A Sustainable Day in Juneau, Alaska
Sustainable day of Adventure
Juneau is an amazing, tiny urban haven in the midst of the largest national forest in the United States. Immediately upon arriving and walking out into the clean, salty air outside the airport, you feel a connection to the environment that doesn’t exist in most communities in the “lower 48” or elsewhere in the world. Don’t you want to have as little impact as possible on the environment to keep this place pristine for the people who live here or the next traveler after you? Here’s how:
Sure, you can get points and maybe even a better deal at the franchise car rental company at the airport, but Juneau Car Rental Company, an independent former “rent-a-wreck” car rental company, will deliver a car to you whether you’re at the airport, ferry terminal, or at your hotel. They’ll even arrange to pick it up when you leave, as their headquarters are not in a central location for visitors. Their cars range from minivans and sedans to big ol’ chevy trucks from the early 2000s. Some of the cars might not be as new, but continuing to utilize vehicles is far more environmentally friendly than turning over new cars every 2 years.
Public transit in Juneau is award winning on a per-capita basis, but it might not be what you’re used to in a big city. From the airport, take the express bus right outside of the terminal (next to the smoking area) to get downtown quickly. The schedule can be a little wonky, so get a printed schedule from visitor information by baggage claim. The bus is $2 per person per ride. The express only runs during the week until about 6pm, so if you’re coming in late, the local bus stops about a block away from the airport across the street from the Wells Fargo.
The Rookery Cafe, featuring James Beard-nominated chef Beau Schooler, features not only locally caught seafood, but locally harvested and hunted wild edibles and game in creative, international dishes. Think Bibimbap with locally-harvested chanterelles or ramen with venison and sea asparagus. Best meal is dinner, but they’re open for breakfast (coffee shop atmosphere) and lunch as well.
For an off-the-beaten-path dinner, check out V’s Cellar Door. A basement venue, V (short for Venetia) fuses Mexican and Korean cuisine beautifully. Try the bulgogi nachos and her homemade shrubs (the drink, not the plant).
Treat yourself to something sweet at a local favorite hangout, Coppa. The owner, Marc Wheeler, hand-crafts ice cream from locally-harvested ingredients: From his signature Rhubarb Sherbert to funky flavors like Devil’s Club Green Tea, you can’t go wrong. He gives free ice cream as a reward to locals who help him harvest certain ingredients, adorns his walls with local art, and supports work experiences for individuals experiencing disabilities. Feed your belly and your soul while chatting with some locals about the salmon return or politics. It is the capital city after all.
The Alaskan Brewery is the 22nd largest craft brewery in the United States. Isolated in Juneau, they faced some serious challenges with their supply chain, and had to adapt accordingly. They’ve recently patented a system for using spent grain as biomass to power their boilers, calling it “Beer-Powered Beer.” Not only that, but they capture CO2 emissions and use it to carbonate their beer, use a mash press to save nearly 2 million gallons of water, 6 percent less malt, and 65,000 gallons of diesel fuel while still producing the same amount of beer as their traditional brewing process. Oh yeah, they also donate 1% of all Icy Bay IPA profits to promote sustainability of the Pacific Ocean & its coastlines. So drink up!
Take a brewery tour and get some samples of beers you can’t find anywhere else. Open every day 11am-7pm May-Sept, and 11am-6pm Mon-Sat the rest of the year.
Downtown Juneau is easily walkable: the core of downtown is only about 5 blocks wide by 6-7 long (like 50 yard blocks, not like a NYC block). Put on some comfy shoes and mentally prepare yourself for some moderate hills above the heart of downtown.
Local shops with a commitment to sustainability:
- Kindred Post, a US Postal Service contract store turned funky-hipster gift shop with a commitment to social justice and community organizing.
- Trickster Company, an innovative indigenous design company featuring Alaska Native design, artwork, and jewelry.
- Juneau Artists Gallery, a local artist co-op where locals go to get their art for themselves and their loved ones.
HIKE! FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, HIKE!
Juneau has more miles of trail than it does road (I’m not 100% on that fact, but I’m pretty sure). The proximity of wilderness to urban amenities in Juneau is unprecedented.
Downtown day hikes:
Perseverance & Granite Creek trails: follow Juneau’s drinking water source to its origin through the mountains behind downtown Juneau. 6 and 8 miles round trip for either Perseverance or Granite Creek, respectively.
Gold Ridge, Gastineau Peak and Mt. Roberts: Take the Mt. Roberts Tram ($32 all-day pass) from the docks up 1,800 ft and hike from there to Gastineau Peak or Mt. Roberts. Or, earn your dinner by skipping the tram and hiking the trail all the way. Mt. Roberts is 9 miles round-trip from the trailhead, the tram saves you about 3 of those miles and 1,800 ft of vertical elevation.
“Out the road:”
If you rented a car, a huge variety of trails open up to you. I’d recommend driving north of town or “out the road” as the locals say. Near mile 26, hike a flat 3.5 miles out to Windfall Lake, where there’s a Forest Service cabin (you can rent it out for a night, but book well in advance, like 6 months, to get your desired date).
Boy Scout Beach: Technically private land, locals frequent this trail year-round. It’s a flat gravel path running about 2-miles along the glacially-fed Eagle River out to a beautiful beach. On a clear day, you can see across Lynn Canal to the Chilkat Mountain range, which marks the easternmost border of Glacier Bay National Park.
You can camp for free on public land along many of the roadways/coastlines throughout Juneau. Make sure you’re outfitted to camp without any amenities, though, bathroom included. For more legitimate camping, Camp by a glacier at the Mendenhall Campground or near the ferry terminal at the Auk Village Campground.
There is one hostel in downtown Juneau, but I have a hard time recommending it. It’s closed during the day, 9am-5pm, and there is a “curfew” at 10:30pm where the doors are locked and they don’t provide keys for reentry. However, the hostel itself is in a great location and has clean facilities and a full kitchen & living room.
The sustainable choice:
Airbnb with a local. There are plenty of great options under $100/night. Look on Douglas Island near the bridge. It’s a close walk to downtown Juneau and beautiful views of the mountains behind it.
Arts & Culture
Check out the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council (JAHC) for their community calendar filled with local events and nightlife. the JAHC is the lifeblood organization of the arts scene in Juneau. Between running their own programming and promoting everyone else’s, this is the first place to go to see what’s going on during your stay.
Visit the Sealaska Heritage Institute at the Walter Soboleff Building in downtown Juneau: Much different architecturally than any of the surrounding mining-era buildings, the building has sleek, modern lines combined with traditional Alaska Native and Northwest Coast Formline. The traditional clan house named Shuká Hít is one of the most notable features to see.
Spend time at the newly-renovated Alaska State Museum. The Alaska Exhibit has art and artifacts from around the state, spanning history from the days of mammoths and short-faced bears to that of modern mining and current exhibits from local artists.