Juneau is a capital of contrasts and conflicts. It borders a waterway that never freezes but lies beneath an ice field that never melts. It was the first community in the Southeast to slap a head tax on cruise-ship passengers but draws more of them (almost a million) than any other town. It’s the state capital but since the 1980s Alaskans have been trying to move it. It doesn’t have any roads that go anywhere, but half its residents and its mayor opposed a plan to build one that would.
Welcome to America’s strangest state capital. In the winter it’s a beehive of legislators, their loyal aides and lobbyists locked in political struggles. They no sooner leave than, in May, the cruise ships arrive with swarms of passengers. It’s the most geographically secluded state capital in the country, the only one that cannot be reached by car – only boat or plane. And in 2014, it surpassed Fairbanks to become Alaska's second-largest city.
But Juneau is also the most beautiful city in Alaska and arguably the nation’s most scenic capital. The city center, which hugs the side of Mt Juneau and Mt Roberts, is a maze of narrow streets running past a mix of new structures, old storefronts and slanted houses, all held together by a network of staircases. The waterfront is bustling with cruise ships, fishing boats and floatplanes buzzing in and out. High above the city is the Juneau Ice Field, covering the Coastal Range and sending glaciers down between the mountains like marshmallow syrup on a sundae.
The state’s first major gold strike and the first town to be founded after Alaska’s purchase from the Russians, Juneau became the territorial capital in 1906. Juneau’s darkest hour occurred in the late 1970s after Alaskans voted to move the state capital again. The so-called ‘capital move’ put a stranglehold on the growth of Juneau until Alaskans defeated its billion-dollar price tag in a statewide vote in 1982. The referendum gave Juneau new life and the town burst at its seams, booming in typical Alaskan fashion.
While the downtown area clings to a mountainside, the rest of the city ‘officially’ sprawls over 3100 sq miles to the Canadian border, making it one of the largest cities (in area) in the USA. The city center is the busiest and most popular area among visitors in summer. From downtown, Egan Dr, the Southeast’s only four-lane highway, heads northwest to Mendenhall Valley, home to the city’s growing residential section, much of its business district and world-famous Mendenhall Glacier. In the Valley, Egan Dr turns into Glacier Hwy, a two-lane road that leads to Auke Bay, site of the Alaska Marine Highway terminal. Across Gastineau Channel is Douglas, a small town that was once the major city in the area.
Considering it’s still a state capital, Juneau isn’t the hive of cultural activity you might expect. But many find it a refreshing haven of liberalism in a state that is steadily marching to the right. Spend a morning eavesdropping in cafes and coffee houses and you’ll hear the environmental and social conscience of Alaska.
For visitors who come to Alaska for outdoor adventure, what really distinguishes the state capital from other Alaskan towns – and certainly other state capitals – is the superb hiking. Dozens of great trails surround the city; some begin downtown, just blocks from the capitol. Juneau also serves as the departure point for several wilderness attractions, including paddling paradises such as Glacier Bay National Park, Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness Area and Admiralty Island National Monument.