Having relocated from the east coast to California, we were planning our first holiday to combine the long weekend in May and considering options like Hawaii, Vegas, San Diego etc., all of which both my girlfriend, (and now my fiancé) Heather and I have been to. We both have always wanted to visit Alaska and after much deliberation, we decided – why the heck not! Not knowing much at all about Alaska, we started researching all over the Internet the weekend before the long weekend. As expected, the price of this last-minute decision was that all of the popular hotels were already sold out and the airfare was very expensive. We also considered taking a cruise because of its obvious convenience but we found out pretty quick we needed a lot more time off work for a seven night or nine night cruise either from San Francisco or Vancouver which we did not have time for. Additionally, I feel the cruise excursions are very rushed where you just get half a day before you need to get back to the ship and really don’t get to enjoy and take in the place. I just don’t like being rushed on a vacation.
So we decided let’s just do it on our own and that opened up a whole slew of options of where and what we might want to see and do in Alaska. Heather surely wanted to visit the Denali National Park as she had read a lot about it and always wanted to go. I was keen to see all the beautiful sights in Alaska I have seen in all the different shows on Discovery and National Geographic. I have to say the best nugget that I can give you is getting the iPad/IPhone app called “Alaska”. This is the best single source for information, and videos for you to plan your vacation and what activities do you enjoy doing out there. It is because of that app and the videos I saw of Juneau that I suggested we go there as well not just to Anchorage and Denali we were first planning to do. We also thought we could do road trips from Juneau, to Anchorage and Denali – and that proved to be incorrect as Alaska is really not that easily drivable for road trips.
So we made our reservations from San Francisco to Juneau, Juneau to Anchorage and Anchorage back to San Francisco. The trip to Denali was a 6 hour road trip from Anchorage, and because all hotels in the Denali park were sold out, that was not an option for us as we would have to drive back in the middle of nowhere at 3am at night, so we decided to do a day trip in a small plane from Anchorage instead. That proved to be a challenge as none of the tour operators we tried could answer if they could accommodate a wheelchair in the small planes or not for the trip. We ended up leaving that to when we got there later.
Booking the hotel in Juneau was a challenge as well, as most hotels available were all non-name branded hotels. Heather had to call three different hotels to find out if they had wheelchair accessible rooms available for those days or not. We finally found one in Juneau where they said they did not have a wheelchair accessible room but they would measure the width of the doors to the bathroom to see if my chair could go in. I have to say they were really nice to measure the door with and call us back and then we made our reservations there.
I was super excited now as I love photography and was planning out the gear I want to take to Alaska and ended up getting a new lens for me to date for our travel so which was a good walk around wide + zoom lens for my DSLR so I don’t have to carry many lenses.
The flight from San Francisco to Juneau was via Ketchikan where we landed at the Ketchikan airport and that was when the beauty of Alaska started to dawn upon us. The little seaplanes at the airport during the sunset with beautiful hills around got us even more excited.
When we landed at Juneau, the beauty with all the mountains and snowcapped peaks around amazed us. The Juneau airport itself was very small and when we went to pickup our rental at the Hertz counter we got a pleasant surprise as they gave us a crossover SUV instead of the standard sized car which made our lives really easy as the wheelchair could be placed in the trunk without taking the wheels off. I put in my newly home made carbon fiber hand brake for this trip that I need for driving, and off we went.
The drive from the airport to the hotel was just stunning, and we were really glad we went to Juneau because that is certainly the most beautiful place Heather or I have seen so far.
After checking into the hotel and getting to our room, I found out that the door was not wide enough after all for my chair to get in. They measured the doorframe and not the opening itself, which is reduced because of the door. I tried not panicking and called a few hotels around to see if they had any ADA rooms, and found the Goldbelt Hotel by the airport that did. We went down to checkout of this hotel, and told them the problem and a very helpful guy said that they actually do have a room but it was not clean yet after the last guest checked out and housekeeping had left for the day. The reason they gave us the room they did was because the manager had put a hold on it after measuring it when we first called. I decided to stay the night in the inaccessible room and to change to the accessible one in the morning after it’s cleaned. And yes, I did check the room first before finalizing the plan and used the restroom while I was checking it out so I was good till the morning.
