Juneau, Alaska

Juneau, Alaska
The first port of call on our Alaskan cruise was Juneau.  We arrived at 1 PM and had until 9 PM to explore Alaska's capital. There were many shore excursions from which to choose: whale watching tours, aerial tram tour, glaciers, waterfalls, seaplane tours, helicopter tours, rafting, pan for gold, or touring the city. What did we decide to do with our eight hour port stop?  Read on to learn more about our day in Juneau, Alaska.

The Alaskan Shore Excursion

Let me begin by saying, shore excursions are EXPENSIVE! Alaska tourism season is brief, the cost of living for Alaskans is high, and the demand is high.  All of these put together make it difficult for a family on a budget to afford shore excursions, especially those booked through the cruise line. 
Seaplane landing Juneau, Alaska
Shore excursions booked through Holland America Cruise Line ranged in price from $35 per person to $3000 per person! The prices were so high I could not believe my eyes when first I started researching! Next I decided I would look into booking an excursion myself without using the cruise line as my agent. The prices were slightly less expensive...slightly. Needless to say the prices were still more than I was willing to pay. Am I really going to pay $750 for a 1.25 hour seaplane tour for my family of 3?  I did not even pay THAT much for my family's round trip airfare from Dallas to Seattle!

Families on a Budget Alaskan Shore Excursion

The seaplane shore excursion, and other equally or more so expensive excursions, did not happen for our family. I began researching inexpensive Juneau excursions on the Internet.  After reading several forums and blogs I found our excursion for the day. We would visit the Mendenhall Glacier! I learned you could take the city bus from a stop that is near the cruise terminal to a bus stop that is approximately one mile from the glacier visitor center. 
Juneau city bus to Mendenhall Glacier
We walked up to the bus terminal at just the right time to catch the bus to Mendenhall Glacier.  Our timing could not have been better! We paid $2 per person and hopped aboard for the 12 mile ride out to Mendenhall Valley. The bus made several stops within the city of Juneau. It was fun to see how the natives lived, although prepare yourself it is a city bus.  You will see all kinds of people on the bus. At no time did we feel unsafe, but it is not a tourism bus. The bus ride took about 50 minutes before we reached the Mendenhall Valley bus stop.  Once we disembarked from the bus we then had to walk another 1 mile to the glacier visitor center. As you can see in the picture below, there is a paved walkway next to the highway.
Walking path to Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center
Walking path to Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center
The walk from the bus stop to the glacier was beautiful as we walked through the Tongass National Forest. The day of our visit there was a chance of rain, thankfully we did not encounter any precipitation.  Juneau is in a temperate rain forest.  I tell you this because if you plan to follow my suggestion, take an umbrella with you. 
Spectacular scenery along the path to Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center!
After a short 20 minute walk we arrived at the visitor center.  Inside we watched a video that runs on a continuous loop every 30 minutes and spoke with a park ranger about the hiking trails. The visitor center is located up on a hill that requires you to climb several steps or walk a ramp up the hill. It is worth the walk up.  Inside you will find exhibits about native plants and animals and the movie room. The building has windows across the front that offer stunning views of the glacier in the distance. 

Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center is worth the walk up the hill.
After the visitor center we headed out to the glacier and Nugget Falls. The path is paved and an easy short walk that took about 15 minutes. I should also mention the path was crowded, and we were there in the shoulder season late May. 
Trail from visitor's center to Mendenhall Glacier & Nugget Falls
As you approach the glacier you will find scenic overlooks from the trail. 

You can walk right up to Nugget Falls. However, you cannot walk to the glacier.  If money is no object, you can take a helicopter ride to the glacier. There were so many helicopters flying overhead while we were there, it sounded like swarming bees. I guess those helicopter pilots need to make money while they can. 
Nugget Falls
Nugget Falls is HUGE! I could not get all of it in the photograph. The mist as water splashed down near me was quite cold. The water from Nugget Falls dumps into a beautiful alpine lake. 

Trail of Time Nature Trail

The trail to Nugget Falls and the glacier is an out and back trail.  Once we arrived back at the visitor center we headed down the Trail of Time nature trail. 

Unlike the path to Nugget Falls and the glacier, the Trail of Time path was not crowded at all. In fact we saw very few people on our hike, which is the way we like it. The sign pictured above is the Trail of Time hike. Notice the estimated time is 2.5 hours.  We did not take the entire trail.  We only walked the nature trail which took about 45 minutes. Our time was limited and we did not want our cruise ship to leave without us. Although being stuck in Juneau might not have been so bad...
Trail of Time nature path
Along the path rocks are marked with where the Mendenhall Glacier was at different times throughout history. Due to climate change, it has receded 2.5 miles since the mid 1700s!
Rock marking Mendenhall Glacier ice limit.
I wish we had more time to explore the area around Mendenhall Glacier, but due to our cruise departure time, we knew we needed to head back to Juneau.  As we arrived at the bus stop another family was waiting for the next bus.  They mentioned this would be the last bus of the day headed back to Juneau.  WHAT??? It was only 5:00 PM! Come to find out even though the buses run later (until 11:30 PM) in town, out at Mendenhall Valley the last bus departs at 5:30 PM. Whew!!! It was nothing but pure luck that we happened to catch that bus because we had NO IDEA it was the last bus of the day. I guess my best tip for this excursion would be, check the bus schedule and find out when the last one departs from Mendenhall Valley before you go. 

Budget Check: Cost to take the city bus from Juneau out to Mendenhall Valley and back $4 per person. Cost to take the tourist bus from Juneau to Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center and back $35 per person. WINNER!! We stayed on budget!!! 

Alaskan King Crab Legs

When in Alaska one simply must have Alaskan king crab legs! Unfortunately Holland America Oosterdam never served crab legs of any sort on our cruise, I was disappointed. Therefore, when we were in Juneau we decided to have dinner at Tracy's King Crab Shack. Tracy touts to have the best legs in town. I haven't tried the rest of town crab legs but I must say Tracy has great legs!
Tracy's King Crab Shack
Since you are reading a blog about vacationing on a budget I feel compelled to tell you Tracy's King Crab Shack is not cheap.  It's not even mid-ranged priced.  It's what I call expensive. The cost for 1 king crab leg, 1 roll, and some butter was $28. For ONE CRAB LEG!! It was however, spectacular! The "meal" was tasty, the staff were friendly, and the ambiance was Alaskan as expected. 

Inside Tracy's King Crab Shack
Budget Check: Cost for one Alaskan king crab leg with a roll and butter $28. Cost to eat dinner on the cruise ship 0 additional dollars. WAH WAH, we did not stay on budget. However, we have a memory that will last much longer than whatever we would have had for dinner on the cruise ship that night would have given us. Sometimes you just have to spend the money, if you can. 

A final note about Juneau, Alaska...

Juneau was beautiful! I wish we had more time to explore.  Maybe one day we will return and stay a while. I hope this blog helps you plan a trip to Juneau that is within your budget. In the comments section below tell us about your travels to Alaska. 

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Wherever your travels take you, may God bless you each and every step of the way.