last leg of our journey – from Haines to our main destination, Juneau. Alaska Fjordlines provides a fast boat ride to get you there and back. This mini-cruise includes a whale watching adventure and unforgettable sightseeing. The crew members are knowledgeable and kind. There is also a fast catamaran that saves time that can be better spent sightseeing and viewing wildlife. Knowledgeable bus drivers get you from the boat to downtown Juneau with a city tour and trip to Mendenhall Glacier all included. All in all, it was the best boat trip we ever made.
For these parts, Juneau is a relatively big city, despite the fact that there is still no exit or entrance for cars other than by air or water. Since there are no roads that lead to Juneau, the car density in the city remains static. You will want to stay in this city for at least two nights (preferably longer). There are many bed and breakfast offerings, such as the Alaska Capital Inn where warm hospitality accompanies delicious food and precious tips from local experts who enjoy where they live.
Since summer is the high season for tourist travel, it is a good idea to book your accommodation in advance.
In Juneau, there are many adventures to choose from – seaplane and helicopter tours, fishing, water rafting and more. We began with kayaking on the mostly calm water of the inlets in the area. In addition to the stunning views from sea level, you will be surrounded by marine wildlife. You might spot salmon in the summer season, seals, dolphins and maybe even a whale if you are lucky. For guided tours for individual families and groups, consider contacting Above and Beyond Alaska, a group that offers well-organized and properly equipped outings.
The Mendenhall Glacier is a short drive from town. Besides the viewing areas and visitor center, there is an excellent five-hour hike along the western side of the glacier. It is considered to be medium difficulty, as the trail scales some height, but it is well worth the effort. The hike takes you through a real rain forest and features several panoramic lookout points to view the impressive glacier. For a different perspective on the Alaskan terrain and a richer insight into the wilderness, contact Adventure Flow and join the hike.
Alaska is big – around 80 times the size of Israel.
The stretch from Skagway to Juneau constitutes only a small part of this, yet it offers a rich range of opportunities to enjoy breathtaking scenery and to get physical with a multitude of outdoor activities.
Get ready to experience the rugged Alaskan wilderness and you will long remember its mountain glaciers, rich sea life, forests, lakes and towns.