Which U.S. city is inaccessible by road but still gets 800,000 visitors each year? If you guessed Juneau, Alaska, grab a gold star.
Juneau sits on the North American West Coast but is cut off from the rest of the continent by steep mountains, the massive Juneau Icefield and the Mendenhall Glacier. Those are just a few of the natural attractions to behold in Juneau, this most unusual of capital cities, where arrival requires a plane or a boat.
Air travel is simple: Alaska Airlines is the sole commercial carrier to fly to and from Juneau’s smallish airport. Boat transportation is more extensive and arrivals more frequent. The soaring popularity of Alaska’s Inside Passage as a cruise destination has spiked the number of tourists arriving by sea.
You can bring your car with you, thanks to the Alaska Marine Highway System. This network of barges and ferries connects Juneau with Haines and Skagway, Alaska; Prince Rupert, British Columbia; Bellingham, Washington; and smaller towns in between.
Once there, options for exploring the great outdoor attractions in Juneau are abundant—almost too abundant, in fact. The easily reached Mendenhall Glacier should be right up there on anybody’s agenda. It is just 13 miles north of downtown and even closer to the airport. You can drive right up to the glacier’s visitors’ center, which is run by the U.S. Forest Service.
Leave the car and hike up the East Loop Trail for a better view of the glacier. The three-hour trek ends at a breathtaking scenic overlook. Pack a picnic, and bring a jacket. If you go early enough in the day, you may well have the glacier to yourself.
Mendenhall is just one of 38 major glaciers that flow from the Juneau Icefield, which lies on the other side of the tall mountains that ring the city. The icefield itself extends as far as Skagway, 90 miles northwest of Juneau. Aerial tours of the Juneau Icefield are quite popular, and helicopters can land right on the ice, giving visitors an opportunity to hike for as long as two hours.
Glacier Bay National Park, a short plane or boat ride west of Juneau, affords equally stunning vistas. Admiralty Island offers rainforest hikes, bear-viewing expeditions and sea kayaking. Other adventure excursions include whale-watching cruises up the Lynn Canal, and boat rides to the steep-sided Tracy Arm and Fords Terror fjords.
For an indoor Juneau attraction, visit the Alaska State Museum in downtown. It traces the city’s history from its founding in 1880 by gold prospectors Joe Juneau and Richard Harris. Also worth a look is the Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure, with its unusual upside-down “flower towers.”
At night you’ll have no shortage of things to do. The seafood in Juneau is epic and featured in most restaurants. Clubs and bars proliferate, and the city is decidedly casual: This is one destination where you can leave your dressy clothes at home.