Let’s start with the obvious: A visit to Alaska’s capital is not complete without a stop at the Mendenhall Glacier—whether it’s a quick scenic jaunt, a fun kayaking adventure, or an on-glacier climbing experience. The latter is our recommendation as (carefully) feeling the sharp ice and seeing the irregular shapes and unique features (hello, ice caves) of the glacier is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many travelers. The Private Mendenhall Glacier Trek & Ice Climb with Above & Beyond Alaska—one of just two commercial guiding companies holding permits for the west side of the glacier—is a challenging, 8+ hour excursion (prices vary based on group size, and necessary gear is included). If your heart isn’t racing after the 3.5-mile trail hike through the rainforest, it will be after two hours of on-glacier exploring and ice climbing before making the long walk back. Passengers also have the option of taking a helicopter tour of the ice field (we suggest combining that with dog-sledding), powering themselves to the glacier in sea kayaks on Mendenhall Lake, or hopping aboard a scenic wildlife cruise to view whales, harbor seals, and sea lions.
While the Mendenhall Glacier is sure to be a cruise highlight, Juneau offers plenty of other ways to while away a full day at port. In fact, the city has more miles of hiking trails than roads in town. Pick from one of the more than 90 maintained trails, or opt for a leisurely 45-minute stroll to the Last Chance Mining Museum or a ride on the Goldbelt Mount Roberts Tramway. A shop filled with Native-made gifts awaits at the top.
Which leads us to this: Juneau is the ideal port to cross “souvenirs” off your to-do list. The further you head into the walkable downtown, the more local wares you’ll discover. Glacier Smoothie sells handmade soaps crafted with mineral-rich glacier silt that works as a natural exfoliant. (We like the original turquoise bar.) The Alaska Fudge Company’s preservative-free sweets are made fresh daily. And several smokers offer pretty much every salmon and halibut treat you can think of. (If you—or the kids—want to learn more about salmon, the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery is worth a visit.)
History rules in this community of less than 1,000 residents across the border from Canada’s Yukon Territory. Known as the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush (author Jack London rose to fame by writing about his experiences in the region), the most popular tourist attraction remains the White Pass Summit Excursion. The three-hour, narrated train ride ($119 adult, $59.50 child) travels alongside the original Klondike Trail prospectors walked to the 2,865-foot summit. As you chug along, keep your camera nearby to capture panoramic views of snow-covered peaks, waterfalls, and historic sites.
It’s easy to keep the olden-time vibe going when you return to the quiet town, as most of the buildings on Broadway Street were built between 1897 and 1900. Stop at the NPS Gold Rush Museum to see the incredible amount of supplies one gold-seeker was encouraged to take for one year of prospecting (including 400 pounds of flour and just two pairs of overalls). Then pop over to the Red Onion Saloon, a working bar and restaurant, that was originally a dance hall, saloon, and bordello; the waitresses still dress in Western brothel get-ups, and tours of the upstairs museum are available.
Those seeking a thrill can sign up for Ocean Raft Alaska’s adventure boat ride through the Lynn Canal, the longest and deepest fjord in North America. The vessel reaches speeds of up to 50 miles per hour as you explore the pristine waters and seek out wildlife during the two-hour excursion. Or get a bird’s-eye view with Packer Expeditions’ Heli-Hike & Rail Adventure, which blends a scenic helicopter flight, wilderness hike, and historic train ride into a half-day experience. Flatland adventurers will get a sense for Skagway’s lush scenery with an easy four-mile round-trip hike from Gold Rush Cemetery in town to the rocky Lower Reid Falls; the National Park Service estimates it’ll take about two hours round-trip.
For lunch, take a break from the seafood with Indian cuisine at Bombay Curry (rumor has it the governor’s office in Juneau has dishes from the restaurant flown in). If you just can’t have enough Alaska salmon, order the filling salmon stir-fry at Skagway Fish Co. before hitting the stores. Shoppers will find an overabundance of jewelry shops in town (more than two dozen are in operation). Keep your purchases local at Kirmse’s Curios, which sells and promotes Skagway artists. Other ways to support Skagway artisans include picking up a pound of homemade pecan-chocolate swirl fudge—to share, of course—at the 32-year-old Kone Kompany, and refueling with a pint of Skagway Brewing Co.’s Spruce Tip Blonde, which is brewed with handpicked Sitka spruce tree tips. Then cheers to a day well spent.
Less than 20 miles from Skagway (by boat) you’ll find the small community of Haines nestled against the base of the dramatic Chilkat Mountain Range. If you’re unsure of how much Haines can really offer to visitors, look no further than its surplus of nicknames: “The Adventure Capital of Alaska,” “Alaska’s Best Kept Secret,” and “Valley of the Eagles.”
Disembarking the ship lands visitors right downtown, in the Historic District of Fort Seward. The fort and related buildings were decommissioned after World War II and now house hotels, B&Bs, and art galleries. (A self-guided tour is available.) Along Main Street, visitors will find a cultural institution dedicated to a single tool: The volunteer-run Hammer Museum ($5 adults, kids 12 and younger are free) is an archaeological study of man’s evolution through the lens of the hammer. Also on this street is the Sheldon Museum & Cultural Center (same pricing); the venue’s two permanent exhibits explore Native and non-Native settlements in the area, and there is also a regular rotation of local artwork. Alaska Indian Arts displays limited-edition silkscreen prints. Outside of town, the timber façade of Extreme Dreams Fine Arts Gallery houses work from Alaskan artists, including sculpture, painting, and kiln-formed glass.
Haines most important identity, though, is that it serves as the main living area for the Native Tlingits. Klukwan, 26 miles away on the Haines Highway, is a small Chilkat Indian Village considered the Tlingits’ “mother village.” Chilkat Guides’ Eagle Preserve Raft Adventure (starting at $89) takes history and culture buffs to the village for lunch and a tour of the tribal long house, fish camp, and carving area. The excursion also includes a journey through the 48,000-acre Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, which, according to the American Bald Eagle Foundation, contains the world’s largest concentration of eagles.
Easy access to wildlife sightings is an obvious perk of Haines. A short jaunt from the dock takes you to the trailhead of Battery Point. A mile-long walk through the rainforest leads hikers to the beach; locals recommend continuing on for another mile or so along the shoreline to try your luck spotting humpback whales, moose, and porpoises. Brown bears, mountain goats, river otters, and fish also call the Chilkat Valley home.
Like the rest of the region, Haines offers kayaking adventures (on Chilkoot Lake), a high-speed boat ride (to Davidson Glacier), ice climbing, saltwater and freshwater fishing, among other activities. But if you’re more of a do-it-yourselfer, try a self-guided ATV tour on Takshanuk Mountain via Takshanuk Mountain Trail.
Unwind at the end of a long day with pizza at Fireweed Bakery & Cafe or local rockfish tacos at Mosey’s Cantina. While Haines does also have a brewery (Haines Brewing Company), we suggest switching up your booze routine with a stop at Port Chilkoot Distillery for a taste of small-batch gin (with hints of spruce), vodka, whiskey, and moonshine (in a cocktail or a straight-up). Next door you’ll find Dejon Delights Alaska Smokery and Gourmet Gifts; smoked salmon, black cod, and halibut make great gifts for jealous family and friends back home.