Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Side trip to Juneau

This is coming a few weeks after the fact since we've been traveling much. We are finally home, so I get to catch up on blog entries!

Juneau is a 6 hour ferry ride from Skagway (more on the ferry in another entry), and it is such a long ways from Homer that we decided to bop on down for a couple days since we were in the area. It is locked in by mountains, and I read in the book Avalanche! (I forget the author; an Anchorage resident; a great read!) that many homes are in avalanche zones, so I wanted to see this place that I could only picture in my mind. Juneau isn't as wild and remote as I imagined it (and yes, plenty of homes are in avalanche zones!), and yet it is remote enough that I wouldn't want to live there. It has a population of about 30,000, 91 miles of roads, and hundreds of miles of hiking trails (the one reason I want to spend more time there!). It is pretty much like living on an island, so to go anywhere you must fly (expensive) or ride a boat (slow). That would drive me nuts.

Downtown Juneau was very cool! I am not a big shopper, and we really didn't shop much, but it was fun to walk the cozy (read: old!) streets with the crowds of tourists from all over the world. Up to 5 cruise ships can dock right in downtown Juneau, and the 2 days we were there at least 2 huge ships did dock each day, with a fresh crowd of people pouring out into the streets to shop and say they'd been to Alaska. Since nearly everyone who comes to Juneau does not have a vehicle, the tour business is huge, whisking people off to the Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau Icefield, wildlife watching cruises, kayaking, zipline adventures, etc. We decided to bring our car down by ferry so we would have the freedom to go where we wanted.

Here are the places we visited, and a summary of the features or highlights, from our perspective. My camera still wasn't working, so no pictures! Sorry!

Mendenhall Glacier: The visitor center here is really nice. It was a treat to watch mountain goats (including a baby!) jumping around the mountainside above us through the high powered telescopes in the visitor center. The movie in the auditorium was interesting, and all the staff was very friendly. We hiked the 3 1/2 mile East Glacier Trail to get a closer view of the glacier, but it didn't get us much closer, and from that perspective it wasn't worth it. The trail was nice, very similar to Day 2 of the Chilkoot trail: hilly rainforest, with everything covered with moss. Supposedly bears are seen on the trails around the glacier daily, so though it felt quite tame, we tried to keep up our bear awareness.

Alaska State Capitol Building: Tours are offered every day, and while it wasn't an exceptional tour, it did explain what was what. I really enjoyed the historic pictures that lined the walls of all 3 floors. The legislature wasn't in session, and it was the day after the 4th of July, so all was quiet.

City Museum: This was conveniently located across the street from the State Capitol building in the old Juneau library. It had a whole room dedicated to motorcycle memorabilia (apparently Juneau has a very high per capita motorcycle ownership), a very interesting video about the history of Juneau, and a fun hands-on kiddy room. If I didn't have much time, I wouldn't consider going there again. We did appreciate that kids under 18 were free, as they were at nearly every tourist place we went to in Juneau.

Alaska State Museum: This was very nicely done, and we especially enjoyed the art gallery of entries of an Alaskan photo contest. The kids liked the children's play room where there was part of a ship to climb on, as well as an I spy creation taking up most of one wall where they had to find small toys in a conglomerate of items. There was also a raven board game on the main level in the Raven Room that the kids enjoyed too. The free lockable lockers were a treat so we didn't have to carry our backpacks the whole time we were there. It was a nice size museum (not too big, but big enough to be worth it), and I would enjoy going there again.

Centennial Hall Convention Center Visitors Information: The ladies here were very helpful and pointed us in the direction of 4 playgrounds/parks/trails that weren't on our map. We have learned that in order to find the parks the locals go to we have to ask around, because they don't put things like that on tourist maps. Here are some of the places they recommended:

Rain Forest Trail: This is on Douglas Island across the channel from Juneau (Douglas was a bigger city than Juneau in its heyday at the height of the gold rush) and a 10 minute or so drive north along the shoreline. The skunk cabbage plants were huge, the trail was very nice and easy (which we appreciated after the Chilkoot!), and meandered down to the beach through a beautiful rain forest. We didn't spend a lot of time there, but I would go back so we could explore more of the trails.

Cope Park: This park has a frisbee golf course, a tennis court, pavilion, awesome waterfalls that go on and on, a spillway and rough trails. Then we discovered the placer by accident. This park is on Gold Creek, which was one of the first creeks to have gold discovered along it in the 1800's. The original placer, or trough that water would run through, was still there, and they built a walkway on it, so it is now a popular hiking trail. We took that, and came out in town somewhere, so ended up getting a walking tour of the back streets of Juneau as we made our way back to our car and the park. We would NOT want to live in Juneau in the winter: the streets are narrow, winding and very hilly, and they get a lot of snow!

Big, very cool playground: That's not the official name of it, but it is by Twin Lakes and the hospital as you head out of Juneau proper and towards the airport and ferry dock. It is like the Imagination Station in Kalkaska--one of those big wooden playgrounds that kids get lost in. This one was made almost entirely out of the plastic boards (like Trex) so it will last forever. It was very well designed, with a separate small kid section, some big slides, shelters for the parents to sit in, a picnic area, and even a lake with a small beach right next to it. Our kids begged for an hour there, and it was not close to enough. They talked of it in terms of their "dream playground". Maybe they'd just had enough of grown-up hikes and were desperate for kiddie time!

To sum up Juneau: It is a nice place. We like it. The biggest downfall is just that you can't drive beyond the 91 miles of roads. I wouldn't want to stay in a hotel downtown again since we had to park 5 blocks away in the city lot. Next time I would look for a cabin or house rental (there were some reasonably priced ones that we found out about later). Next time we visit we'll be out on the trails hiking rather than exploring the city. But we will most definitely go back to the Mongolian restaurant on the corner of Seward and Second Streets: it was an awesome, choose your food and spices and they grill it as you watch place. And next time we'll hope Olivia's Mexican restaurant on Seward Street is open (it was closed for the 4th) since it came highly recommended by a local we talked to.

No comments: