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5-Day Epic Alaska Itinerary To Juneau And Glacier Bay

Alaska’s vast landscape is larger than Montana, California, and Texas combined. It’s home to 17 of North America’s highest mountain peaks, including Mount Denali at more than 20,300 feet, some 100,000 glaciers, temperate rainforest, and seemingly endless miles of shoreline. 

When exploring Southeast Alaska, traveling by vehicle won’t get you far. Your best bet for a 5-day Alaska itinerary is to spend it all in one place and explore the area on diverse day trips and activities.

For a first trip, you can get a great taste of the region by flying into the capital city of Juneauto enjoy the top attractions. Then, visit Glacier Bay National Park, enjoying a full day for a potentially life-changing Alaska cruise.

Views from Mount Roberts tramway
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I have visited Juneau many times, and found the city offers many diverse activities. This 5-day itinerary includes the popular places and the must-visit UNESCO site of Glacier Bay. Whether solo or with someone else, there’s much to love about Alaska’s capitaal.

The Best Time To Visit Alaska?

The best time to visit Alaska depends on what you hope to see and do. It’s a year-round destination, and every season offers its unique delights.

The shorter days, from mid-September through April, are the best time to see the northern lights. Also, the winter season brings a magical, snowy wonderland and opportunities to attend fun winter festivals and go dog sledding without requiring a helicopter.

Whales begin to appear in the waters by mid-spring, and the summer months bring the midnight sun and long hours of daylight for sightseeing and outdoor adventures. 

Whales surfacing between boats
Whale watching near Juneau

Aim for the shoulder seasons of spring and fall to avoid the crowds and enjoy discounts on accommodation, tours, and more.

The latter half of May and early September, sometimes as late as early October, can be particularly ideal as the weather is likely to be milder while hordes of tourists are rarely seen. We prefer later May for the drier weather.

Summer is the busiest time of year, so book airfare, accommodation, and car rental well in advance, if traveling between June and August.

Day 1 – Arrival in Juneau

While it is possible to get around by taxi, Uber, and other private drivers, it can also be challenging due to the high demand, which is why it’s best to rent a car for your time here.

Plan to arrive early to maximize the first day. Once settled in, use the rest of the day to beat any jet lag and stretch your legs by exploring downtown.

If the skies are clear, taking in an aerial view of the city and its surroundings via the Mount Roberts Tramway is a must. You’ll get a great perspective of the area while ascending 1,800 feet up to the mountain’s summit. 

Do note that the tram only runs when cruise ships are in ports (from late April to early October). Outside of those times, Mount Roberts is accessible on a moderate hike.

Riding the Mount Roberts Tram
Riding the Mount Roberts Tram

From the top, the panoramic vista of Juneau, the Gastineau Channel, and Douglas Island just across are enchanting.

Afterward, there are scenic trails to hike, along with a nature center, gift shop, theater showing shorts on the indigenous Tlingits, and restaurant serving traditional Alaskan fare. 

The Alpine Looping Trail provides a short 30-minute stroll. However, I prefer the one-mile route to Father Brown’s Cross. While it’s uphill most of the way, the views from the giant cross are worth the extra effort.

Once you’ve made the descent, it’s an easy walk to reach downtown. It’s like a big open-air museum with historic buildings dating from the Gold Rush era housing fun shops, art galleries, salons, and eateries.

Don’t miss the largest installation of Southeast Alaskan Native works by the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian peoples. The Douglas City Museum is the place to go to learn about local history, culture, and art.

Near the port of Juneau, stop to see Tahku along the waterfront. This life-scale bronze whale sculpture of a breaching humpback rises among the waterworks out of an infinity pool.

It’s a great place for a selfie and so lifelike that your friends will probably think a real whale photobombed you. 

Tracy's King Crab Shack
Tracy’s King Crab Shack

When hunger hits, head to Tracy’s King Crab Shack for king crab legs and bisque. Alternatively, Deckhand Dave’s makes the best fish tacos and is more budget-friendly. 

Finish the evening with a signature “duck fart” from the iconic Red Dog Saloon on the corner of Admiral Way and S Franklin Street.

Day 2 – Juneau

With a full day in Juneau, take advantage of one of the land tours, a boat tour, or even both. As some excursions require a half-day or less, it’s possible to combine two or even three.

The region’s waters are a haven for humpback whales in the summer, making a Juneau whale-watching boat tour a must. I have taken a few from Auke Bay Harbor and they are always amazing with multiple sightings.

Leaving Auke Bay Harbor on a whale watching tour
Leaving Auke Bay Harbor on a whale watching tour

It can be the highlight of a great trip, watching them spy hop, lunge feed, breach, or even witness bubble-net feeding. It is an experience of a lifetime that reveals just how intelligent these animals are.

In addition to humpbacks, orca whales (particularly in July and August), along with lots of bald eagles, sea lions, and seals are sighted.

Whales are so prevalent in Auke Bay between May and September that operators offer a whale sighting guarantee.

If you want to combine whale watching with another activity, I recommend the Gold Creek Salmon Bake. The open-air feast takes place by Gold Creek and features an all-you-can-eat Coho salmon meal with all the trimmings.

Ready to book a Whale Watching Tour?

For more active tours than whale watching, kayak and canoe tours are also available.

Humpback whale
Humpback whale I spotted in Auke Bay

The downside is that if marine wildlife is farther away, you probably won’t be able to paddle fast enough to get a closer look. But the lucky might get to paddle right among them.

For those who want to see bears and/or prefer a land tour, the Pack Creek Bear Tour is another ideal option. Plan for a full day experience as the duration of most trips last six to eight hours. 

This tour requires a bush plane and is very pricey. You could pay more than your roundtrip ticket to Juneau for it.

July and August are the peak months for bear sightings. However, more recently, the salmon have been arriving later. That means the animals are feasting on them a bit later, so late July, early, or mid-August may be optimal.

Before the day’s end, plan to spend a night at Glacier Bay Lodge in Bartlett Cove. It’s accessed via a less than 30-minute flight to Gustavus, a small town with fewer than 500 residents.

Day 3 – Glacier Bay National Park

Plan for an early morning breakfast before meeting the high-speed catamaran that will bring you on a full-day excursion deep into the waters of Glacier Bay. Guests typically spend up to eight hours exploring the UNESCO heritage site with a National Park Service ranger.

By taking a smaller vessel Glacier Bay tour over a larger cruise ship, guests get closer to waterfalls, tidewater glaciers, and the shoreline. Margerie Glacier, the jewel of the region, lies at the end of the bay.

Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park
Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park

This fantastic trip can be a transformational experience, with numerous bucket-list items that can be checked off. 

The focus is getting up close to a tidewater glacier to witness calving. However, it’s also part wildlife cruise, as this region is abundant with whales, harbor seals, porpoises, puffins, bald eagles, and stellar sea lions.

Many animals can be seen on land, like coastal brown bears, moose, and mountain goats. There’s so much wildlife all around that it’s hard to know where to look.

You’ll journey all the way to the farthest reaches of the bay to 21-mile-long Margerie Glacier. It’s one of the most picturesque and active in the park.

Odds are, you’ll hear the crackling sounds of the ice just before it crashes with a boom into the water. After calving, the floating bergs become resting spots for sea otters and harbor seals. I suggest a good camera for the endless photo-ops here.

To the right of Margerie, Grand Pacific Glacier shares Tarr Inlet but pales in comparison to its picturesque neighbor. With its dirt-covered surface and no visible blue hues, it hardly resembles a glacier at all. 

Grand Pacific in Glacier Bay
The dirty Grand Pacific Glacier

The catamaran cruise also includes the glaciers of Lamplugh and John Hopkins. Your ship won’t get close to the latter, as John Hopkins Inlet is a vital breeding ground for harbor seals.

Although, even from a distance, the inlet is stunning, surrounded by the Fairweather Range.

On completion of the cruise, make your way back to Juneau to continue the adventure.

Day 4 – Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Centre

Mendenhall Glacier is located only 13 miles away from downtown Juneau and just a short distance from the airport. It’s one of Alaska’s most accessible glaciers and a must-visit in Juneau. To maximize time in the park, plan to visit Mendenhall on your own, rather than on a tour.

Start the adventure by stopping by the visitor center for a brief overview of the area. The exhibits contain information about the flora, fauna, and the glacier’s retreat.

Visiting Nugget Falls
Visiting Nugget Falls

One of the best hiking trails is the short, .8-mile one-way Nugget Falls Trail. It leads to the magnificent waterfall that cascades 377 feet onto the beach, along with a close-up view of the 13.6 mile-long glacier. 

More adventurous individuals may want to tackle the East Trail Loop, which travels high into the forest canopy. Depending on your level of fitness, this route takes about two hours.

The West Glacier Trail on the opposite side of the lake provides a more rugged route. Although, it’s recommended for those with back-country experience. While this trail offers access to the glacier, it’s only recommended with the right gear and an experienced guide.

When traveling this route with an organized group, guests may have a chance to explore an ice cave if the opportunity arises.

Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier

Steep Creek, which runs near the visitor center, has Sockeye salmon between July and September and Coho between September and October.

When visiting in those months, the presence of fish increases the chance of bear sightings.

Day 5 – Departure

You’ll likely have time for breakfast and a final activity in the morning. For a peaceful stroll in the woods, the Gold Creek Flume Trail provides just that. The easy 1.4-mile or 2.3 km trail takes just over thirty minutes, and the elevated walkways give nice views of downtown.

Alternatively, the Alaska State Museum on Whittier Street broadens the history lesson with a mix of permanent and rotating exhibits. While the museum isn’t large, it showcases tools, clothing, and carvings of the indigenous people.

If time allows, browse the shops downtown to pick up last-minute gifts or souvenirs before heading to the airport.

Now that Alaska has teased you with its beauty, history, and adventures on a 5-day itinerary, consider exploring other regions of the state.

The Anchorage to Denali road trip is a popular choice because it offers more chances to see wildlife. Alternatively, an Alaska cruise allows passage to the mighty Hubbard Glacier, which is not accessible by land.