by Erin Kirkland
This story originally appeared in the Alaska Dispatch News on 4/18/2017
There is no place quite like Juneau. Nestled in the Alaska Panhandle, with long, narrow Gastineau Channel on one side and the towering mounts Roberts and Juneau on the other, the city makes the most of its unique and scenic location.
Alaska’s capital since 1906, Juneau has a bold and vibrant atmosphere, with gold mining, governance and tourism playing large roles in its development. But Juneau’s stature as one of two United States capitals unreachable by road (the other is Honolulu, Hawaii) stokes the curiosity of thousands of visitors who fly or float there. Most come from Outside and arrive via cruise ship — roughly a million between May and September — and most are eager to see how people live, work and play in a place with only one 50-mile highway.
In my experience, Juneau is often mentioned but seldom visited by Alaskans, mostly because Alaska’s second-largest city is perceived as difficult to reach unless one shells out gobs of money, especially with the whole family in tow.
However, I suggest at least one vacation to Juneau. It’s our capital, for heaven’s sake, and it’s also full of kid-and-budget-friendly opportunities. From visiting local parks to roaming the steep, narrow city streets in search of attractions showcasing the area’s history and culture, Juneau is the perfect place to walk with children. I covered several miles around the city last week, taking with me a Juneau mom of two and new arrival to the city. Here’s what we found.
Getting to Juneau
The most efficient way to fly is using Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. For as little as 5,000 miles per person each way plus minimal taxes and fees, a family can fly from Anchorage. I save airline miles for in-state travel, finding it the most cost-effective way to explore our state. Be flexible with travel dates, and remain open to interesting routes that may take you to smaller towns like Cordova and Yakutat on your way to or from Juneau.
Staying in Juneau
The local visitor bureau, Travel Juneau offers a wealth of lodging options, but I’m partial to those located within easy walking distance of the downtown core. Yes, it’s crowded and accommodations at larger hotels can be tough to secure in the summer, but with a bit of searching, a family can find overnight lodging. I like the Juneau Hotel’s all-suite rooms, located at the junction of the Douglas Island bridge and Egan Drive, within easy walking distance to all sorts of fun. Or, for a more boutique experience, try the Silverbow Inn on Second Street. The location is prime — right downtown with access to restaurants and attractions — and the rooms are welcoming for a smaller family. Another option is to find a vacation rental through a company like HomeAway, especially handy if multiple families are traveling together and can split the costs. You’ll save money on meals, too, by cooking and eating in your temporary “home.”
Walking the city
Travel Juneau provides an excellent map of the downtown core at their seasonal visitor center on Franklin Street near the cruise ship docks, or at a kiosk (also seasonal) near Marine Way and the public library. Neither of these locations were open last week, so I printed the map from the Travel Juneau website.
We began our daylong stroll at the newly renovated Alaska State Museum on Whittier Street. Open for business after a two-year project to remodel the facility, the museum has 21 separate themes that explain the cultural, historical and social aspects of Alaska, with the intention of making them accessible and interesting to visitors of all ages.
From the museum, we strolled along the bustling cruise ship docks, where ships are expected to arrive in a few weeks. It was here we were able to spy two statues depicting the uniqueness of Juneau. One, called Hard Rock Miner, commemorates the city’s mining past, while the other, Patsy Ann, explains the story of a kindhearted dog that greeted arrivals from steamships in the 1930s. A children’s book has been written about Patsy Ann, and visiting families should not miss this delightful opportunity to pat her bronzed head on the dock near Marine Way.
From here, follow the docks south to the Mount Roberts Tramway for a birds-eye view of Gastineau Channel, Juneau, Douglas, and the sweeping mountains and water beyond. Open May-September, the tramway provides access to miles of trails and a cultural center operated by Alaska Native tribal groups, whose people have occupied this area for centuries. Some hikes are short and manageable for young children. Others are more expansive and include the option to hike all the way up the mountain (receive a free ride down).
If the kids’ legs are still working after a mountain hike, walk back through town along Franklin Street and head up the steep hill toward 4th Street, taking a left. The state Capitol building and Juneau Douglas City Museum are both on 4th, and they’re fun places to learn more about state and city government. A self-guided capitol tour is an excellent way to explore the building with kids, who often aren’t enamored by history and architecture as long as adults, but even a few minutes here is worthwhile. The Juneau Douglas City Museum is a small facility that caters to kids, and we enjoyed the hands-on exhibits and activity sheets that kept small hands busy.
By now, kids are usually clamoring to play, and a perfect final push is to follow the curve of 4th Street as it turns into Calhoun, passing the Governor’s House, a 1912 piece of elegance where the governor’s family resides. Pass this beautiful white home and follow Calhoun to Gold Creek. Take a right and wander up the forested Capitol Street to Cope Park where the kids can enjoy a playground and free time. On a warm day, Cope Park is a perfect place for a picnic while enjoying the rushing creek, towering trees, and ample space for children to play. Keep an eye on youngsters, though, as Gold Creek really rages after a rain. A walk up the creek trail also provides access to other hiking trails like Mount Roberts and the Flume Trail. A complete guide to area trails is on the Travel Juneau website.
Granted, your family may not accomplish all of these walking tour destinations in a single day. My friend and I were fortunate to have brilliant blue sky and sunshine, but Juneau’s weather is notorious for rain and cool temperatures. That said, kids who are dressed appropriately in rain gear and boots will enjoy their experience, no matter the weather. Parents should also carry snacks, water, and make plans to factor in meal times at one of Juneau’s excellent restaurants. Full bellies and ample time to relax in one of my favorite Southeast Alaska cities makes for happy traveling kids and parents.