Alaska is my favorite cruise destination. I’ve already been there twice, and I hope to be going back next spring. I’m going to do a post on each port I’ve visited in Alaska, to give you some idea of what you can look forward to on YOUR cruise!
In my first Alaska post (Cruising to Alaska: Anchorage) I looked at Anchorage, the largest city in the state, and the jumping-off point for cruise tours to Denali National Park.
Today we’re going to visit Juneau, the state capital of Alaska and a stop on just about every Alaska cruise.
Juneau, located in the southeastern part Alaska, is the second largest city (in terms of area) in the United States (after Sitka, also an Alaskan cruise port), and is larger than BOTH Rhode Island and Delaware! Population-wise it’s not so big: about 32,000 people live in Juneau year-round.
(This photo was taken on the way to Mendenhall Glacier: you can see the cruise piers in front of a town that isn’t all that big!)
Interesting factoid about Juneau: it is one of only two state capitals not reachable by road from the outside. (Can you guess the other one?) The only way supplies can reach Juneau is by plane or boat.
OK, so you’re thinking: “I don’t care about all that statistical jazz. Tell me stuff I need to know about Juneau before I get there!”
You’re right! Let’s get to the fun stuff!
It rains a lot in Juneau. Juneau IS located in a rain forest, after all (it’s in the Tongass National Forest, which is part of the Pacific temperate rain forest) and it gets about 222 days of rain per year. Even June, the driest month, still gets 15 rainy days. Yeah, I know I said no more stats, but when you come to Juneau, you’d better be prepared for the rain!
(Photo taken in the Tongass National Forest. Not all rain forests are in tropical areas!)
Is it gloomy and wet all the time? Not at all! The rain might last only a few minutes or an hour or so. It’s cloudy a lot (remember: RAIN FOREST!) but when the sun comes out in Juneau, it turns into a very special place. So don’t let the idea of rain turn you off. Just bring a hoodie or a poncho, and enjoy the weather! Think of rain as liquid sunshine and you’ll do fine.
Next thing you need to know about cruising to Juneau: FORGET ABOUT THOSE CRUISE SHIP SHORE EXCURSIONS! I’ve done a few and I’m here to tell you: a do-it-yourself day in Juneau will be MUCH more fun, and MUCH CHEAPER.
As I said earlier, Juneau is not a big place. You may have noticed in the picture above that the cruise ships dock quite close to town. “CLOSE” isn’t really the proper word: most of the piers are less than 100 yards from the main drag (South Franklin Street). You’ll step off your ship, and you’re there! Here’s the map that the local Tourist Information Office gives you.
The cruise ship piers are in the lower right-hand corner of the map, with the key just above them. MOST of the things you’ll want to see in Juneau are within easy walking distance, no matter where your ship docks.
Where should you start? I recommend the excellent Visitor Center, located right on the pier. The people there are VERY friendly and VERY patient, even with stupid questions! They have free city maps, and can give you all kinds of help in making the most of your time in Juneau. (And they’ve got some cool passport stamps there on the counter!)
(In case you can’t read the one on the right: Juneau Rain Festival Jan. 1st – Dec. 31st!)
Now you’ve got your map: where to next? Well, let’s look first at where all the cruise ship excursions go.
- Mendenhall Glacier
- Whale watching
- Glaciers by helicopter
- Outdoor experiences (sled dog rides, ziplines, hiking on glaciers)
- Salmon bake
- Mount Roberts Tramway
Generally the cruise lines “bundle” two or more of these things together, to make their excursions more attractive to passengers (and more lucrative for them). But let me show you how you can do pretty much all of them on your own for much less than the cruise lines will charge you. (AND it will give me a chance to show you two of Juneau’s best sights!)
DISCLAIMER: I’ve taken the average of shore excursion prices from several cruise lines visiting Alaska. The tours tend to be about the same, regardless of which cruise line you take.
Let’s say you want to see Mendenhall Glacier. It’s the rapidly-disappearing iconic sight in Juneau, and it’s on most people’s list of “things to do” while in Juneau. It’s usually bundled with other sights. Here’s what one cruise line offers you as an excursion:
- Visit to the Juneau Rainforest Garden, take a self-guided walk (30 minutes)
- Visit Mendenhall Glacier (Self-guided) (90 minutes)
- Visit Mount Roberts Tramway (not guided) Return to ship on your own.
Total price for you? $110 per person. Just you and 52 other people enjoying this five-hour tour.
How much would all this cost if you did it yourself?
