Exploring Juneau, Alaska with Holland America Line

Juneau is the capital city of Alaska and the second-largest city in the United States by area. Juneau became the capital of Alaska in 1906, the capital formerly being Sitka, due to an act of Congress in 1900. Today, Juneau is well-known as a cruise port and also for its close proximity to Mendenhall Glacier, in addition to being the seat of government for the state of Alaska.

Tourist shops line downtown Juneau, with Mount Juneau in the background.

Tourist shops line downtown Juneau, with Mount Juneau in the background.

On Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011 Holland America Line’s MS Westerdam pulled into Juneau at around noon. It was a beautiful day and the ship passengers were rested and eager to get ashore. I would estimate, the temperature in the mid-50’s, clear and sunny with a slight breeze. Shipboard staff said they thought it was one of the best days they had seen in Juneau this cruise season.

On disembarking ship passengers will find a number of outdoor stands to purchase last minute daytrips, in case they did not pre-book a tour through the cruise line. The prices are competitive, so you may just pick any vendor and be confident in your choice. I myself prefer to make my own plans while in port, and I did so on this day.

I was not ready to do a tour, though, and wanted to explore the city. The downtown area is filled with souvenir shops, duty-free gemstone retailers (such as Diamonds International), fur shops and similar stores. I wanted to get away from this area and see the true Juneau, so I just started walking.

I had an idea to walk up to the Governor’s House and see what I would discover along the way. There are convenient signs all along the route, as apparently the Governor’s House and other government buildings are interesting to tourists, perhaps due to the celebrity fascination with Sarah Palin and her family.

The Alaska State Museum & ‘Lincoln Totem Pole’ / ‘Proud Raven Pole’

The 'Lincoln Totem Pole' / 'Proud Rave Pole' at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, Alaska.

The ‘Lincoln Totem Pole’ / ‘Proud Rave Pole’ at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, Alaska.

I was about two-thirds of the way there when I reached the Alaska State Museum. The official website lists the museum as being a 10-minute walk from where the cruise ship docks, although it seemed a bit longer to me. The museum gives a wonderful overview of Alaska state history, including: Native culture, the state’s previous history as a Russian outlier, the Klondike Gold Rush and its effect on Alaska, and the diverse plant and animal life that has fascinated visitors and residents alike. This museum offers something for everyone. It is small but very tastefully curated. One can spend half an hour here and get a broad overview, but there are enough displays to easily spend up to two hours.

One of the more fascinating displays features the so-called ‘Lincoln Totem Pole’, erected in 1883 at Tongass Village. The prevailing narrative, promoted initially by Judge James Wickersham, suggests that the pole was commissioned by freed Tlingit slaves in honor of President Lincoln’s role in ending slavery. The consensus today is that the correct name of the artifact is in fact ‘Proud Raven Pole.’ The pole is said to commemorate the first sighting of a white man by a Tlingit tribal member. And then why does does the totem pole Abraham Lincoln? It is said that the carver used a photo of Lincoln as a model, including the iconic stovepipe hat, simple because Lincoln’s was the only image of a white man readily available.

If you think you may have seen the ‘Lincoln Totem Pole’ elsewhere in Alaska, you are in fact correct. A replica of the totem was erected at Saxman Totem Park, outside of Ketchikan, in July of 1940. The totem at Saxman looks entirely different of course, as the statue is regularly maintained and always has a fresh coat of paint.

The Governor’s House & Red Dog Saloon

Juneau city landmark sign.

Juneau city landmark sign.

After leaving the Alaska State Museum I followed my tourist map (provided free by both Holland America Line and by local tourism officials as you enter the city) up to where the Governor’s House sits. This should take at least another 15 to 20 minutes, with some low-level hiking involved. The route is generally easy to follow and could be characterized by a series of stairways and bridges that are staggered. It’s a nice refreshing walk, but there was not much to see. The Governor’s House itself is currently under construction and there was nothing to see except for a plaque.

After finding the Governor’s House I decided to make a beeline back to downtown to figure out my next plan. After briefly checking out some of the downtown stores I decided to pop in for a drink at the historic Red Dog Saloon. The original saloon dates back to the heyday of Juneau’s mining era. The saloon was founded by Earl and Thelma Forsythe around 1950. In the early 1970’s the Harris family bought the saloon the moved it to its present location. In 2008 the saloon was purchased by a group of local residents and Red Dog Gifts was added.

Red Dog Saloon is a colorful “tourist trap” that you’ll be sorry if you happen to miss. There is usually a piano player serving up ragtime tunes, with much of the bar patrons singing along. The bar itself is a time capsule of Juneau’s past. Hanging on the wall is Wyatt Earp’s actual gun, which he checked at the Marshall’s Office back in 1900 but never claimed. The saloon also has a number of other rare guns, including early model Winchester rifles. You can also see stuffed wildlife, including an imposing Kodiak bear and an 85-pound Chinook salmon.

Erik Tomren in front of Red Dog Saloon, Juneau, Alaska.

Erik Tomren in front of Red Dog Saloon, Juneau, Alaska.

The walls are even covered with keepsake’s from Juneau’s past, as bar patrons left business cards, dollar bills with writing on them, law enforcement badges, and life preservers from cruise ships to help decorate the walls. Just don’t (even jokingly) ring the large brass bell hanging near the upper level. According to bar tradition anyone who rings the bell needs to buy drinks for everyone else!

While in Alaska it’s best to drink Alaska beer, right? Red Dog Saloon features a decent selection of Alaskan beers from several different breweries. The bar also has straight liquor sold by the glass/shot (sold as “Cheap Sh*t, “Expensive Sh*t” or “Really Expensive Sh*t”, according to the folksy menu). They are also famous for their “Duck Farts”, a layered drink with ¾ oz. Kahlua, ¾ oz. Bailey’s Irish Cream, and ¾ oz. Crown Royal whiskey. I don’t know if they follow that recipe exactly, but it’s actually a smooth shot. Another option is the Glacier Margarita, which I did not try.

Finally, Red Dog has a full menu of bar fare, including burgers, sandwiches, fish and chips, crab cakes and more. If you don’t want beer or liquor the bar also serves wine and non-alcoholic beverages such as draft root beer, fountain soda, fruit juices, coffee, tea (hot and cold), apple cider and cocoa. Be sure to check out the Gift Shop next store featuring a wide variety of souvenirs, including t-shirts, shot glasses, bumper stickers and more.

Below is a video clip, recorded in 2008, of a piano player performing ragtime music at the Red Dog Saloon. The spirited music is popular attraction when cruise ships are in port.

Looking to book a tour in Juneau? Viator offers many tour options from a variety of tour suppliers. See the below ad for more information.

Mendenhall Glacier

After a couple drinks at Red Dog Saloon I returned to the cruise terminal. I could not decide between going up the famous Mount Roberts Tramway or traveling outside of the downtown city center to view Mendenhall Glacier. In the end I decided to go to Mendenhall, mostly because the price tag for the tram seemed exorbitant to me at the time.

"Blue Glacier Express" transportation to Mendenhall Glacier.

“Blue Glacier Express” transportation to Mendenhall Glacier.

To get to Mendenhall I simply approached one of the vendor booths at the terminal and asked. All of the vendors will generally sell you any tour regardless of which company actually provides the service. I booked a tour called the “Blue Glacier Express.” The no-frills tour provides round-trip transportation 14 miles each way to the glacier, with some limited narration along the way. The vehicle is an old school bus painted a very bright blue color.

I bought a seat on the last run up to the glacier which departed around 5:45 pm, with the final return bus leaving at around 7:45 pm. This left me with approximately 1-1/2 hours at the glacier, which turned out to be plenty of time. First, I walked the short trails along the river, where it’s possible to view spawning salmon and the occasional bear. Several people on the trail said that they saw a bear, but I didn’t see it.

It is possible to view Mendenhall from this area and get some great photos, however you will get a much better view if you take the Nugget Falls Trail, which is an easy 3/4 mile walk along a gravel shore. There are a few shallow stream crossings and some muddy areas, so hiking boots would be helpful, although I just wore normal shoes and did not have any problems. Round-trip the walk takes approximately 45 minutes.

The walk was very relaxing and allowed for some fantastic pictures very near to the glacier. When I return to Juneau I would like to again visit the glacier, but next time I plan to allot for time for Mendenhall, to perhaps explore some of the other hiking trails and to visit the Visitor Center.

Mendenhall Glacier, in Mendenhall Valley, 12 miles from downtown Juneau.

Mendenhall Glacier, in Mendenhall Valley, 12 miles from downtown Juneau.

For articles related to Holland America Line, please see the Holland America Line Category archive.

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