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Juneau Escape

Mendenhall Glacier isn’t the only thing that’s cool
about Alaska’s state capital.

Juneau downtown view from Mount Roberts
Photo caption
Downtown and Douglas Island from Mount Roberts.

Flying in to Juneau, you can understand why no highways lead to this seaport. Who could carve a track through the glaciers, fjords, wetlands, and rain forest of southeast Alaska? In fact, why would anyone build a town here in the first place?

Gold, of course. Led by Tlingit Chief Kowee, prospectors Richard Harris and Joe Juneau found gold here in 1880, igniting Alaska's first rush. By 1900 Juneau was thriving; in 1906 it became the territory's capital. Gold mines in the surrounding hills flourished into the 1940s. Today, this city of more than 30,000 makes its living from fishing, government, and tourism.

At 3,255 square miles, Juneau is about as large as Delaware plus Rhode Island, but its downtown, squeezed between the water and 3,819-foot Mount Roberts, is compact—good for walkers, even when cruise ship passengers flood the sidewalks.

A great way to start a day of sightseeing is with buttermilk bread pudding and coffee at the Silverbow Bakery. Maps for walking tours are available at Centennial Hall on Egan Drive to help you plot your itinerary. To learn about eagles and Alaskan Native culture, head to the Alaska State Museum. Then stop at the nearby Juneau-Douglas City Museum to bone up on the capital's history as a mining town and government seat.

Hop a helicopter for dazzling views of the Juneau Icefield. Then land on Mendenhall Glacier and take a guided walk past towers of blue ice and gushing streams. Boots and crampons provided. NorthStar Trekking, (907) 790-4530.

Free summer walking tours will take you inside the state legislative chambers, or you can explore the capitol building's art and old photos on your own. Afterward, meander through the streets, past old miners' cabins and up steep hills where the bosses lived. At Fifth and Gold the octagonal St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, built by Tlingits and Serbian miners in 1894, shows off its crisp blue-and-white facade.

A sweet surprise for hikers: The path to Mount Roberts starts at the end of Sixth Street. A tram will save you the walk, lifting you to a restaurant at 1,800 feet that offers riveting views.

The enormous face of Mendenhall Glacier is just a 13-mile bus or cab ride from downtown. At the visitor center you'll see how glaciers transform a landscape. Easy trails lead to vista points and creeks where salmon spawn. On the way back into town, a stop at the all-you-can-eat Gold Creek Salmon Bake makes a fitting conclusion to a Juneau day.

Photography byby Rolf Hicker/Accent Alaska

This article was first published in May 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.