Stunningly beautiful, Alaska’s state capital Juneau consists of a larger area than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Downtown Juneau is a maze of narrow streets juxtaposing new buildings, old storefronts and quaint houses from its early gold mining days. With access only by airplane or boat, once you step foot in this amazing town, get ready to be surprised at all the free things to do in Juneau, Alaska on your next family vacation.
10 FREE Things to do in Juneau, Alaska
With a bustling waterfront, you’ll see cruise ships, fishing boats and floatplanes zip in and out of downtown Juneau. This is the only United States capital reachable only by airplane or boat, and this beautiful waterfront city offers plenty of free things to do during a cheap family vacation.
Downtown Juneau is nestled at the base of Mt. Juneau and across the channel from Douglas Island. Winter temperatures are well below freezing on average with up to 90 inches of snow per year, while summer highs level off in the mid-60s.
Below are 10 free (including one really inexpensive but not to miss!) things to do to help make a family vacation in Juneau more affordable. Most of the free activities offered in Juneau center around the city’s unique landscape – a landscape that includes mountains, glaciers, trails, and beaches.
1. Alaska State Capitol Building
The Alaska State Capitol Building is full of information about Alaska and its government. Self-guided tours conducted year-round. Guided tours available May-September.
2. Shrine of St. Therese and the Jensen-Olson Arboretum
Located 25 miles north of downtown Juneau, the Shrine of St. Therese and the Jensen-Olsen Arboretum are picturesque and peaceful places to relax and reflect. Both present outstanding views of the water and mountains.
3. Local Hiking and Walking Trails
Juneau has more than 250 miles of maintained hiking and walking trails to meet every fitness level. From beach walks to mountain climbs, these free trails offer access to the rainforest and to alpine meadows.
4. St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church
For more than 120 years, St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church has been serving the Orthodox Christian faithful in Juneau and the surrounding areas. Its classic onion dome and octagonal shape house a substantial collection of icons and artifacts.
5. Local Beaches
The beaches in Juneau offer a wide variety of experiences, from Sandy Beach in Douglas to the rocky shores of Lena Cove. Many offer picnic facilities (tables, fire pits, shelters, and restrooms.) Popular beach activities include swimming, sunning, beachcombing, picnicking and tide pool exploration.
6. Salmon Spawning Streams
Between July and September, many of the natural salmon spawning streams in the Juneau area are filled with salmon completing their natural life cycle. While some fish these streams, most simply go to watch this annual event.
7. Free Concerts
From May-September, free concerts are presented Friday evenings at Marine Park Plaza in downtown Juneau. At noon on Fridays, attend free pipe organ concerts in the atrium of the State Office Building.
8. Downtown Juneau Historic Walking Tour
Pick up a walking tour map from any visitors’ center and follow the path that takes you by all the major locations that played a part in the history of Juneau. The map contains information about each location. The walking tour is easily completed in an afternoon. South Franklin Street is the main tourist district and one of the best shopping areas to find everything Alaskan, from cute and furry faux creatures (like iceworms) to handmade native crafts and expensive fine art.
9. Project Playground
A community-sponsored and constructed play area at Twin Lakes, Project Playground was conceived by children for children and completed in the summer of 2008. This totally modern playground is located on a lake setting with picnic and restroom facilities nearby and a great place to let the kids burn off that extra energy.
10. Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area
Just a short drive from downtown is one of the state’s most visited sites: Mendenhall Glacier sitting within the Tongass National Forest, the largest in the U.S. A tongue of ice stretches 12 miles from the Juneau Icefield to Mendenhall Lake. At its widest point, the glacier is more than a half-mile wide, with ice 300 to 1,800 feet deep.
Watch icebergs break off the frozen face of the glacier into the lake. Go for a hike. Or check out the visitor center. The US Forest Service Recreation Area is also a safe place for black bear viewing on its Steep Creek platforms between June and October.
While admission to Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area is free for kids under 16 as of May 2019, it is only $5 for ages 16 and up, and so worth the splurge.
Read More: Alaska Excursions Worth the Splurge
This article was originally written by Cindy Richards in 2009, and in 2019, edited and updated by Diana Rowe.