Published December 7, 2023
• 7 min read
Primeval forest, snow-capped peaks, icy blue straits and epic wildlife — in Alaska, nature is rightly seen as the dominant force. Juneau, which is located in America’s northwestern corner, is more of a friendly town than bustling state capital, and the perfect gateway to experiencing it all. The traditional homeland of the native Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian communities, Juneau attracted prospectors in the 1880s with the promise of gold. Today, the city and the surrounding region has a far more precious natural resource — a thriving, biodiverse ecosystem of various birds, fish and large mammals. With so many creatures to see and various tour operators to choose from, here are five experiences not to miss.
1. Take a brown bear safari on Admiralty Island
If one animal encapsulates Alaska’s iconic wildlife, it’s the brown bear. The highest density of them in North America can be found on Admiralty Island, just 15 miles southwest of Juneau. Fringed by rushing waterways and blanketed in old-growth rainforest, the island’s 956,000 acres are home to an estimated 1,600 brown bears, from fluffy cubs to broad-shouldered sows.
Bear Creek Outfitters and Above and Beyond Alaska offer a variety of fly-in summer day trips from Juneau, which include safe, ethical hiking excursions across the island. Equipped with all the essential gear, including good-quality binoculars, hikers navigating the dense tree cover and alpine tundra can observe bears in their natural habitat, fishing for spawning salmon in the Pack Creek estuary or under the cascading falls of Waterfall Creek on Chichagof Island. The latter is a relatively unknown, remote location that provides unmatched brown bear viewing during the peak of the salmon run, which occurs from late July to the beginning of September. It won’t take long to understand exactly why the Indigenous Tlingit people call this land Kootznoowoo, meaning ‘Fortress of the Bears’.
2. Join a guided dog-sled tour
While there’s plenty of glossy tidal waters and verdant forest to enjoy in Juneau, one of the area’s most unique draws is its icy mountain landscapes — frozen in blue-and-alabaster perfection even during summer. The Mendenhall Glacier, the most famous of Juneau’s ice floes and the city’s most popular attraction, is located just 13 miles from Downtown Juneau and yet, its half-mile-wide, 1,800ft-deep expanse looks like it’s been lifted from the dark side of the moon.
Temsco Helicopters run tours to the glacier, but they also offer a dog-sledding adventure. Starting at their heli-base, travellers are outfitted in glacier boots and given a safety briefing before being whisked away on a scenic helicopter ride above soaring mountain peaks, the Tongass National Forest and the mighty Mendenhall Glacier. Afterwards, hop on a sled pulled by enthusiastic huskies who, led by professional Iditarod and Yukon Quest dog racers, will take you along drifts of crunchy snow and past craggy mountain peaks fringing the glacier’s white expanse.
3. Enjoy a whale-watching cruise
Few wildlife experiences match the majesty of witnessing whales breaching from the watery depths. From April to November, Juneau becomes a hotspot as around 125 humpback whales, plus occasional pods of orcas and porpoises, gather in the area to feed. From the narrow Gastineau Channel on Juneau’s front door to the maze of surrounding inlets and bays that frame the region’s many islands, the waters teem with shrimp-like krill, offering a veritable seasonal buffet.
Reputable and experienced operators, such as Lost in Alaska Adventures and Juneau Charters, offer private excursions that venture out into the blue to spot these elusive sea giants, plus sea lions, seals, marine birdlife and more. Captains are local and know the best areas, such as the Shelter Island State Marine Park, manoeuvring their boats along the mountain-ribbed coast to deliver views as epic as the whale sightings themselves.
4. See black bears feeding in a creek
Around 100,000 black bears roam the forest-dense landscapes of Alaska. Smaller, and straighter in facial profile than their brown bear cousins, black bears are a regular feature in Juneau and its surrounds. From July to September black bears typically linger by the Visitor Center at the Mendenhall Glacier, feasting on coho and sockeye salmon spawning in Steep Creek. Tie in a stroll along the elevated path as part of a wider guided tour to the ice mass. Alternatively, join a dedicated expedition to Anan Creek, 30 miles southeast of Wrangell, where a few authorised tour operators run small-scale day trips to a spot where the bears fish.
5. Spot bald eagles at Point Bridget State Park
With its vast wingspan, hooked golden beak and crown of pristine white plumage, North America’s signature bird, the bald eagle, is a sight to behold. Catching a glimpse is rare throughout much of the country, but in southeastern Alaska, sightings are commonplace, with the majority of the state’s 30,000-strong eagle population concentrated in Juneau and the surrounding area. Located 40 miles north of the city, Point Bridget State Park is one of the many locations to view them, specifically along the salmon-rich streams of Cowee Creek. The park’s cliffs, meadows and lakes break up the forest, allowing keen birdwatchers to catch sight of them soaring from their nests.
Alternatively, download the Southeast Alaska Birding Trail, a free virtual guide that explores 18 community birdwatching hubs in the wider southeastern Alaska region. As well as bald eagles, it spies on some of the other 350 local bird species, from marbled murrelets to red-breasted nuthatches.
Plan your trip
Various airlines fly from London to Juneau via Seattle or Anchorage in 14.5-17.5 hours. Juneau is also accessible from the US and Canada by boat, via the Alaska Marine Highway System — a ferry service that covers 3,500 miles of coast in Southeast Alaska and along the Gulf of Alaska. Once in the city, taxis, rideshares and car rental services are all readily available. For more information and inspiration, visit traveljuneau.com
This paid content article was created for Travel Juneau. It does not necessarily reflect the views of National Geographic, National Geographic Traveller (UK) or their editorial staffs.
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