Bridgeworthy: Alaska Cruising – Adventures in Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan

A view from above Juneau, Alaska

The Alaskan Cruise adventure continued as the Norwegian Jewel sailed from Hubbard Glacier into Juneau, Alaska. Juneau is home to over 32,000 residents and rests on Gastineau Channel surrounded by stunning mountains. The town of Juneau is accessible only by boat or plane, making an Alaskan cruise an ideal way to visit the city. As a popular cruise-port destination, Juneau offers a limitless number of tours from world-class fishing and whale watching to helicopter flights that bring you to Mendenhall glacier where you can go dogsledding or trekking.

The view from inside the tram as we ascended the mountain.

With only five hours in port, our family opted to explore the surrounding area, taking the Mount Roberts Tramway and hiking to Gastineau Peak. From downtown Juneau, we boarded the tram and rode it almost 1,800 feet up the mountain to a Nature Center, which is the starting point for hikes of various distances and difficulty. The views from the tram were breathtaking, offering glimpses of snowcapped peaks in the distance, bald eagles in the trees, the quaint town below, and the beautiful blue/green channel winding its way back to the Inside Passage. We found out later that we could have hiked up to the Nature Center from town, but the route is 2.5 miles along a steep and treacherous path, making the tram a nice alternative. While at the Nature Center, we learned about Mt. Roberts and its local animals and plants and grabbed a map of the area before beginning our hike to the top.

After making sure we had water, sunscreen and layers of clothing, our family began the hike. At an elevation of 1,750 feet we reached the end of the Montane forest leaving behind tall spruce trees, various types of hemlock, and ferns. Continuing along a well maintained, rocky path, it was not long before we emerged into the sub alpine alder and lush meadows covered in dwarf dogwoods, lupine, bunchberries and salmonberry and home to marmots, porcupine, deer and black bear. The views from the ridge line were incredible and it was fun trying to spot animals on our way up the side of the mountain. Although a beautiful sunny day, we battled strong gusty winds as we entered the the alpine area, occasionally causing us to lose our balance.

The hiking path is named after Father Edward E. Brown who helped build the trail back in 1906-1908, and who left his mark by mounting a large cross on the edge of an overlook at 2,030 feet. This is one of many overlooks on the trail and a place where many choose to turn around, but the best part of the hike was yet to come.

Wildflowers in bloom near a snow-melt pond.
Playing in the snow on a sunny day.

After passing the cross, we found ourselves at the vegetated alpine belt that was covered in beautiful wildflowers. As we continued up the steep path, we came to areas of snow melt ponds and then areas still covered in patches of snow. Each new turn brought surprising beauty as we had reached an area that was not visible from the town or even the nature center. After a brief stop to put on some clothing layers and play in the snow, we continued on toward our goal of Gastineau Peak, an elevation of 3,666’.

The view on the final stretch to Gastineau Peak.

Before making our final ascent to Gastineau Peak, we spotted a bald eagle in the distance flying our way and soaring directly overhead about 20 feet from us–an absolutely amazing experience.

A Bald Eagle soaring above us at Gastineau Peak

The rocky ridge line to Gastineau peak dropped off precipitously on either side. While stopping to catch our breath, we took a moment to observe the natural beauty all around us, spotting several waterfalls on adjacent snow covered mountains, the Gastineau Channel below, and the ocean in the distance.

The feeling of accomplishment and joy at reaching the peak and conquering the mountain was incredible. For a brief moment, we felt as though we were on top of the world. The trail was difficult and we only ran into a few people after the first ½ mile, so we felt as though the mountain was all ours. After enjoying the moment, we descended the mountain and returned to the Tramway center where we met up with the rest of the family.    

Non-hikers have plenty of options to keep them occupied at the Tramway, from enjoying a meal or drinks with beautiful views at the restaurant to watching a movie about the area or learning how totems are carved on-site near the gift shop.The Mount Roberts hike is one of the top three hikes I’ve ever done with its varied landscapes from tree-lined forest to alpine gardens to snow-covered mountain peaks, with bald eagles soaring above, and Marmots peaking up from under bushes, it is a must-do for any hiker visiting Juneau.

Approaching Sawyer Glacier
The blue glacier ice floating by the ship as we approach Sawyer Glacier

After departing Juneau, the cruise ship made a stop at Sawyer Glacier on the way to Skagway. Similar to the trip to Hubbard Glacier, the ship navigated through small icebergs that ranged in color from a transparent white to a deep blue as we approached the glacier. Many harbor seals were sunning themselves on the blocks of ice that had separated from the glacier and were floating nearby.

As the ship approached, the seals would dive into the water and reposition on a mini iceberg a little farther away. May and June are pupping season, offering us the opportunity to see Mama and baby seal pups swim together. What a treat to be surrounded by nature with harbor seals below, a spectacular glacier ahead and eagles soaring above. There is no place like Alaska and the Inside Passage.

