After a day and a half of cruising, I was beyond ready to get back on land and start to explore a new place for the first time in years. It didn’t feel real until we docked at our first stop: Juneau, Alaska. 

Fun fact: Juneau is the only state capital in the US not accessible by road. You can only reach Juneau by air or by sea.

In my (literal years of) research before the trip, I heard there were two different ways to see this Alaskan city: the tourist’s way and the local’s way. I also heard that no matter which you choose, the best point of view was from the air, so I made that my priority. After one cancellation and another alteration to previous shore excursion plans, I was relieved to head out to the local airport for a helicopter landing on Mendenhall Glacier. 

Bird's Eye Views

I wasn’t sure if I was going to be scared until I watched the previous group land. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen helicopters land before, but it looked pretty turbulent to me. Once I was strapped in my nervousness peaked, but about a minute after we lifted off the ground, those nerves were replaced with the stunning views. It was so worth it, and honestly, I’ve had scarier plane rides than that helicopter trip. I felt surprisingly secure as we glided over mountains and valleys. 

Walking on ice wasn’t something new to me - I’ve hiked with micro-spikes in the Cascades before - but being on a glacier was truly a different experience. Our home-base was marked by an Alaskan state flag and we were instructed to keep our eyes down as we wandered on the glacier, making sure to avoid falling into crevasses. 

The Mendenhall Glacier is one of 100,000 in the state of Alaska, and one of the most-visited glaciers in the country. Along with Hubbard Glacier and the many glaciers within Glacier Bay National Park, Mendenhall is one of the most popular sources of glacier education in Alaska. From this perspective on the surface, you can see the boulders of granite the glacier has ripped from the surrounding rock face and the centuries-old water that’s being released into Mendenhall Lake below. 

Unfortunately, Mendenhall Glacier has been actively melting over the past several decades. This video from the USDA National Forest Service makes that as clear as the water within Mendenhall’s crevasses. The USDA estimates that Mendenhall has roughly 250 years left at it’s current rate of retreat. 

There isn’t a better reminder than being in these wild spaces to warn us of the impacts of our warming climate, but often getting to these spaces contributes to the issue. I firmly believe that corporations (especially here in the US) have way more impact than any individual does, but if climate change is a cause you care about and are wrestling with this dilemma of wanting to travel but not wanting to contribute to the problem, I recommend looking into carbon emission offsetting options. This is the site I used for this particular trip

Exorbitant helicopter rides aren’t your only option for seeing Juneau through a raven’s point of view though. There’s a tram option right off the dock that will only set you back $45. Is it worth it? Maybe, if you didn’t do any helicopter or sea-plane adventures. I was under the impression that there’d be more to do once you got to the top, so I was pretty underwhelmed. But if this is your only option, take a look at the view and be the judge for yourself. 

Local Views

If you’re researching this trip, you’ll likely come across the most infamous pub in the area - the Red Dog Saloon. It’s one of the oldest bars in Juneau, dating all the way back to the gold rush era. With that said though, it has relocated multiple times and it’s currently sat at one of the most accessible (read: easy for cruise-goers to access) spots downtown. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting bar. Hay is scattered on the floor and there’s plenty of interesting wall decor to soak in, but if you’re looking for an authentic Alaskan experience, you only need to wander two blocks. 

About a three minute walk away, the original location of The Alaskan Hotel and Bar (opened in 1913) is still operating. While the hotel is only open to guests, the bar next door is fully alive. There’s a small stage for local bands to play on weekends and locals sit at the back of the bar, wary of tourists there to snap a photo and walk back out the door. It’s the kind of place that’s dark and smells like leather. The kind of place that plays 80’s classic rock and old couples’ initials are carved in the table upstairs. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the stained glass windows were original. 

It’s at that bar that a local (shout out to Todd) recommended a local pub for food: the Imperial Grill. So, in desperate need of lunch at 4pm and another local beer, we headed down the street. 

The bartender made fun of my mask, so I knew we were in the right place. We ordered the Alaskan Smash Galaxy IPA (note: a double IPA, not advisable on an empty stomach) and took Todd’s recommendation of the Crunch Wrap. To be honest, my expectations were quite low (I was just impressed there was a fully vegetarian option that seemed filling) but it truly hit the spot. Todd also recommended the Summer School Special, but that was out. If you get the chance, I bet it’s just as satisfying.

After three beers and an immensely satisfying crunch wrap, we made our way back to the ship. One last thing I do want to mention: later on this trip I learned that most of the shops downtown are actually owned by the cruise lines or other major corporations. If you’re looking for souvenirs, I highly recommend seeking out locally-owned shops. I spent some time in Mt Juneau Trading Post and I can’t recommend it highly enough. The place was soaked in history and I learned so much from just walking through the shop. 

No matter what you’re looking for - the tourist highlights or a genuine Alaskan experience - both are completely possible in Juneau.