1. Rainforest Garden: a very small place about 7 miles from Juneau. They aren’t open to “just anyone”: they’re exclusive to the shore excursions of Princess Cruises and some of the smaller luxury cruise lines. You can take a city bus (lines 4, 5 or 15) from downtown and get off at the Glacier Highway and Engineers’ Cutoff Road stop, and the Garden is right across the street. Maybe they’ll let you in if it’s a slow day….. Bus fare: $2 each way. (I wouldn’t bother, but it’s your time.)
2. Mendenhall Glacier: You can buy a ticket on the “Glacier Express” (the famous Blue Bus) for around $20 (roundtrip). Your driver (always a local, and often, like ours, an Alaskan native Tlingit) takes you on a short tour of the city (State Capitol Building, Governor’s Mansion) then heads out of town, giving a running narrative on the history of Juneau and what it’s like to live there.
(This is where you’ll get your Glacier Express ticket! Look for “MGT Blue Bus Tours“: accept no substitute! I mean, who wants to ride on a modern tour bus when you can ride in an old school bus for less than half the price?)
(Luxurious it’s not, but it was fun, and not nearly as uncomfortable as you might think! And it doesn’t hold many people, so you have fun getting to know everyone!)
If the driver sees interesting things along the way, he’ll stop and let you take photos. For example, on one trip, our driver noticed a group of bald eagles eating near the road. So he pulled over and we got some amazing pictures!
This next picture is of young eagles feeding on something on the ground. They’re not exactly handsome when they’re young, that’s for sure. I guess the older males were keeping watch from the nearby poles.
When we got to Mendenhall, our driver parked in the lot just below the Visitor’s Center (VC), and showed us where the path started to reach the VC and the glacier. He told us he’d be back in 1.5 hours, and we could meet him at the same spot. Same bus, same driver! We had a great time in the VC, watched the really cool video, and then went out to the viewing areas. You can see the glacier pretty well from outside the VC, but there are sidewalks that lead to other viewing points that give you a much better look at Mendenhall.
INSIDER TIP: What the cruise lines don’t tell you (but our Blue Bus driver did) is that there is an admission fee to the Visitor’s Center at Mendenhall. You can get in as far as the gift shop for free, but to view the movies and the exhibits, you have to pay. (Admission: $5; all federal passes valid.) You can also get some really cool passport stamps here: if you are a National Parks stamp collector, bring your book! (They’re on the counter in the gift shop.)
(Unlike the VC, this info is free!)
3. Mount Roberts Tramway: There are two ways to reach the top of Mount Roberts. You can hike up the trail or you can take the tramway.
Option A: Hike the trail. The trail starts on Basin Road and has two parts. It’s two miles to the Mountain House (1.5 hours) and from there another 2.5 miles (2 hours) to the summit. The trail has a lot of switchbacks through the boreal forest, which give you some excellent views (and a good chance of seeing wildlife). Once you reach the Mountain House, if you’ve had enough, you can catch the tramway back down. The hike from the Mountain House is actually easier than the first half. Cost: Free!
Option B: Take the tramway: The Mount Roberts Tramway, if the weather is decent, is something that you should not miss while in Juneau. Here’s how to tell if it’s worth the trip: if you get off the ship and you look up and can’t see the top of the mountain in front of you, head to Mendenhall first. Maybe the weather will improve by the time you return!
(Here’s the tram coming down to the pier.)
You board the Tramway right on the pier: just look for the cables coming down, and head toward those. (The station is at 490 South Franklin Street, that street right in front of you as you exit your ship.) Round-trip price for the Tramway: $33 for an adult all-day pass. (You can’t buy tickets online, but pretty much every tour vendor you see will sell them, for the same price.)
(And THIS is a picture of the tram I took from the aft pool of the Star Princess! Ah, the life!)
So to sum up our DIY (Do-It-Yourself) shore excursion: we’ll skip the Juneau Rainforest Garden (and all the cruise line hordes that go with it), visit Mendenhall Glacier with a local guide, learn interesting facts about Juneau, and ride up (and down!) the Mount Roberts Tramway as much as we want. All of this won’t cost you $110: it will cost $53! That’s right, less than half! No herds of cruise passengers, no silly stickers, no sitting around and waiting for people. And I promise you: doing it on your own is a LOT more fun!
