Alaska: The Tip of the Iceberg

Although Alaska is often left off the travel list because of its challenging climate and remote location, Alaska is certainly where one discovers new exciting surprises around each bend in the trail, channel, or glacier. When presented with the opportunity to move to Southeast Alaska for the summer, I took it. I’m proud to say that I’m well traveled both domestically and internationally, but I found myself rather ignorant of Alaska. Although, I probably should have, I didn’t do much research. So instead, I dove in. I have educated myself firsthand about this little precious piece of Alaska, which I have found over the last four months to be only the tip of the iceberg.

If you enjoy adventures, the outdoors, and viewing all forms of nature up close and personal, Alaska is a dream spot. The weather presents challenges, but as any traveler knows, it is all about the gear. If you come prepared for damp, chilly, or even cold temperatures, you will enjoy Southeast Alaska. The locals say that there really isn’t bad weather, only bad gear. So yes, it rains in Southeast Alaska. In fact, little did I know that the Tongass National Forest was a rainforest. Quite honestly, I never expected to experience a rainforest in a place like this. I always pictured Costa Rica, the Amazon, or another tropical climate. Regardless, here’s a major tip – if you want to discover what this slice of heaven has to offer, bring rain gear and lots of it. Just like you wouldn’t go to the Sahara without the appropriate survival gear like head wraps, light weight breathable clothing, sunglasses, sunscreen, and good footwear, you don’t come for a good time to Juneau, Skagway, Haines, or any other Southeast Alaskan town without your rain gear.

Once you are prepared with rain pants, raincoat, hood, waterproof hiking boots, or Xtratufs (the Alaska version of all weather footwear), neoprene gloves, extra socks, hat, and even a waterproof backpack, you are ready to follow in some of my footsteps or uncover some adventures of your own.

Using Juneau as your base, you have many do NOT miss opportunities. My favorite, which has been my backyard over the summer, is the Mendenhall Glacier. Whether it is your first time viewing a glacier or a seasoned glacier expert, the activities available to explore, view, and take in this natural masterpiece are countless. Whether you want to go in a small group, solo, or even various times on different routes with different companions, I have ideas for you.

The easiest and cheapest option is to view the glacier, lake, Nugget Falls, and the surrounding forest by foot. If you are in Juneau, you can take the Glacier Express for $8USD each way to arrive at the Visitor’s Center. I would suggest taking a few photos from the Pavilion and progressing to the Nugget Falls trail. Although these areas are still well trafficked, you can get a good feel as far as the scale of the falls and the glacier this way. To stay near the Visitor Center, you can go on a moderate hike amongst the Sitka Spruce, Hemlock, and what seems like a museum of moss on East Glacier Trail.

However, if you have time or another day, I would suggest a more difficult hike on the west side of the Lake (near the Mendenhall Lake Campground), which is much less crowded. This trail allows for another perspective of the lake, glacier, and Nugget Falls. For those skilled at hiking, blessed with very dry conditions, and with hiking companions, I would suggest veering off the main trail to the unmaintained trail. This takes you to the glacier caves. There is nothing like exploring a cave of ice with glaciermelt and streams flowing all around you. The ceiling of the cave appears like the sky. However, I must caution you that going and returning on the rocky, slick trail requires much care and great hiking boots. As always, be prepared with good gear, lots of water, snacks, and safety items such as a whistle.

For those adventure seekers that have a larger budget, there are various tour companies that offer helicopter flights to view the Juneau Ice Field as well as a pit stop on the Mendenhall Glacier for a short, guided walk. I would recommend calling TEMSCO helicopters, which flies out of the Juneau airport seven days a week for numerous flights to the Mendenhall Glacier. This includes a 30-minute guided tour on the glacier with the opportunity for viewing crevasses, tasting glacial water from a stream, taking pictures, and trekking around with glacier boots. The cost is per person and around $250-275USD. Tuesday and Wednesday are the busiest days. Try to aim for later in the week or even over the weekend.

There are over 250+ miles of hiking trails in and around Juneau. However, there are only about 40 miles of roads in Juneau. So when in Juneau, do like Juneauites, hike. Once you have explored the area around the Mendenhall Glacier, I would suggest two hikes that are near Juneau’s downtown: Mount Roberts and Perseverance Trails.

The first, Mount Roberts Trail, allows for firsthand exploration of what a rainforest looks and feels like on a moderately difficult upward hike to the Mount Roberts Tram, restaurant, and gift shop. On this hike, you will truly experience the lush rainforest, which includes a little mud, devil’s club, waterfalls, and moss covered everything; that means you as well if you don’t hike fast enough. As a reward, follow the hike with a warm pit spot at the top before the five-minute tram ride down.

You can enjoy the best views of the Gastineau Channel at the overlook with an opportunity to relax in the restaurant and bar with a meal, appetizer, or just a local beer. Once you have experienced the lookout and restaurant, the tram ride down to the docks and downtown is free (as long as you purchase $10 of food or gifts while at the top). If you have travel companions that choose not to hike, they can go up and down the tram to join you – it is $27 per person. The hike takes about an hour and fifteen minutes to the top, depending on your fitness level as well as what you are carrying with you. Although there is an official trailhead off Basin Road, I would suggest taking the local entrance at Gold and 6th Streets, follow the steps, and begin your hike. This is just minutes from the Juneau International Hostel, Silverbow Inn, all of downtown Juneau, and the docks.

The second, Perseverance Trail, is the most gradual and pleasant trail that I have experienced in and around Southeast Alaska. Starting at the end of Basin Road, roughly two miles from downtown, generally up steep, narrow Juneau streets, somewhat like San Francisco, you arrive at the trailhead of Perseverance. Although the name is quite scary, it is a gentle three-mile hike to the end or six miles roundtrip. The entire route is following an old mining trail, which is wide enough for park vehicles and well maintained with much gravel and good bridges. The elevation gain is little, but the views are nothing less than amazing.

You will follow the old mining road through the valley, primarily cut by the snowmelt, its river, as well as the mining itself. Along the way, there are various twists and turns where you will have shutterbug wet dreams with cascading waterfalls, soothing streams, and even eagles, or their mighty rival in these parts, ravens, soaring effortlessly hoping to beat the competition to the next meal, perhaps a spawning salmon. The hike takes about two to three hours each way; however, if you would like to cut your hike in half, I would suggest turning around at Granite Creek Trail. Once you finish your hike, you can visit the Old Gold Mining Museum or head back into downtown to visit a few of the great drinking and eating establishments – the Red Dog Saloon for a drink and Tracy’s Crab Shack for a combo – king crab leg, crab cakes, and crab bisque.

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