Alaska’s capital city offers more than the usual walking tours and visits to area museums. Our three-day stop in Juneau was full of both, but sometimes a family’s just gotta get outdoors with good old mother nature. Kids, especially, need a chance to work off some steam while on a family vacation to Alaska, so we went in search of an appropriate venue to let go the wigglies.
It was easy, really, since one of Juneau’s most popular outdoor attractions looms large over any visitor’s head, silently cruising back and forth all day long. The Mount Roberts Tramway and subsequent trail system offers visitors a wealth of hiking and scenery-ogling options hidden away atop the city’s “guardian” peak. Plus, the bonus of a tram ride to the top is six minutes of kid-pleasing activity bound to capture the attention of everybody.
The tram’s home base is located near the cruise ship dock in downtown Juneau. One can’t miss it; the signature red and black tram cars, operated by Nataive-owned Goldbelt Tours, zoom up and down reminiscent of a ski lift, as indeed they are. The tram’s cars are designed to emulate those found at fancy resorts; warm, comfy, and with plenty of window space from which to gaze at the passing scenery. The tram began operations in 1996 and quickly became a star attraction among visitors and locals, who find the late hours (9 p.m.) to be super for a little sunset excursion on a lovely summer evening (yes, they do have lovely summer evenings in southeast Alaska).
Some guide books encourage hiking up or down from the Mount Roberts Tram. We, however, discourage families from this endeavor; most moms and dads who visit Alaska are ill-equipped for a serious hike on a narrow, muddy trail that favors steep over level. Better to follow AK Fam’s lead and take a tram to the top, have lunch or dinner at the Timberline Bar and Grill (also with stellar views), and hike around the top of this lush alpine setting.
A favorite hike is the Alpine Loop Trail that swings through a spruce forest embellished by beautiful carvings known as “Culturally Modified Trees” by the Tlingit. A practice that might identify a particular route or ownership, some of these carvings are over 100 years old and definitely worthy of a stop at each. Eerily beautiful and intricately designed, the trees are wonderful touchpoints for kids to the Tlingit culture and history of southeast Alaska, and the perfect way to begin a trip around the mountain. Some families enjoy taking the self-guided audio tour, with wands available at the Nature Center building or Experience Juneau desk in the Mountain House. It’s fun to allow kids to be an “expert” at each of the 20 stations, and the narration is quite informative, and inspirational for kids who might tire quickly otherwise.
The Alpine Loop Trail gradually climbs toward an open meadow where wildflowers bloom and the spicy scent of lupine hangs heavy in the air. This is home to black bear, birds, marmots, and a host of other animals who might be spotted as they go about their daily work of survival, and AK Kid had fun poking his nose into the marmot holes and noticing how efficient these squatty rodents were at shoveling dirt out as they dug into the side of a hill. A quick peek over our shoulders revealed the beginnings of a fantastic panorama of Juneau and the Gastineau Channel, the waterway that stretches as far as the eye can see, and divides Juneau from the small community of Douglas, on an island of the same name.
A number of viewing platforms have been built along the trail, and after climbing sixty stair steps along the entire route, many people feel the need to stop and rest. Picnic tables are provided for snacks as visitors drink in the lovely sight unfolding before them, and kids will enjoy the chance to critter-spot.
Taking the switchback to Father Brown’s Cross at the Loop Junction will lead up to one of the best views of Juneau to be found anywhere in town. The extra half-mile of narrow trail leading up and over a rocky meadow is exciting for children, who will immediately see the results of their physical efforts and be rewarded with teeny-tiny cruise ships lying placidly below their feet at the tram’s starting point, 2,000 feet down. Some restoration of the vegetation is taking place in 2011, so heed the signs and stay on the trail, and do know everyone’s limits. The trail continues up to tricky Gold Ridge and Gastineau Peak, and hikers need to have proper equipment and know-how to ascend much further. The average family, however, probably wouldn’t want to, with such a sight to see; and the cross area is perfect for those family holiday card shots.
Take care while descending and connect with the remainder of the Alpine Loop Trail at the junction. Two miles of hiking from start to finish should earn your kids their dessert that night, and sleep will come easy with the knowledge that a little outdoor work goes a long way toward happy, healthy kids. Even on vacation.
If You Go: The Mount Roberts Tramway is easily accessed by foot from the cruise ship dock and most major hotels in Juneau. Tickets are $27 adult/$13.50 kids 6-12, and free for kids 5 and under. The Alaska TourSaver book has a two-for-one coupon that saves the grownups from shelling out so much dough, but the trip is worth it. With a closing time of 9 p.m., a tram ticket lasts all day, so on a sunny morning go up, hike, explore, then return later in the day to catch the sunset. Gorgeous. Take time also to watch a film in the Chilkat Theatre called “Seeing Daylight,” a short movie about Tlingit culture and history in southeast Alaska, and visit the bald eagle display courtesy of the Juneau Raptor Center, or browse the Nature Center’s bookstore.