Alaska ranks as one of the most beautiful places in the world. But what many folks don’t realize is that — in addition to wonderful vistas and once-in-a-lifetime glacier experiences — Alaska offers incredible opportunities to observe the natural habitats of the type of wildlife that is typically seen only on the Discovery Channel.
Juneau may be the capital of Alaska but the surrounding areas of this incredibly intimate city are teeming with wildlife. Here are three ideas (based on my own experience) for those travelers looking to take a walk on the wild side.
Pack Creek Bear Sanctuary
It has been a couple of years since my trip to Admiralty Island, but the resulting memories will last a lifetime. Known as the “Fortress of the Bears”, this island is home to one of the world’s largest brown bear populations and is one of the few places where you can observe grizzlies on their home turf.
The best time to go is in July through August when the bears are feeding on the salmon in Pack Creek. But be prepared — to get to Admiralty Island you are going to need a permit and transportation that can carry you over water.
The easiest way to tackle this problem is to sign up with a local tour operator, who can package the trip into a truly unique experience. My own one-day adventure (with Alaska Discovery) included a seaplane flight to a nearby island, followed by a kayak trip across to see the bears. Once on Admiralty it was only a short hike toward the mouth of the creek, where there is a small observation area (essentially a small hill in the middle of a meadow.)
This teeny tiny little human-claimed patch of land is where the magic happens. If you are patient, you are almost guaranteed to see bears like I did — particularly in the peak season. I’m not talking about brown dots in the distance either. As you can see from my photos (taken with a basic point and shoot camera), Admiralty offers an opportunity to observe these beautiful creatures up close.
Just make that sure you listen to the instructions of the ranger on site. Sometimes these bears can be curious and you don’t want to be lunch.
Alaskan Whale Watching
There are a number of tour groups operating out of Juneau that offer whale-watching opportunities. Depending on the time of year, you can expect to see plenty of killer and humpback whales.
However if you want a more personal experience, I highly recommend chartering your own boat. Your captain will know the best places to go and he/she only has your best interests at heart.
You may also get other perks, such as bald eagle interactions and a spot of salmon fishing.
Juneau Hiking Trails
There are tons of hiking trails in and around Juneau that offer plenty of opportunities to stretch the legs and become at one with nature. A tourist favorite starts with an 1800-foot cable car ride up Mt. Roberts. Once there you can explore the trails and wildlife away from the visitor center — and some of these even take you above the clouds to offer spectacular scenery.
Getting to Juneau
The best way to get to Juneau is by air from either Seattle or Anchorage. Direct flights to Juneau from Seattle can cost more than $500 nonstop (roundtrip including taxes), while flights from Anchorage are much more affordable at about $360 nonstop (roundtrip including taxes) during peak summer travel dates.
We recommend searching for flights to Juneau from your home city. While most itineraries will include at least one layover, booking the itinerary together it may save some money. For example, we found a flight departing July 11, returning July 18, from New York City to Juneau (with stops in Chicago and Seattle) for just $664 roundtrip including taxes. Booking the flights separately will cost about $300 more.
Update (April 10, 2012 – 10:36 p.m. EST): This evening, I was reminded of another great way to catch a glimpse of wildlife and see the natural beauty of Alaska. Cruises, like this 10-night Alaska cruise and hotel package from our sister-site Travelzoo, take away the hassle of planning transportation from city to city. Plus, cruises like this one offer more of a variety of destinations than most travelers will be able to see on their own.