I’m not going to lie, I researched Juneau before my trip. And I was nervous. I tried to learn some cool and interesting facts, but as best as I could determine, the city was full of tourist traps, glaciers that are absurdly expensive to visit, and a tram to give you a bird’s eye view. Leaving the ship, we saw signs for all the typical Alaska excursions, flightseeing, fishing, whale watching, bear wrestling… well maybe not that one. But we opted instead to take advantage of the slightly not foggy weather, and fell prey to one of the perceived tourist traps, The Mount Roberts Tramway.
On the surface, this is an expensive way to get a bird’s eye view of Alaska’s capital. There is an injured eagle, too injured to be released to the wild, that they proudly display. They also have a small education area, but it is just a cleverly disguised gift shop. Finally, right at the top is a video that airs on a loop, telling the history of the Tlingit people. If these are the only things you use your $33 ticket for, then you’re definitnely being robbed. Especially on a typical cloudy Alaskan day. If you’re lucky enough to have a sunny clear day it might be a better value, but I wouldn’t be able to tell you.
There is a very special part of the ride up the mountain (although the charge and ride can be bypassed if you have time, and the perseverance to climb the mountain.) Behind all the buildings, there are a couple well groomed trails that lead even higher, to a couple overlooks. Again, the clarity of the day will greatly impact what you can see, but I witnessed the clouds rolling in and out all day, much quicker than one would have believed. I don’t think it ever cleared up entirely, but we did get to take a good look around us. Once the clouds became so ubiquitous that we couldn’t see anything that wasn’t immediately around us, we headed back down. The time spent tramping around the mountain top made the ticket up the mountain worth it in my opinion.
Quick disclaimer though, I found out on this trip that a lot of the flights out to the glaciers are cancelled due to weather, both in Juneau and other glacier flights, in fact the group after us got cancelled. If I had been in that later group I would have been devastated, but having known going in how often they’re cancelled would have helped me be better prepared mentally, I hope it does for you too. Now back on to your regularly scheduled programming.
Glacier trekking! The Mendenhall Glacier is like a beautiful ice world. An even mixture of pure white and light blue, laced with cerulean, that I’m almost positive is there only to make it even more beautiful, I’ve never seen anything look so pure. Measuring in at over twelve miles long, it is kind of hard to miss this Glacier, but if you’re coming off the cruise ship, you definitely wouldn’t be able to walk there. I did not get to visit the visitors center but this blogger did, and there is some awesome information there.
We didn’t have to worry about that, as NorthStar Treckking picked us up, and drove us to their helicopter pad. Once we were geared up, safety briefed, and ready to go, we took off, taking a leasurely helicoptor flight around the glacier, the surrounding mountains, and the glacier fed lake. After around twenty minutes we landed on the glacier at base camp. Here we were fitted with crampons and our trek began. The walk wasn’t particularly strenuous, but you do have to walk a little funky to make sure not to get your crampon stuck on the other foot, so I’d say if you have bad knees this probably wouldn’t be a great activity for you. For everyone else, if you can walk at a slow pace for an hour then you should be fine.
We had two guides, Bob leading us, and Skyler bringing up the rear. I always stick toward the back of the pack if there are two guides, the one in the back usually knows just as much, but because they’re not narrarating they can answer all the questions you have. Also they usually have a few more allowances than the leader does, so the experience is more laid back. That was definitely the case with this group, Skyler hung around and waited for us to take our pictures, and filled in the information we missed as we caught up to the rest of the group. It was good that he was so patient, because I kept stopping every couple steps and saying to anyone who would listen, “this is unreal.”
And that is about the only full sentence I got out during the next hour. Except for an occasional “wow,” or “why?” I simply couldn’t accept that a place like this could exist, I was in this absolutely otherworldly place. Describing it is almost worthless, no words could ever make you feel the same way I did, it was like I had been flown to a different planet on that helicoptor ride.
Along the edge of the glacier, where ice meets mountain, huge holes called crevasses open up. They form because the glacier moves fastest in the center, and the edges can’t keep up, so a new crack appears each year as it starts to get warmer, and they all grow as the summer progresses. They can be treated like tree rings, because they can indicate the age of a glacier. But they also have to be treated with respect because the edges are slippery, and the fall would be long. So even though they look mystifying, it’s in your best interests to hang back a little bit.
After the shortest hour of my life, my crampons were taken away, we had been flown back, I was throwing all of my outer clothing into different bins, and I was put into a van faster then I could comprehend that I was leaving. Leaving Mendenhall Glacier felt like I was leaving behind a part of myself, similar to how I feel I will carry this experience with me for the rest of my life. While I gained another page in my book, I feel like I left my bookmark back on that ice.
Finally coming out of my ice induced haze, I found myself dying for a bite to eat. We ended up choosing The Hanger on the Warf, which I can recommend wholeheartedly because their buffalo burger was delicious, and their beer selection was broad. I warmed up, drank up, and ate up, prepared myself for a walk back to the ship in the pouring rain. If you do find yourself wandering around the shopping district of Juneau, I recommend two places. One is Digital Express, a tiny camera store, with a tiny older gentleman working there who really knows his stuff. The store is a waste if you’re just browsing, but it you have any camera questions or needs he is the man to visit. Then moving further away from downtown and closer to the ship, you’ll come across a strand of booths. There is one called Barnacle Foods that makes the best kelp salsa. It might be the only place that makes kelp salsa, so I’m not sure if using a superlative truly helps to describe it, but if you like supporting local business who prioritize sustainability, and if you like salsa and free samples, definitely stop by. They also make kelp pickles but I wasn’t feeling quite that adventurous.
We walked back to the ship after that, soaking nearly entirely through our rain gear. I cannot emphasize enough how important rain gear is to your Alaskan adventure. I brought two raincoats, and I haven’t regretted it yet. Once I wrap this trip up I’d love to give you my Alaskan packing tips, but in the meantime the best source I could find was from this Alaskan local.
I hope if you’re having the same trepidations I was having about Juneau, this post helps to alleviate some of that. I really don’t think the Mendenhall Glacier should be missed, regardless of the capticity you visit it in. Let me know in the comments what you did when you visited Juneau, and if you’ve never been, let me know if this sounds like a “must do” in your book.