L ocated on Southeast Alaska’s temperate coastline, embedded within the massive, mossy Tongass National Rainforest, Juneau is best described as, um, wet. The rain might be the most logged complaint from tourists who don’t pack the right kind of rain jacket -- well, that and the spotty cell service. Cell phone coverage is excellent in urban Juneau, and yes, Wi-Fi is available in most hotels and coffee shops. It’s a big city (OK, big for Alaska) but that city disappears quickly, and you’ll lose internet and cell service the further afield you travel.
Which is all to say, Juneau’s more of a “know before you go” type of place than a “just Google it when you get there” type of place. Luckily, Alaskans are known for their friendliness and helpfulness, having themselves faced the unique challenges of living and getting around here. In the midst of writing this guide we ran into Juneauite Jack Hodges, who was heading out salmon fishing, and who is well known in these parts for pedaling a water bike from Bellingham, Washington, up to Juneau back in 1995. It took him six weeks, alone on an aluminum frame between two pontoons, navigating some of the trickiest sea currents in North America. He’s a fabulous orchestral trombonist, retired wildlife biologist and pilot, and just one example of the many unique characters who’ll be more than happy to help you find your trailhead.
Getting around Juneau: If you’re not on a cruise, you’re probably flying in from Seattle or Anchorage, a 2 to 2 1/2-hour flight. Just beware of the six-hour “milk-run” flight that makes three stops in small communities each way. Another option is to catch the Alaska Marine Highway System (AMHS), a three-day ferry ride from Bellingham, Washington, which is actually a pretty cool way to see the islands and saltwater channels of Alaska’s Inside Passage. If you can’t get a stateroom, bring your sleeping bag and vie for space in the highly competitive solarium, a covered outside deck with heat lamps. All cruise ships disembark downtown. Juneau has the usual taxis, rental cars, and buses, but almost no service through Uber or Lyft. If you’re cabbing out to a remote area, make sure you arrange to be picked up (again with the no cell service thing). There’s also a nifty pedicab service (Alaska Pedicab-Juneau) that will shuttle you around downtown for $1 a minute, or take you on a full city tour for $100. Spend an hour talking with these local peddlers and you’ll be an expert on downtown.
The best time to visit: Juneau’s weather is hard to plan around. No matter what time of year you visit, you need a quality rain jacket and a couple extra layers. If you plan to go out on the water or visit glaciers, bring extra-warm layers, hats, and gloves. You’ll also want sunscreen -- the air is cool but the days are long and the sun is bright (when it’s not raining, which it will, just wait).
More than the weather, wildlife and fish migration patterns should have the biggest influence on your timing. From May to June, humpback whales are returning to feed after giving birth to their calves in Hawaii. Salmon haven’t arrived in local streams yet, but trout and halibut fishing are rolling along. By mid-July, salmon are filling the streams and bears are filling themselves with salmon. Whale and bear watching is at its peak in the height of summer, but everything slows down after mid-September when unpredictable weather can cancel small plane flights and excursions. When the last cruise ship fades into the mists of October, Juneau’s tour guides hang it up for for the season, but independent travelers can cross-country ski, mountain bike, or ice skate on Mendenhall Lake.
How to book an excursion: First you must know what excursion you want to book! (We’ve got a guide for that.) Cruise lines handle most bookings for their passengers, but independent travelers (including small cruise ship passengers) must book their own guided adventures. Some tour companies book exclusively with the cruise lines, but may offer any leftover tickets to independents... it gets complicated fast, so it’s usually easiest for independent travelers to use a local booking agent like Keli’s Concierge and Tours. The cost is the same whether you booked through a cruise line, agent, company website, whatever.
It’s important to book excursions as early as possible. By January 1, all providers are ready to book for the year ahead, but many begin to fill dates even before the first of the year. Cruise lines reserve blocks of reservations for their passengers -- book as early as your cruise line allows. That being said, both independent travelers and cruisers can usually score last-minute excursions at booths by the dock in Juneau, sometimes at a discount.
The Mount Roberts Tram can be seen from basically anywhere downtown, and their parking lot is the pickup/drop-off point for almost all excursions and adventures (some run from Marine Park, two more blocks into town). Most excursions offer ride services you can take advantage of as well.
What to tip an excursion guide: Tipping your guides is very much appreciated, even if your cruise ship says you don’t need to. For large group excursions like whale watching, there's sometimes a place on the boat to leave tips, and it's always appropriate to hand $5-10 to one of the people who escort you off the boat to be shared with all the staff. Expect to tip more on smaller excursions with one lead guide where you’re getting a lot of personal attention -- at least $20 per guide, or more if it’s a full-day trip over five hours.