Spend time in Juneau and nearby Glacier Bay, and you will experience the best of Alaska. Neither location is accessible by road from the interior, so to travel there by RV, you must utilize the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system.
Glacier Bay and its surrounding area are part of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, which encompasses 5,220 square miles (approximately the size of Connecticut). The park is a wilderness of spectacular beauty that has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site. A glacier that has gradually receded nearly 60 miles during the past 250 years carved what is now Glacier Bay. Although most of the park’s 50 named glaciers are also receding, these rivers of ice still cover nearly 1,400 square miles, or over a quarter of the park.
Boat tours of Glacier Bay offer passengers up-close views of tidewater glaciers, so named because they flow down mountains to the water’s edge and calve into the sea. Watching a huge chunk of ice crack off the terminus of a glacier and crash into the sea is one of the highlights of a trip to Alaska. Tours of the bay are also likely to encounter a variety of marine wildlife, including sea otters, sea lions, puffins, bears, and the park’s signature wildlife, humpback whales.
Nine miles northwest of the small village of Gustavus is Glacier Bay Lodge and the National Park Service visitor center. Glacier Bay Lodge offers comfortable accommodations, fresh crab dinners, and a departure point for whale-watching cruises and daylong tours of Glacier Bay. The lodge operates a shuttle (fee charged) between Gustavus and the lodge. Glacier Bay Lodge offers 56 rooms in a series of one-story wooden buildings near a central lodge that houses the registration desk, lobby and dining area. Large windows provide excellent views of Bartlett Cove and the distant Fairweather Range with ice-capped peaks that soar to over 15,000 feet. A National Park Service visitor center on the second-floor mezzanine offers exhibits and films, and is staffed with a park service ranger. The boat for Glacier Bay tours and whale-watching cruises leaves from a dock a short distance behind the lodge. Guests can also rent kayaks and bicycles
A trip to Glacier Bay will almost certainly mean a stop in Juneau, the jumping off point to the park. The quickest way to the park is via scheduled service on Alaska Airlines, which operates a daily summer flight from Seattle’s SeaTac Airport. The flight passes through Alaska’s capital in both directions and offers the perfect opportunity to spend several days exploring this historical and interesting town named for prospector Joe Juneau. For those who arrive on the ferry with their RV, a private full-service RV park is four miles from the ferry terminal. A U.S. Forest Service campground 13 miles from downtown and within view of the famous Mendenhall Glacier offers both full-service and basic sites.
The state’s third largest city with a population of about 32,000, Juneau is a walking town where the capitol, state museum, library, cruise ship docks, and main shopping area are within easy walking distance of one another. Exploring the town’s historical residential areas is particularly rewarding but requires climbing hills. Typical of a state capital, even one as small as Juneau, several museums offer visitors a view of the state’s past. The Alaska State Museum contains exhibits on native cultures and natural history. A second-floor children’s room offers hands-on exhibits for young visitors. Juneau also boasts a city/county museum that focuses on the area’s gold mining history and the life of this region’s pioneers, and a mining museum that is housed in a building linked to a mining company that operated here from 1912 to 1944.
Bears on View
Juneau’s best-known and most magnificent natural feature is Mendenhall Glacier, 13 miles north of downtown. The terminus of this massive glacier can be viewed up close and is quite impressive. The U.S. Forest Service visitor center has panoramic window views and a small theater where a short film about glaciers is shown. Naturalists offer talks and guided walks. Several trails lead to various points for picture taking and wildlife watching. Of particular interest is a trail along a salmon spawning stream where bears can often be viewed, especially during the spawning season July through September. Another popular activity for Juneau visitors is a flightseeing trip over the giant Juneau Icefield, an enormous area of interconnected glaciers. Floatplanes and helicopters ferry passengers on an exciting flight over some of the most hostile, but beautiful wilderness in all of America. Helicopters generally land on the ice so that passengers can take a short walk. The glaciers are absolutely spectacular from the air.
Juneau has fishing charters for anglers who want to go after the state’s well-known native salmon and halibut. Even visitors without the time or interest for fishing will almost certainly enjoy a visit to the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery, where Pacific salmon seasonally battle an extensive fish ladder. Exhibits and a small but interesting aquarium are in the visitor center. The gold mine that put Juneau on the map is open for guided tours that include a narrated ride up Mount Roberts followed by a walk underground where miners demonstrate hard rock mining techniques. Following the tour, group members can pan for gold from mine tailings. End a day of exploration with a tour of the Alaskan Brewing Company and sample one or two of its fine brews. It is a fun, unhurried tour, with several varieties of brews offered as free samples.
David and Kay Scott, who live in Valdosta, Georgia, are the authors of Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges (Globe Pequot).
IF YOU GO:
If traveling to Alaska in an RV, consider using the ferry system one way and driving the other. For example, drive north and return via the ferry, or vice versa. We drove to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and took the ferry to Skagway where roads provide access to the Alaska interior. Along the way we stopped off and camped for several nights each in Ketchikan, Petersburg, Sitka, and Juneau. After a month in the interior we returned to the Lower 48 via the Alaska Highway. Keep in mind that it is 2,000 miles from Calgary, Alberta, Canada to Fairbanks, Alaska. Information about rates and schedules for the Alaska Marine Highway is available at www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs.
During summer months Alaska Airlines offers over a dozen flights to Juneau from various cities including Seattle. Less frequent service is offered during winter. The same airline offers once daily roundtrip service during summer months only from Seattle to Gustavus, the entry point for Glacier Bay National Park. For information, call (800) 252-7522 or visit www.alaskaair.com. A number of private boat and airline charters offer transportation between Gustavus and Juneau. Charter air service between Juneau and Gustavus costs approximately $85 per person. Visit www.gustavus.com for a listing that includes contact information.
Glacier Bay and Juneau are in a temperate rainforest typified by moderate temperatures and plentiful moisture. Juneau averages 90 inches and 220 days of annual moisture. The driest months are March, April, and May, while the wettest months are August, September, and October, but you should be certain to pack raingear no matter when you visit.
Rooms at Glacier Bay Lodge, identical except for window views, range from $170 to $200 per night. For information or reservations for lodging, Glacier Bay tours, or whale-watching cruises, call (800) 229-8687 or visit www.visitglacierbay.com.
Juneau offers a fairly wide choice of motels, hotels, and bed and breakfasts. Alaska’s Capital Inn, a restored 1906 home with seven guest rooms, is convenient to the waterfront and downtown attractions. For information or reservations, call (888) 588-6507 or visit www.alaskacapitalinn.com. Information about other Juneau lodging and campgrounds is available from the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.traveljuneau.com, or by calling (800) 587-2201.