I was born and raised in Alaska and today I’m sharing 10 things you MUST do, see and eat in my home state. We recently took my family back to visit for a few weeks and crammed in lots of fun, so I narrowed down my top picks so that you know what to put on your bucket list when you come to this great state! This list is applicable to all of Alaska, but my examples are specifically from Juneau, so you are getting an insider, local perspective. 🙂
1. Go fishing
It’s always fun if you know someone who can take you out on the water, but if not, you can fish off most beaches. Be sure to buy a fishing license and since it isn’t cheap, you might as well plan on taking some fish home. If you are 12 and under, or 60 and over, then you can fish without a license!
Above, is my dad and my son, Owen, holding a 60 pound halibut they caught one afternoon on our friend’s boat. Halibut is MY FAVORITE type of fish to eat. I have friends who hate seafood but love halibut.
A fun option for kids is to go near a fish hatchery. In Juneau, we went to the dock and shores next to D.I.P.A.C. where literally hundreds of salmon were spawning and each of my kids hooked one without much effort. The most common fish you find are the chum (striped) or pink salmon (have a hump) which aren’t great for eating, so we released them. I’ll explain more on the types of Alaskan salmon later down on my list.
2. Go out on a boat
There is nothing quite like going boating on open water in Alaska. There are plenty of charter options, whether you want to go halibut fishing, whale-watching or just site-seeing. Or, even cheaper, rent a kayak and shove off in the ocean or on a lake.
Great places to kayak in Juneau are off of Amalga Harbor (pictured above), Auke Lake, Auke Bay (opens to the ocean), and Mendenhall Lake.
We got super lucky with lots of sunny weather while we were there, so we enjoyed a beautiful day on the water. In the background you can see Herbert Glacier nestled in the mountains. Did you know Juneau is the largest city in the United States by area? That area includes ice fields and forests, so the population stays low– around 35k.
3. Go hiking
With a quick search, you will find several hikes of varying degrees of difficulty, all over Alaska. The scenery is breath-taking and pristine. Many times, even on well-known hikes, you feel like you are the only one who has seen such beauty. Bears are quite common so make sure to hike with a friend, a dog, or a loud bell and plan to make noise to scare them off before there is a chance of an encounter.
One of my favorite hikes in Juneau, pictured above, is Mt Roberts. It starts at the end of Basin Road down town, and takes a couple hours to hike up (if you are slower and have kids with you). It is pretty steep, but my brother with his 3 and 5 year old made it, and I don’t remember them being carried hardly at all. Near the top of the mountain, there is a visitor center about the local Native Alaskan tribes, a gift shop, and a tram that you can ride down for $10 or with proof of a $10 gift shop purchase.
Some of my other favorite Juneau hikes are West Glacier Trail, East Glacier Trail (both have buses that transport to the trail heads), Herbert Glacier Trail (further drive out the road), and if you are in good shape, Mt Jumbo on Douglas Island.
4. Go camping
Camping gear is lighter and easier to pack than ever, so plan on bringing a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. And maybe a flashlight. The rest of what you need can be purchased, at a local store if you are tight on space. Designated camp grounds are great because of the conveniences but also think about camping along a beach (under tree cover to protect a bit from the elements)! Beach camping is perfect for kids because there is always something to see or do (looking for shells, skipping rocks, spotting sea life, etc) and I must say the sound of the waves is lovely to fall asleep listening to! Mosquitos are the unofficial state bird of Alaska so make sure to pack bug spray with deet.
My youngest two kids had never been camping “for real” so it was a must-do for our visit. We went out to Sunshine cove (pictured above) which is almost the end of the road in Juneau (about a 40 minute drive) and they gave the experience a 9 out of 10 even though it rained all night and part of the morning!
Sunshine Cove often sees a break in the clouds when the rest of the town is overcast, and has several clearings all along the cove for tents, and lots of fire pits. The car pull out is very close to the actual beach, so there is very little walking back and forth to get the gear in place. On sunny weekends, it is packed with campers, so you get there before 12 to get reserve your spot. We had tinfoil dinners (prepared ahead of time), s’mores dessert, pancakes & hot cocoa for breakfast, and played along the beach all morning. Other great places to camp in Juneau are Eagle Beach, Auke Recreation Area, and Mendenhall Campground. If you look far enough in advance, you can rent popular cabins (that require a good hike out to them) like John Muir Cabin, Windfall Lake Cabin, Dan Moller Cabin, and Eagle Glacier Cabin. Reserve cabins in Alaska HERE.
5. See wildlife
Seeing animals in their natural habitat that you normally see in a zoo, is pretty magical. Make an effort to see (and try to capture pics) some of the more commonly seen animals. In Southeast Alaska these include bald eagle, black bear (they wander through neighborhoods nightly looking for trash cans to break into), porcupine, beaver, mountain goat, wolf, harbor seal, sea lion, sea otter, orca, humpback whale, and porpoise. Further north in Alaska you can see all of the above plus lots of moose, and if you are lucky- brown bear, caribou, and dall sheep.
By the Mendenhall Glacier (bus tours drive to and from the downtown) you will find constructed platforms above streams and creeks so you can see black bears fishing (you can get pretty close like I did!), beavers building their dams, and porcupines waddling through the brush and climbing up into trees. Every time we take a boat ride out on the water (you can buy a whale-watching tour), we drive around until we spot a humpback whale or an orca (popular whale-watching spot is between Admiralty Island and Shelter Island), and then drive by a navigation buoy that is a popular resting spot for enormous sea lions. The eagles are always found wherever there is salmon (so pretty much everywhere) and you can’t mistake their high pitched peppery screech.
