Pleasantly Surprised by Unexpected Adventures in Juneau Alaska

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We were stuck in Juneau! There are no roads to drive our RV out, and the ferry workers went on strike. ‘Oh no, now what!’ is what many of us – Juneau Alaska tourists said when visiting with a vehicle. We counted on the Ferry to transport us to an Alaskan port connected to the rest of roadway system. Despite the helplessness, we were pleasantly surprised by the unexpected adventures in Juneau in our 2.5 weeks there.

You may be wondering ‘what is Juneau Alaska like?’ It’s a little seaside/mountain town with a backdrop of stunning glaciers. Juneau offers adventures from easy to difficult, both indoor and outdoor activities. We loved spending additional time in Juneau – what a pleasant surprise!

Before visiting, I thought Juneau was just a capital city with a cruise ship port filled with tourist traps. While there are plenty of Juneau Alaska tourist attractions, especially near the cruise ship pier, Juneau offers free and paid experiences from local culture and history, to outdoor adventures worth the time and money. It’s exciting to see the wildlife and experience some of the exhilarating Alaskan outdoor sports around Juneau.

How to spend a day or more in Juneau Alaska?

There are many ‘Must Sees’ from Juneau Alaska. When visiting Juneau, there’s everything from Mendenhall Glacier in Tongass National Forest, to the Alaska State Museum, Juneau and Douglas City Museums, Sealaska Heritage Center, Juneau Icefield and glaciers, to the most unique gardens you will ever see. There’s a salmon hatchery, eagles and sea lions, Mount Roberts, whale watching, wildlife viewing, fishing, and more. We filled our days with unexpected adventures in Juneau Alaska.

Some parts of Alaska offer similar excursions, like whale watching which we did in Valdez, glacier excursions on Glacier Bay, flightseeing, fishing, and wildlife viewing to name a few. We did all of these elsewhere in Alaska. What amazed us is that all of these adventures can be had when visiting Juneau alone.

DISCLAIMER: Many thanks to Alaska Shore Excursions, Coastal Helicopters, and Alaska Icefield Expeditions for hosting us. While we were hosted at no charge, we received no payment for this post, and this post is Tom’s and my honest opinion.

What is the best excursion in Juneau Alaska?

Visiting Juneau Alaska provides opportunities to do many bucket list experiences, making it difficult to choose. Since we had visited other parts of Alaska and did many of the excursions prior to arriving in Juneau, we chose dog sledding on a glacier. Alaska Shore Excursions arranges many Alaska bucket list experiences, and they arranged our combination flightseeing of the Juneau icefield and dog sledding experience on Herbert Glacier.

Dog sledding in Juneau in the summer

When visiting Juneau, the most unique opportunity and a true Juneau Alaska Adventure is flying onto an icefield and glacier for dog sledding – in the summer! Dog mushing is Alaska’s state sport. In Alaska, the mail was delivered by dog team until 1967. There are only a couple of places in Alaska where you can actually dog sled on snow in summer, and Juneau is a premier location for this adventure.

Flightseeing Icefield and Glaciers

Our adventure began at Coastal Helicopters hangar for a safety briefing, and fittings for those who needed boots or other equipment. The tarmac buzzes with helicopters going to and fro, which is why a boarding attendant leads passengers out to ensure safety. Heading out to the tarmac, it’s exciting to see the helicopters circling in to land.

Traveling up to the glacier, we fly around the clouds and amongst the mountains, above the snowfields, viewing the icefield and glaciers while our pilot Casey narrates, describing the icefield, its history, and current condition. Juneau Icefield is 1600 square miles and home to over 140 small and large glaciers.

Maneuvering through the clouds, Casey tells us that he must focus and concentrate so we watch the gorgeous scenery while he navigates the mountain passes. As the helicopter advances to Herbert Glacier, dramatic landscape surrounds us – rocks and spires jut out of the snow and ice. The glacial flow looks like roadways of snow winding around the mountain curves and slowly sloping down the vast terrain. It’s a massive expanse of snow, rock, and nothingness.

