Juneau, Alaska's capital and third-largest city, is on the North American mainland but can't be reached by road. Bounded by steep mountains and water, the city’s geographic isolation and compact size make it much more akin to an island community such as Sitka than to other Alaskan urban centers, such as Fairbanks or Anchorage.
Tlingit residents of the area originally made their home in nearby Auke Bay, where the rain is
less oppressive and the vistas are more open, but in summers they frequently moved down the channel what is now the Willoughby District of Juneau. Miners began arriving in the 1880s, including two colorful sourdoughs, Joe Juneau and Richard Harris. Led by a Tlingit chief named Kowee, Juneau and Harris discovered rich reserves of gold at Snow Slide Gulch, the drainage of Gold Creek around which the town was eventually built. Shortly thereafter a modest stampede resulted in the formation of a mining camp, which quickly grew to become the Alaska district government capital in 1906. The city may well have continued under its original appellation—Harrisburg, after Richard Harris—were it not for Joe Juneau's political jockeying at a miner's meeting in 1881.
For some 60 years after Juneau's founding gold was the mainstay of the economy. In its heyday the AJ (for Alaska Juneau) Gold Mine was the biggest low-grade ore mine in the world. It was not until World War II, when the government decided it needed Juneau's manpower for the war effort, that the AJ and other mines in the area ceased operations. After the war, mining failed to start up again and government became the city's principal employer. Juneau's mines leave a rich legacy, though: before it closed, the AJ Gold Mine alone produced more than $80 million in gold.
Perhaps because of its colorful history, Juneau is full of contrasts. Its dramatic hillside location and historic downtown buildings provide a frontier feeling, but the city's cosmopolitan nature comes through in fine museums, noteworthy restaurants, and a literate and outdoorsy populace. The finest of the museums, the Alaska State Museum, is closed until 2016, when it will reopen on its old site as the expanded Alaska State Library, Archives, and Museum (SLAM). Here you can enjoy the Mt. Roberts Tramway, plenty of densely forested wilderness areas, quiet bays for sea kayaking, and even a famous drive-up glacier.
Whenever you arrive, make time for a tour to Mendenhall Glacier and the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery. Douglas (which at one point was a bigger outpost than Juneau) is across the Gastineau Channel to the west. For goings-on, pick up the Juneau Empire (www.juneauempire.com), which keeps tabs on state politics, business, sports, and local news.
The Juneau Steamboat Company (907/723–0372 www.juneausteamboat.com) offers scenic tours of the Gastineau Channel aboard an authentic wood-fired steam launch—similar to those used around Juneau in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They also come with entertaining narration about the historic mines of the area.