TAKING THE PLUNGE IN SKAGWAY AND KETCHIKAN

Diving in Lower Dewey Lake, Skagway Alaska

The last two stops of our Alaskan cruise adventure brought us to Skagway and Ketchikan. Not many would consider Alaska the place to jump in a lake or go snorkeling, but that is just what we did when the opportunity arose.

In Skagway, many cruise-passengers choose to take the old Yukon Pass Railway into Canada, touted as a mini trip-back-in time to see the routes taken during the gold rush. This is a fantastic option for families with kids or grandparents. My husband and I opted instead to look for something a little more adventurous and signed up for a hike/float tour that we found at M&M tours (a kiosk on the way into town) that allowed us to hike the first couple miles of the Chilkoot trail (a 33-mile trail used during the Klondike Gold Rush that connects Dyea Alaska to British Columbia, Canada), followed by a float back down the river on a 12-person raft.

A view of the river with our raft.

Our guide, Becca, did a fantastic job providing the history of the area and how the Gold Rush transformed the town. While we were driving out to the trailhead she pointed out an area called “Liarsville” where all the reporters lived during the gold rush. The media, in an effort to increase readership, exaggerated about the abundance of gold in Skagway, bringing in an influx of gold-diggers looking for their riches, only to be disappointed by the limited amount of gold. Becca also pointed out the areas along the river where the brown bears come to feed on salmon during the salmon runs in May and August.

Our guide, Becca, educating us on the local plants.

During our hike Becca also educated us on which berries and plants we could eat and what we should stay away from. She shared her experience of hiking the full 33 miles of the trail and also pointed out other hikes we might consider if we had time.

The beginning of the trail.

The Chilkoot Trail is a well-traveled path that started off steep, but then leveled off after the first half mile. We were surrounded by lush forest that rose into cliffs on one side and down to a river on the other. We saw a bald eagle fly down the river as we approached the bridge that would take us over to a little island where our raft was waiting for us.  Once on the river the beauty of glaciers and mountains surrounded us. Bald eagles flying to their nests high in the trees, soared above us as we made our journey down the river back to town. We were lucky to have a very warm day and decided to forego the waterproof boots the tour company provided, instead going barefoot into the raft. The river water was freezing, numbing our feet within seconds, but it was exhilarating to feel the glacier-melt water.

Lower Dewey Lake trail.

With a few hours left before having to be back on board the cruise ship, we decided to take a hike up to lower Dewey Lake as the trailhead was very close to the port. A very steep mile of hiking brought us to a beautiful lake surrounded by trees and cliffs with snowcapped mountains in the background. The strenuous hike made the crystal-clear lake water look appealing and when we came upon an outcropping of rocks we decided to cool off by jumping in. The water was refreshing, about as cold as the ocean water in Coronado in the spring, but not freezing like the river. After a quick swim we made our way back to the Cruise ship for another evening of good food and entertainment.

The next afternoon we pulled into Ketchikan, our last stop in Alaska before ending the Cruise in Vancouver. Ketchikan is a pretty town with homes lining the hillsides along the waterfront. Seaplanes are constantly landing in the bay and fishing vessels are coming and going as the halibut fishing is world-renowned. When researching excursions in this port, I was intrigued by Snorkel Alaska, a snorkeling trip that has been named one of the top cruise excursions in Ketchikan. Cold water doesn’t offer the same visibility or beautiful colors you find in the Caribbean, but I still thought it would be interesting to see what kind of sea life we could find, and I wanted to be able to say “I snorkeled in Alaska.” The tour company met us on the pier and took us in a van to their dive shop. We were all outfitted in 6 mm wetsuits with booties and hoods. The most difficult part of the tour was putting on all the gear but it was well worth it as we stayed comfortable in the cold water. I was pleasantly surprised by the beautiful sea life we encountered. Huge purple and orange starfish were everywhere, red sea urchins bigger than a volleyball, huge Dungeness crabs that were in mating season and sea cucumbers as long as my arm were just a few of the species we saw.

Guides from Snorkel Alaska holding Sea Urchin, Starfish and Sea Cucumber. Photo courtesy of Snorkel Alaska

A couple kelp crab with their long arms were sparring on a rock as I floated over them, and various types of shrimp were hanging out in crevices of the rocks. My niece, an aspiring marine biologist, saw a nudibranch and a flounder as well. The guides would stop every 10 minutes or so and educate us on the sea life, bringing up a star fish or sea cucumber and providing interesting facts on the species. It was an incredible experience that we won’t forget. After about an hour in the water we gathered up and headed back to the dive shop where we were able to get out of the thick wetsuits and under a hot shower. Jumping in the waters of Alaska made for a wonderful end to an amazing vacation.

Read more Alaska adventures:

Bridgeworthy: Alaska – Adventure Awaits in Seward

Bridgeworthy: Alaska Cruising – Gorgeous Glaciers and Gliding Over Hoonah

 

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Jeannie is a recently retired Naval Officer whose first duty station brought her to Coronado in 1998.  A Navy Helicopter Pilot for 10 years and a Public Affairs Officer for 11 years, the Navy afforded her many incredible opportunities to serve her country in unique ways while seeing the world.Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: manager@coronadotimes.com