Arriving at Dog Camp

In the distance a pattern of yellow specs appear; our pilot points out the dog camp. As we approach Herbert Glacier, hundreds of yellow doghouses come into view. Dogs are relaxing atop of their houses or standing in the snow watching us land.

Arriving on the glacier is like entering another world surrounded by craggy mountains and unending white and blue ice and snow, an unexpected adventure in Juneau. With waterfalls cascading from thousands of feet, glacial streams, the beautiful blue crevasses, exiting the helicopter at dog camp onto snow and ice all around is quite unique. This is definitely a bucket list experience.

Upon landing, we met some of the 18 people who care for the dogs, and then head over to the doghouses where 240 dogs live. Dogs are sent to glacier dog camp in the summer by their owners to keep them fit. Pulling tourists on sleds gives the dogs opportunities to run and stay in shape for the very demanding and grueling winter Iditarod and Yukon Quest races. Mushers from all over the world come to summer dog camp because it’s a great training area for them too.

After dropping us off, the helicopters fly in a formation for take-off and landing on the glacier. As they left, watching the bright yellow helicopters wind their way up and around the awe-inspiring mountain peaks was quite a show.

Dog Sledding

When assigned to our dog sled teams, we meet our musher Manny from Montana and his team of 11 sled dogs. Here we learn about how Alaskan Huskies are bred for running and pulling – it’s in their DNA. These dogs are veterans or descendants of dogs that have run in the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest. One of the dogs in our team was on the 6th place team in the 1000 mile Yukon Quest. While they are work dogs, some love being petted, and we are all drawn to giving the dogs some love.

Summer dog sledding in Juneau Alaska

Once the dogs are harnessed, they want to GO! They bark incessantly, letting everyone know they are ready to run. Our mushing experience was an exhilarating set of 3 short rides on a course that goes around the camp. We switched places to get a feel for the different aspects of mushing. Manny made sure everyone had a chance to stand on the back of the sled like the musher. When sitting directly behind the dogs, it’s easy to see how hard they work, especially when the snow is soft and mushy.

Manny was friendly, sharing his knowledge of the dogs and their personalities. We learned about which dogs make better lead dogs, swing dogs – those who steer the team, team dogs – who bring the strength and brawn, while the wheel dogs closest to the sled are the largest and take the most weight. Manny also offered to take photos of us on the sled and with the dogs.

The Puppies

Sled dog puppy with Wendy

After dog sledding, we had a chance to cuddle the cute energetic puppies. One group of puppies, now 3 months old, were born on the Ferry between Haines and Juneau. From Juneau all dogs were flown to the glacier by helicopter.

What should I wear to Alaska Glacier?

Clothes for dog mushing depend on the time of year and weather. Layers are always the most flexible. When we went in late July, it was 64 degrees F in Juneau and 49 degrees F on Herbert Glacier, windy, and drizzling. It got cooler as we ascended. On top of my street clothes, I wore (or had with me) a Marmot outer layer sweatshirt, a fleece vest, a waterproof long outer layer raincoat, a scarf, a ski hat, waterproof hiking shoes – Oboz, and gloves. My layers were perfect for me on a grey, windy 49 degree F day. If it were sunny, I would have taken layers off. However, if it were a lot colder, I would have needed a heavier outer layer – a ski jacket. As always, sunglasses and sunscreen are needed in Alaska at altitudes above the clouds.

Why is Dog mushing the Best Excursion in Juneau?

This is a unique Alaska adventures – flightseeing an icefield and glaciers, dog mushing in the snow in summer, landing on a remote glacier in the snow, and experiencing a working dog camp. While the excursion seems costly, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We think it is definitely worth it!

An Alaskan Food Experience

unexpected-adventures in-juneau-alaska

Another worthwhile pricey Juneau experience is one famous entrée from Alaska – Alaskan King Crab. While meeting and socializing with Alaskans, I learned that Tracy’s King Crab Shack is a must. I never would have gone without Alaskan’s recommendations, since it is by the cruise ships, looks touristy, and is expensive. I must admit that the food and experience is memorable – a delicious, fun time!

Unexpected Free Adventures in Juneau Alaska

Mendenhall Glacier Juneau

Just 12 miles out of town in Tongass National Forest, we found everything outdoor and wildlife lovers look for on an Alaskan tour. We spent lots of time visiting Steep Creek Trail on at least 5 different days, both early mornings and late afternoons. Watching black bears with their cubs fishing for spawning salmon, hanging out in the woods and trees, nursing and resting, was remarkable. Quietly observing the sows raising their cubs was another unexpected adventure!

Steep Creek at Mendenhall Glacier – An Unexpected Juneau Adventure

An early arrival at Steep Creek treated us to the playful river otters during their morning routine at the mouth of Steep Creek. At various times during our visits we’d see bald eagles, and herons fishing and resting near the mouth of the creek. While visually searching the canopy, we watched the daily routine of a porcupine; observing it climb a tree was like watching a big, prickly inchworm.

Spawning salmon trying to swim up Steep Creek

Some days, we saw salmon fighting their way upstream in the shallows; in some spots their bodies were half out of the water. The boardwalk at Steep Creek, just off a parking lot, provides an overlook of the nesting salmon pairs. It is interesting to watch them clear a nest with their tails or to chase off other salmon from their nesting spot. Steep creek felt like a gold mine of wildlife viewing.

Hikes at Mendenhall Glacier

There are 7 hikes at Mendenhall Glacier, including one to the glacier. We walked out to the lake from the Mendenhall campground, and also did the 1.5 mile out and back hike to beautiful Nugget Falls from the Visitors Center. There are some long, difficult hikes, and moderate hikes – check at the Visitor Center.

The Visitor Center charges $5 admission, or free with a National Park Pass. Getting there is an easy drive from downtown Juneau, where rental cars and tours are also available. A roundtrip bus ticket from downtown is $30.

DIPAC Macaulay Salmon Hatchery

The hatchery in Juneau is an excellent working example of a Pacific salmon hatchery from mid-July through late August. While you can go inside their aquarium for an admission fee, it’s free to view the fish ladder and outdoor operations. There are windows to view masses of salmon fighting their way up the ladder. It’s mesmerizing to watch thousands of Coho and King salmon fighting against the current.

From the water’s edge, a short distance off shore, there are outdoor protective holding pens of salmon at different stages of development. Outside along the shore, bald eagles and harbor seals are on high alert for fishing opportunities as the salmon approach the fish ladder.

Shrine of St. Therese

Located in Tongass National Forest at the water’s edge just outside of town, the Shrine is in a gorgeous peaceful setting. It encourages a quiet walk through the grounds, along the water’s edge overlooking the Alaskan snow-capped mountains. Walking on the footpaths and wooded trails, or around the labyrinth is a lovely way to spend an hour. Keep a watchful eye for wildlife both on land and in the sea. We saw a marmot hiding in the rocks or out sunning himself. The Shrine is open to the public and welcomes all faiths.

Mt. Roberts

From Mt. Roberts Mountain House and the Summit are exquisite views in every direction. Mount Roberts Trail is a moderate 1.5-mile hike to the Mountain House and 4.5 miles to the Summit. If you hike the whole thing, it’s free; or take the tramway to the Mountain House and pay.

Our ½-day at Mount Roberts treated us to a sampling of local ripe berries along the trail. At one point, Tom said, “Stop eating! And hike.” We met a local Tlingit artist who was sculpting totem poles for the park. He also makes silver jewelry, which we stopped to see in the gallery at the Mountain House. There is a wonderful film at the Mountain House about the local tribes.

Unexpected Low Cost Adventures in Juneau

If you are wondering what there is to do in Juneau for low cost, you can easily fill a couple of days. The public buses are easy to use and transport people to most places worth visiting.

Inside the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery

We were not planning to go inside the hatchery, but Tom wanted to see the operation. The indoor area is so much more than just a hatchery. There is a saltwater aquarium with over 150 types of marine life; you can always find me watching an octopus. Exhibits include a tide pool touch tank; I love to touch the different mollusks, starfish, and creatures that we are not allowed to touch when scuba diving.

When salmon are running, the hatchery operation is in full swing. At the end of July there were thousands of fish working their way up the fish ladder to the hatchery, and several workers harvesting eggs and sperm for fertilization. On the tour, we saw the salmon fry at different stages of life in indoor tanks before being released. It’s fascinating to see how the hatchery processes salmon.

Admission ranges from $3 – $15/visit depending on what you choose. The public bus stops at the hatchery.

Alaska State Museum

Located in downtown Juneau, walking distance from the cruise ship pier, is an excellent museum filled with exhibits of ‘everything Alaska.’ From collections of local diverse cultures, geographical information, historical artifacts, Alaska’s gold rush history, World War II, Alaska’s devastating earthquake and fire, the Alaskan Pipeline, to art exhibitions, there’s so much to see. Admission is $6-$12, and it’s free on the First Friday of each month. We recommend spending time here.

Sealaska Heritage Center

In downtown Juneau, not far from the cruise port, for only $4-$5 admission, the Sealaska Heritage Center provides a window into the 10,000-year history of Alaska’s Native People. The building is beautiful both inside and out, with art and designs from some of the top artists. There are installations from Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian tribes. The center’s shop offers beautiful handmade items, both functional and decorative.

Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway

The tramway base is located by the cruise ship pier. The 5-minute tramway ride takes visitors up to the Mountain House. From the top of the tramway, views of Juneau, the Chilkat Mountains, the Inside Passage and Gastineau Channel can be seen on a clear day. From the Mountain House, there are displays of animals, indigenous art, movies about the Native People, access to additional hiking trails, and viewing platforms.

We rode the tramway to the Mountain House since we had Mount Roberts Tramway Juneau coupon with half-price admission off of a $35 all-day pass. From here we hiked towards the top of Mount Roberts.

Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure

This is the most unique garden we have ever seen, and we’ve seen lots. It’s 50-acres in the Tongass National Forest rainforest. The 1.5-2 hour tour takes visitors up the mountain, viewing the most unique ‘flower tower’ installations you’ll ever see. The tour goes to the top of a hill for panoramic views of Juneau. Don’t miss the Visitor Center Atrium with its gorgeous botanical setting. It is a spectacular memory!

A visit ranges from $16-$27. We used a 2 for 1 coupon. The public bus stops here.

TIP – For discounts and 2-for-1 coupons, get the Alaska Toursaver coupon book! We found it very useful.

Loved our 2.5 weeks in Juneau

If you only have one day, it’s possible to experience several of the unexpected adventures in Juneau Alaska that we had. A sample itinerary could look like:

  1. Sealaska Heritage Center at 9 AM
  2. Alaska State Museum at 10 AM
  3. A lunch break
  4. Flightseeing and dog mushing in the afternoon
  5. Macauley Salmon Hatchery
  6. Tracy’s Crab Shack for dinner

When stuck in Juneau we made lemonade from lemons, by taking advantage of many experiences Juneau has to offer. Stand outs are the bears at Mendenhall Glacier with the most memorable being the Flightseeing and Dog Sledding excursion. Dog sledding on the glacier is an amazing and unique opportunity – a 4 in 1 adventure, (1) flightseeing, (2) glacier landing, (3) a dog camp visit, and (4) summer dog sledding in the snow. The flightsee with dog sledding experience is certainly worth it! We were so pleased to have spent 2.5 unexpected weeks in Juneau.

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Bear cub peers down from his tree perchSled dog puppy with Wendy

10 thoughts on “Pleasantly Surprised by Unexpected Adventures in Juneau Alaska

  1. Thanks so much for your fantastic informative article and wonderful photos of the Juneau, Alaska region! It brought back some fabulous memories, especially of Mendenhall Glacier, when I was there (for a much shorter visit) with a group of family members and friends in 2013.

    • It’s such a fantastic place! I hope you get to take your time and see it in depth! Happy to answer any questions as you plan.

  2. I did the helicopter tour to Mendenhall Glacier many years ago and it was spectacular. But you mention so many more wonderful excursions I can see I need to go back. This time I’ll take the helicopter tour to see the sled dogs camp.

  3. Pingback: Alaska Dog Mushing Encounters - Adventurous RetirementAdventurous Retirement

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