With all of that behind us we got up in the morning to go get some breakfast and as we stepped out of the hotel and it was all so worth it! Juneau is beautiful! Maybe just for three months in the year, but that is all that mattered to us. We decided to take a drive around to explore before getting something to eat. With so many glaciers, this place is a heaven for waterfalls! You drive around the road and see waterfalls every few minutes (small ones). We first drove south from downtown and after coming upon a construction delay, decided to drive the other way towards the airport. As we had not yet looked at the things to do, and were only scoping and taking in the beauty around us, we say this sign that said “Mendenhall Glacier à”, we figured it must be a long drive away, and started going down that road only to actually see the glacier from the road! We were NOT expecting it to be so close and just a stones throw away! That just blew our mind on how amazing that sight was!
We then proceed to the visitor center to take more pictures, look at and touch glacial ice just brought in, and were really impressed with the wheelchair accessibility. There was an elevator going up from the street level to the visitor center observation deck. The staff was really helpful when we asked them on what else is amazing and drivable around.
After we spent some time in the visitor center, we decided to hit the road again, only to find a fair amount of commotion about a bear sighting, and when we asked one of the rangers about it, he said “Yes, there are a few bears down there catching fish, there is a wheelchair ramp to go down there!” so we proceeded to go down after Heather insisted that we do as I felt it might be a bit of a haul to go down and I might not get to see any bears. Boy was I wrong!
These were bears in the wild, but were tagged and were walking around this walkway where 3-4 rangers were making sure that none of us did anything stupid that might get the bears or us in danger. We watched this bear come really close to the walkway and another actually catch a fish from the water and I was lucky to get a shot.
We decided to go back and get something to eat in downtown Juneau which is pretty wheelchair accessible, except that the incline can be a bit tough at times. Many shops and restaurants were also one step high and it made me want to really decide if I wanted to go in or not. I must say my “Freewheel” came in very handy as it allowed me to do a lot more, with Heather helping me where needed.
After lunch, we strolled around to the cable car and took it up to the top of the mountain for a pretty amazing view, and they have a bald eagle, a nature center and even a trail for the adventurous ones. A very accessible spot again. We came back from the cable car and decided to have an early dinner and some drinks and found a cool outdoor crab shack.
This was my first time trying fresh Alaskan King Crab – and it was all that it is cracked up to be – delicious! After a pretty packed day, we decided to call it a night and head back to the hotel with plans to drive around a lot more the next day all the way to the end of the road – literally as it was just beautiful to look in every direction.
We started the day with brunch at the Sand Piper Café and while there was a wait, it was totally worth it. I had the eggs benedict and it was to die for! We started the drive again towards the airport and the plan was to keep going around. Within an hour, this is what we came across – a beach, water and beautiful mountains.
Just spectacular! We kept driving to see another glacier as mentioned at the visitor center the day before, but no such luck, as it was a hike in from the road and we were not in the mood to do it, so we just kept driving. We did get to the end of the road and turned back to stop at the Shrine of St Therese which was again beautiful, with accessible restrooms and a pretty accessible though steep ramp to the shrine itself.
After 6 hours of driving around and taking in the sights, we decided to go to the room to take a nap and go out again in the evening. But not having had lunch we stopped at this small Mexican restaurant in downtown Juneau to get a quick bite and go take a nap.
We were actually quite tired, so as we went out to grab some dinner, we decided to just take it easy and explore some more the next day instead. We ended up ordering room service from the hotel restaurant, and I would not recommend that to anyone, as they really don’t send the food to the room, but you have to go and pick it up, secondly the quality was pretty mediocre.
On our last day in Juneau, we decided to not really do much but just wanted around the downtown area that was beautiful, and when to the restaurant next to the Taku Glacier Lodge booking office for a bite to eat. This is quite a scenic spot from where all the seaplanes take off for the glacier tour to the actual lodge itself.
After a quick brunch of amazing Alaskan cod fish and chips and killer fries, I went to the booking office to see if they had a flight for the day, and as luck would have it they did for 2 people @ $225 each. We signed up and waited around for our turn. While I was very excited, I had never been on a seaplane before and was unsure of how they would actually put me onboard as the damn planes were in the water. While the office staff and crew was very willing and eager to get me on the plane, looking at the height of the plane from the ground, and also the distance of the steps from the where we were standing, it just did not seen that good of an idea. The pilot was very eager to help, but had not done this before, so that again did not give Heather and I any confidence if this was a good idea at all. So we decided to nix it and got our refund instead.
I must say that the rest of the day was spent just chilling, eating, and enjoying the views and that was in some ways even more perfect as the next day would be our flight to Anchorage and Denali. I must say we both loved Juneau, and are certain to come back here again.