Mendenhall Glacier

The Great Alaska Cruise: Stops & Sights From My Day in Juneau

Places to Visit

Day four of my Alaska cruise started out under dreary skies as we sat docked at Juneau’s harbor. With a long day in port, we were in no immediate rush to get off the boat though the call of Mendenhall Glacier was enough to push us along just as soon as we finished breakfast! It would be more than ten hours before I set foot back on the boat — Juneau just has that much to do.

Welcome to Juneau

Morning Tour: Exploring Mendenhall Glacier

While the glacier is really just the tip of the iceberg (pun fully intended), it is a great starting spot if you’re not planning on any of the elaborate day tours (skip below for details on those.) 

Mendenhall Glacier

There are two common ways to get to Mendenhall: the shuttle bus for $30 a person (r/t) and a taxi for about $35 o/w. While the cab may seem like the best option for a group of 3 or more, as we found out that morning, the bus is simply a faster bet. That’s because commercial access to the parking area is restricted and the taxi company’s only get a certain number of access permits to use so despite hailing a few different cabs, we were left walking from the base of the park on up. Not a bad way to start the day but not the best use of our limited time!

Arriving at Tongass National Forest, it’s takes just a few steps to emerge from the trees and get your first glimpse of the glacier ahead. While the visitor center is also just a short walk, we of course elected to immediately press on and take the tame 2 mile (r/t) Nugget Falls Trail to get as close to the glacier as was easily possible (my foot was out of commission and limping up the more aggressive paths seemed foolish.)

Mendenhall Glacier Views

Sadly, with the rapid recession of the glacier, it’s still a long ways off from the end of the gravel trail but the view is worth every second of the walk and every dollar of the ride. I’m talking waterfall, glacier bay, giant ice faces, cliff walls, and well, you can see that all in the photo.

After exploring around a few viewpoints on the trail, we headed on back towards the parking lot with a long stop at the Visitor Center which has a great presentation on the history of the glacier and region as well as another incredible view. Thankfully a few taxis were sitting in the parking lot as we departed (different rules out I guess) and we were able to catch a ride right back into town.

Kayakers at Mendenhall

Kayakers out in the Mendenhall Glacier Bay

For the more adventurous, there are hikes all around including up to the glacier’s toe where you may find an ice cave. While you can find details about that on AllTrails, keep in mind that it’s an aggressive hike into a dangerous place (ice caves don’t last forever – see the park info for more.)

Going with a guided group is not a bad idea in the least. Speaking of guides, you can also kayak the bay and go up near the glacier’s edge (be sure to pick the long tour) or head right onto the ice with a spendy but incredible looking Helicopter tour!

Afternoon Adventure: Taking the Mount Roberts Tram

After returning to the city, I decided to head off for a little solo time (it’s hard to get away from everyone on a ship and I do like my space!) and to give my twisted ankle a rest. Naturally that meant heading up 1,800′ above the city — with the help of the Mt Roberts tram of course.

Juneau Mt Roberts Tram View

Now I’ve been on plenty of scenic trams before and usually they’re just about getting you from point A to B but not the case here. The entire ride up (which is rather zippy considering the distance) is impressive as the operators walk you through some of the sights of Mt. Roberts, the city or just local history knowledge. Rising out from the massive trees to look down at the increasingly small city is quite a sight.

Unfortunately, the tram ride is not exactly cheap at $33 a person for what amounts to a perhaps 30 minute visit for most people. But, if you combine it with a hike of the mountain’s stunning forests or lunch at the cafe up top, it certainly becomes better. You also get unlimited rides with your ticket and I certainly returned later in the day for another chance at the view and photo op.

The Mount Roberts Tramway

it’s not a cheap offering for what amounts to a 30 minute experience for many but hey, what’s a cruise if you don’t see the sights? On the plus side, your ticket lets you ride all day so you can head up and down a few times to get that perfect photo. 

Up for a good workout? You can skip the ride and hike right on up the mountain for a much better cost — though you may want to let it take you down and save your knees!

Wandering Through Juneau

Standing on the side of the boat before I set off for the day, it seemed like most of downtown Juneau was tourist shops and while there are plenty of those, the city has plenty more to offer too.

From museums to historic buildings and sights, it’s really worth wandering around on foot or with help of the free downtown bus to get off your feet and explore a little further. Walking back to the ship on foot, you’ll pass a variety of memorials, historic sights, and have a great view of the waterway with cruise ships, fishing boats and plenty else passing by.

Downtown Juneau

Shopping is a recurring theme of any Alaska Cruise but as a larger city, at least by port standards, this is a great place to pick up some of those must have gifts as well as any other essentials you may need (there are supermarkets and sports stores around town.) With a late departure time, I wrapped up my day watching the sunset over the water while wandering around the dock before heading off to find dinner on the boat!

Other Adventure Options in Juneau

Don’t let my simple wandering day fool you, there are several big adventure options around this port if you’re willing to spend the time — and cash.

First is the icefield. While Mendenhall is an impressive glacier, it’s just a tiny portion of the frozen terrain around and the best way to see more is of course from above. For a few hundred bucks, a helicopter tour will take you right onto the glacier while small planes can bring you even further into the 1,500 sq mile Juneau Icefield. This is one of the options I wish I had taken on, especially with a foot that just did not want to go off and walk to the ice caves as I had anticipated (that’s also an adventure tour you can book if you’re not experienced to go it alone.)

We did not see any Bears ourselves but did pass a few very obvious and fairly recent signs of them… yikes!

You can also hike the glacier, white water raft, zipline, spend half the day whale watching, take a dog sled ride (with mandatory puppy time) and eat at one of a half dozen cruise-ship focused venues in case the food on the boat was not enough.

All things said, one day in this port is not enough to see it all, not even close!

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