by Steve SueWing
Capital city Juneau, along the famous Inside Passage, has not escaped a series of of warm and slightly bipolar Alaska winters. Wet, heavy snow falls, only to be replaced by howling winds and driving rain, and the occasional sunny day. Complicating matters, rainfall totals are higher than normal for this Southeast community located smack in the middle of the Tongass Rainforest. Do residents despair, gnashing their teeth and hibernating indoors? Hardly. Juneau-ites know; the key to enjoying life in Alaska is to embrace it wholeheartedly, rain, shine, and…whatever.
Making a winter trip through Juneau with hours or days to fill? Purposely choosing our town as a winter destination? Excellent, but don’t let the weather get you down; visitors need to be outside to truly experience this beautiful place. Just be prepared to get wet.
Here are five favorite activities in and around the city of Juneau:
The Mendenhall Glacier is a must of Juneau’s top sights to be seen. In either mild weather or fresh deep snow, the Nugget Falls trail is a great option for just about every age. The 1.6 mile round-trip trail offers a near-constant view of the glacier and its landscape carved out by centuries of ice and snow. Make sure you take a photo at the falls.
Winter is a great time to enjoy Mendenhall Glacier’s visitor center minus the crushing crowds of summertime. A short film describing the glacier’s movement and history is great for perspective, the views are fantastic, and interpretive displays help visitors learn more about these natural phenomena. If you visit on a cold, snowy day, the ice of Mendenhall Lake provides a nice platform for a hike, ski, or snowshoe, but check with Forest Service staff about ice conditions before you step off the shore. Just north of the main parking lot is sledding hill popular with locals, but you must bring your own equipment, or, make new friends and borrow a sled for a few runs.
From downtown, cross the Juneau Bridge to explore the island of Douglas, across narrow, scenic Gastineau Channel. Three miles to the south lies Sandy Beach, a nice stroll with kids or dogs, where families can find a small playground and the gateway to the Treadwell mining area. The area is covered with easily-accessed trails for almost every weather condition, with some remains of this mining community accessible for exploring, and are an open invitation for imaginative play.
North after crossing the bridge, the road ends in approximately 13 miles, but along the way find views of Gastineau Channel, Mendenhall Glacier, and the Chilkat Mountains and Inside Passage. About a mile before the road ends, stop by the Rainforest trail. This hike is an easy one for young legs since a beach can be reached in under a half mile and is a good option for vistas with good beachcombing opportunities, campfires, or picnics.
Eagle Beach State Recreation Area is a good option for those seeking a longer drive. This 27-mile trip from downtown Juneau offers sweeping views of Lynn Canal and the Chilkat Mountain Range with pullouts to safely get off the road and capture this mountain grandeur. Even in the winter, visitors have activity options here; beachcombing is always a good choice but be aware of which way the tide is traveling to keep your experience less soggy. This area also keeps snow better than most in-town locations, so Nordic skiing is quite popular ( you can rent gear at Foggy Mountain Sports in downtown Juneau). Additionally, a sledding hill is located approximately 15 minutes from the parking lot.
Skiers and snowboarders are elated that Juneau’s Eaglecrest Ski Area has been open consistently for nearly two months (the 2014-15 season was short and miserable). Whether your have thousands of turns under your boots, or are just starting to explore adventures on skis or snowboard, Eaglecrest is an outdoor recreation haven, with a solid snowsports school, rental shop, and new day lodge.
Tips: Dress for wet winter weather, including rain pants and jacket, warm middle layers, and a non-cotton base layer. Rubber boots are always a good bet in Juneau, even when it snows, as temperatures rarely dip below Zero.