6. See a glacier
Glaciers are majestic and enormous and pictures never really do them justice. There are so many glaciers in Southeast Alaska and along the Inside Passage, you can choose between taking a trail out to the closest body of water in front of one, taking a helicopter ride and landing on one (still on my bucket list), or taking a boat ride and getting up close and personal with the face of one. On a cloudy day they look as blue as ever, and on a sunny day they look whiter and quite dirty, with the icy blue shades barely peeking through.
While we were in town, we hiked West Glacier Trail. About 30 minutes into the hike there is a trail turn-off to a ‘view point’ which goes on and on until you arrive at the left side of Mendenhall Glacier and you can actually touch it! It took us 4 hours round-trip and while we passed a couple groups of serious climbers/hikers, I managed the hike with a sturdy pair of Tevas, and our group of kids all wore sneakers with no problems. Pack snacks, water, and a light jacket even on a sunny day, because the chilly wind coming off the glacier (as you get closer) will drop the temperature at least 10 degrees.
7. Watch the sunset or sunrise on a beach
Alaskan summer days are long which means you can eat dinner, go to the beach, make a fire, eat s’mores and still catch the sunset. One thing I love beachside fires in Alaska is it actually gets a bit chilly in the evening so the fire is a welcome warmth. But it doesn’t really ever get pitch black in the summer, so you can still have fun.
Above pics taken at Auke Recreation Area Beach.
In July in Southeast Alaska, the sun sets around 9:30 or 10pm. Further north around Anchorage it sets around 11 or 11:30pm. Obviously the further north you go, the later the sun dips below the horizon in the summer, and eventually it doesn’t (above the Arctic Circle), which is why Alaska is called The Land of the Midnight Sun.
We went out of Fish Creek Pond on Douglas Island a couple times to go fishing for King Salmon, and on the trail beyond the pond, there is a peninsula that takes you this view above. Fuschia fireweed, gradient blue mountains, and amber skies. Can’t beat it!
8. Eat fresh seafood
You would be amiss if you didn’t eat some seafood while in Alaska. My recommendations are: halibut, salmon, and King crab or Dungeness crab. Everyone I know likes halibut, which is a thick white meat fish, that is super lean, and has a mild, sweet flavor.
In Alaska, we grew up learning about the 5 types of salmon and what is the best to eat. They are:
1- King or Chinook Salmon
(usually a very large fish, rich buttery meat, very expensive to buy since very little is allowed to be harvested)
2- Red or Sockeye Salmon
(medium or smaller in size, red meat, my personal favorite salmon flavor for fresh and for smoked)
3- Silver or Coho Salmon
(medium to large size, milder flavor, most commonly fished salmon by commercial fishermen)
4- Humpies or Pink Salmon
(lighter colored softer meat, gross in my opinion– often used to smoke or can)
5- Dog or Chum Salmon
(meat is dry, gets soft if frozen, is mostly fed to dogs because Alaskans don’t bother eating it)
Above, is a beer-battered halibut sandwich from The Sand Bar– my favorite spot for fresh halibut in Juneau. They are made to order and served piping hot alongside some ‘chips’.
A relatively new and very popular food joint, above, is Deckhand Dave’s. They serve insanely good fish tacos (best I’ve eaten in my life), including battered halibut, salmon, and blackened lingcod.
9. Eat at a local favorite
When in doubt, find a local and ask what is popular in that town. They won’t steer you wrong. In Juneau, you will often hear about The Hangar on the Wharf (get some seafood and enjoy the view), Pelmenis (loved by the mid-30s and younger crowd– $7 for a take-out box of of fresh made Russian dumplings, cash only, no menu and open late), Crepe Escape (food stand serving very large, very delicious crepes in both the savory and sweet variety), Chan’s Thai Kitchen (serves hearty portions of delicious and authentic Thai food– try the homemade spring rolls), and Bullwinkles Pizza (crispy, thin-crust pizza with lots of cheese, free popcorn, and arcade games inside).
10. Eat wild berries
Wild Alaskan blueberries aren’t like anything you will find in stores. They are sweet and tangy, and about a third the size of farm blueberries found down south. Salmonberries are also deliciously sweet and resemble salmon eggs when ripe (hence the name). Raspberries are plentiful, as are huckleberries (commonly mistaken for blueberries unless you know what to look for), and low-bush cranberries (also known as lingonberries). Most of these berries become ripe and can be found toward the latter part of July and all through August.
If you visit Juneau, some great places to pick blueberries are by the parking lots around University of Alaska Southeast Campus in Auke Bay, Mendenhall River Community School all around the playground, and right along the side of the road on Douglas Highway. If you are hiking around, they always have plenty by the Eagle River Scout Camp too.
Bonus idea: Watch the planes land!
One of Alaska’s best kept secrets is our airplane runways are incredibly scenic! Check out this article to see some examples. Combined with the fact that 13 out of 1,000 people in Alaska are licensed pilots, and you are bound to see numerous planes, both commercial and bush.
Take the very easy walk around the Mendenhall Wetlands Trail in Juneau and if you time it with the airline schedule you will get as close as possible to a landing airplane (without being inside). P.S. The Sitka airport has a restaurant that sells the best homemade pies! And from the Ketchikan airport, you have to take a ferry to get to the main land.
I hope this guide was interesting and gives you some good ideas of what you MUST do when you visit Alaska next!
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