In planning a trip to Alaska, visions of untamed wilderness twinkling under sunny skies fills my imagination. Arriving to visit Juneau, Alaska’s capital city, from the peacefulness of Glacier Bay, I begin to think the plane has taken a very wrong turn. The city of just over 30,000 is swarming as if we are standing gobsmacked in New York’s Times Square.
Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) states that over one million cruise ship passengers visit Juneau each summer. That number is expected to rise for the unforeseeable future. That’s a fabulous figure for Juneau Alaska tourism.
For those of us who came to visit Alaska by plane and car, the Juneau cruise excursions pouring off five cruise ships docked in port this day, it feels more like Pamplona’s running of the bulls.
Now before Juneau tourism has our heads let us be clear about the beauty of Juneau Alaska. The amount of stunning things to do in Juneau far outweighs the issue of over crowding. It is home to some of the most magnificent scenery in all of North America.
However unless you adore standing in line and jostling about viewpoints like desperate salmon in spawning season, we have some Alaska travel tips for you to remember for future Alaska trips.
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Before you visit Juneau we invite you to be far wiser than we. Planning your Juneau sightseeing will keep you from wanting to pull your hair out and from being trampled by a mob for that matter.
5 Tips to Avoid Crowds When You Visit Juneau Alaska
Mount Roberts Tramway
One of the do-not-miss Juneau excursions is the Mount Roberts Tramway rising to 1800 feet above sea level. The dazzling views of the Gastineau Channel and Chilkat mountains are postcard worthy.
With the loading point of the tramway being at the cruise ship dock, the line up for a great deal of the day winds endlessly likely a sleepy snake. What goes up must come down and the line up for the return trip matches in patience-testing length.
Tips for Juneau sightseeing via Mount Roberts Tramway
The tramway is open May to September, usually until 9:00 pm. (Be sure to check on the day you purchase your ticket.) By 5:30 pm-6:00 pm the line lessens dramatically as many cruise ship visitors are headed back for dinner.
Explore the trails above the exit of the tram for one to two hours. There you will find far fewer people. Amazing how some steep climbing decreases the enthusiasm of Juneau visitors. By 8:00 pm – 8:30 pm the line returning to Juneau will be far shorter.
Hiking up and down is another option. The trail begins on Basin Road approximately one mile (1.6 km) away from the Mount Roberts tram station. The trail is reported to be often muddy and uneven. Be prepared for rapid changes in weather on Mount Roberts. This is Black Bear habitat and although attacks are rare bears can be dangerous.
As south east Alaska’s only glacier accessible by road, the Mendenhall is a big winner in Juneau Alaska tours. Thirteen miles from Juneau, the tour buses transporting cruise ship visitors arrive in diesel-fuelled convoys. We park up the road from the visitor center to avoid being caught in the parking lot crush. Potentially literally.
The Mendenall Glacier sees 400,000 visitors each year. Possibly all are present on the day we visit Juneau.
The river of blue ice is fed by 1500 square miles of the Juneau ice field. Icebergs bob in the crystal clear water of Mendenhall Lake providing an obstacle course for kayakers clearly not afraid of the frigid waters. The kayakers may be on the least crowded of the tours in Juneau.
Tips for visiting Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier
Thread your way through the masses of visitors throughout the Mendenhall Visitor complex. Deep breathe as necessary and know this tip is going to get you out of the fray shortly.
You do not need to buy a visitor pass for where we are directing you.
Follow the signs for Nugget Falls Trail which will end at a five story high waterfall and the nearby glacier. After crossing a wooden bridge there will be a sign for Nugget Falls instructing you to turn right. Go left on to the dirt path that will lead you to the shoreline of the lake. Follow the path and shoreline to Nugget Falls.
From sharing paradise with hundreds if not thousands to a few, explore the views along the quiet shore and sand bar.
For the more adventurous the West Glacier Trail ends at the Mendenhall Glacier face. Note the trail head can not be reached from the Mendenhall Visitor Center.
Get off the cruise ship tour itinerary and do your own private tours in Juneau
It would be a shame to miss the view from the top of the Juneau tramway or the glorious sight of Mendenhall. Still there are fabulous gems that the cruise ship tours in Juneau Alaska are not visiting. One of our top finds that qualifies is a stop at the Alaskan Brewing Company.
The tradition of brewing beer in Alaska took a strong foothold in the gold rush days of 1700. Centuries later, in 1986, Marcy and Geoff Larson opened the first brewery in Juneau since prohibition. Still located where they opened, we heard from the staff about the addition of Sitka spruce tips and alder smoked malts.
Best of all the atmosphere was genuine Alaska where friendly conversation flows instead of crowds.
The only other visitors that sunny Juneau afternoon was an experienced cruise ship couple and their grown sons. They had taken a ride share car from Juneau’s cruise dock to the brewery knowing how to avoid the crowds in a busy port.
We spent a great deal of time congratulating each other on how clever we were to escape the mobs.
Avoid the Juneau crowds and stay in Mendenhaven
Just 2 miles (3km) north of Juneau International Airport and 8 miles (13km) from Juneau you will find Mendenhaven. With the Mendenhall Glacier and Visitor Center up the road this quiet location provides quicker access to the ice marvel. We chose to stay at a bed and breakfast that also served dinner. The majority of restaurants in the area are in Juneau along with the crowds.
Tour Juneau Alaska outside of cruise ship season
As with many parts of the world the best time to travel is low or at least shoulder season. The cruises ships begin visiting Juneau at the end of April and finish in early October. You can check the Alaska cruise ship schedule here.
The challenge with avoiding crowds is that some services may not be open in off season. The tramway does not run year round. The outdoor trails of the Mendenhall Glacier remain open year round but the Visitor Center does not.
Our best advice is to check the cruise ship schedule. In spring and fall fewer ships will dock in Juneau and some days none at all. I wish I had done this research ahead of our visit. The next time we visit Juneau Alaska I will.
Do let us know if the tips help you to enjoy your Alaska travel.
Do you have any tips for avoiding crowds in a cruise ship destination? Have you been to Alaska?