Alaska’s capital is the third largest city in the state and is located on the North American mainland, making it unreachable by road. Good thing we arrived by cruise ship!
The gold rush played a big part in the founding of this city, which used to be known as Harrisburg, after prospector Richard Harris. Harris co-founded the city with fellow prospector and miner, Joe Juneau. It’s said that Juneau used some of his gold rush earnings to bribe enough of the miners to get the city’s name changed to Juneau!
We boarded the bus with our driver-guide Nick and headed out to explore Alaska’s capital as Nick riddled us with interesting facts about his hometown.
Downtown Juneau isn’t very big, but after exploring the various souvenir shops and museums the capital has to offer, you can grab a beer from the Alaskan Brewing Company at the Red Dog Saloon.
As we drove along, Nick pointed out that the primary, middle and secondary schools in Juneau are all across from each other, so students here spend most of their school years on the same small block!
He also told us that the first McDonald’s opened in Juneau in the 1980s and that on opening day they sold over 17,000 burgers by 2pm and had to shut down until more could be shipped in!
As we headed out of town, we drove through a temperate rainforest as we made our way toward Mendenhall Glacier.
The glacier spans 12 miles and is fed by the massive Juneau Icefield. Unfortunately, the glacier is currently retreating up the valley, losing more than 100 feet per year as huge chunks of ice calve off into the surrounding lake. Standing at the edge of the water, looking across at the Mendenhall Glacier is an absolutely stunning sight. The glacier is located between two snow-capped peaks and as the sunlight hits it, the glacier appears almost transparent in contrast with the striking blue-green colour of the water below.
Icebergs of varying sizes are found floating around the lake and nature trails run alongside it leading to a waterfall.
There is also a visitor’s centre, with a gallery hosting exhibits about the glacier, the surrounding wildlife and how the Mendenhall Glacier helps to shape the valley’s ecosystem.
After exploring the glacier, we headed down to one of Juneau’s harbours where we boarded a Catamaran and headed out to do some whale watching. While they guaranteed whale sightings, I didn’t expect to come across as many as we did in just a few short hours.
Imagine living so close to dozens of whales! Not only did we see single Humpback whales out in the icy waters, but we also came across several pairs of mothers with their young and small groups out diving to feed.
Watching a Humpback gracefully dive down, popping its tail in the air as the sun set over the water was truly an incredible sight.
We may have only had half a day in Juneau, but the rugged beauty of the city definitely made an impression on me. If I didn’t spend the whole time shivering while Nick wore a t-shirt and talked about the lovely weather they were having, perhaps I might consider spending more time here!