I’ve mentioned vendors earlier. You can see them from your ship, and you’ll see them as soon as you leave the ship. A couple rows of little wooden booths, each one occupied by a cheery person trying to sell you all kinds of tours. Want to go whale watching? Helicopter rides to glaciers? Dog sled rides? A visit to a musher’s camp? Salmon bake? Ride a zip line through the rain forest? If you can legally do it in Juneau, there will be several people ready to sell you a “ticket to ride!” You will be SHOCKED at how much cheaper the tours are from the vendors than from the cruise shore excursion desk, often for the SAME TOUR!
Just to give you another example: whale watching is one of the most popular tours in Juneau (or anywhere in Alaska!) I’ve compared one local operator (the best in the business, as far as I and hundreds of other satisfied customers are concerned!) with the typical cruise line excursion.
Both tours meet guests on the pier, usually by the Mt. Roberts Tramway station. Buses take guests on a short (20-30 minute) ride to Auke Bay Harbor, where you board the boat for your tour. Both tours offer large, heated enclosed cabins which have great views of the ocean. Both tours also have open-air decks for getting closer to the whales and other wildlife. The local operator also uses a “hydrophone” (underwater microphone) so that you can hear the whales calling and singing to each other! If whales are NOT spotted, the cruise ship excursion gives you a $100 cash refund. The local operator has a simpler promise: if we don’t see whales you get a FULL refund. Now what do these tours cost? The average cruise charges $170. The local operator, FOR THE SAME TOUR, charges $115!
Here’s a video from my favorite whale-watching tour company of some of the whale sightings they’ve had this season (2017).
You’d be crazy to book a ship excursion in Alaska, honestly! Do it yourself: cheaper, smaller groups, and a lot more fun!
Some of you may not be interested in glaciers or whales, but just want to stroll around Juneau and see some of the sights. This is a great town for doing that! It’s small enough to allow the walkers to get to everything easily in a cruise day.
Before I share some of my favorite sights with you, though, I need to warn you about something: Juneau is NOT FLAT! As you’ve probably noticed from the pictures, the mountains crowd up against the sea in Juneau, leaving not a lot of space in the city itself. Juneau is a city of hills. Not necessarily steep, but hills are everywhere. One nice thing about the hills is that you’d have a tough time getting lost. If you are walking on a flat street, it means you’re going parallel to the water. If you’re walking downhill, you’re headed to the ocean! Just be sure to leave your sandals and flip-flops on the ship. Good sturdy walking shoes or sneakers will work far better in Juneau.
Here are a couple of street views from Juneau, just to give you an idea of what to expect!
My first stop on our Juneau walk will be at the place that’s farthest from most of the piers: St-Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church. It’s maybe 10 blocks from your ship, but they’re not huge blocks, and it’s a nice walk, with plenty to see along the way. It was built in 1894, mostly by Tlingit in the area that had converted to Russian Orthodoxy. The design for the church, as well as most of the decorations and outfittings (vestments, chalices, candle holders and so on) were shipped from Russia. It is a most unusual church, in that it is octagonal (8-sided) in shape. It’s not a big church, but it is beautiful and well worth the walk. You also get some good views of Juneau from here.
(See, it doesn’t always rain in Juneau! What a beautiful day this was. St-Nicholas Church from behind. Main entrance is right behind that bush in the middle. Free admission.)
Here’s a panoramic shot I took of the church inside.
The church was named after St-Nicholas of Myre (the original “Santa Claus”, so to speak!) Here is a modern icon of St-Nicholas, shown holding a model of the church. The sign is written in English and Old Church Slavonic, the language of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Right next to St-Nicholas, on the same side of the street, is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. You will never see a smaller Catholic cathedral, or one that looks less like a cathedral, but it’s a beautiful little building and worth a visit.
The church was built with the Tlingit culture in mind, as you can maybe see from the decoration inside. The people I met there were very proud of their church. As one lady put it, “We’re not the biggest church in Juneau, but we’re the only cathedral!”
When you leave the cathedral, you’ll turn right and continue on down 5th Street (the street in front of the church.) Keep going along 5th Street and you’ll run into the Alaska State Capitol Building. Right next door is the City Museum, and next to that is the State Office Building. All of those are worth a visit, but for my money, you should definitely stop in at the State Office Building. Head up to the 8th floor on the elevator and check out the amazing observation deck they have up there: great views of Juneau and the Gastineau Channel.
If you’ve got time left, the map you should’ve picked up at the Welcome Center will have LOTS of options, for sightseeing or shopping or just strolling!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of Alaska’s capital city. Here’s a short video from a Juneau native, to show you some of the things I’ve been talking about, and some we just couldn’t get to in one day! Enjoy!