Juneau Alaska Kayaking

Are you considering a day or a leisurely overnight sea kayak excursion in the Juneau area? The coastlines immediately surrounding Juneau offer some great destinations with breathtaking scenery. There are a wide variety of coastal environments to explore, calving glaciers and icebergs, wide fjords lined by snow capped mountains, uninhabited islands surrounded by marine mammals and salt water estuaries that are filled with migratory birds. Alaska’s Capital City has many opportunities to get out and enjoy the real Alaska by kayak all within a few minutes of town, here are a few of our favorites.

Mendenhall Lake
When people think about sea kayaking in Alaska visions of towering mountains, sprawling glaciers and weaving your way through icebergs often comes to mind. There are many places in Alaska that would allow for that kind of experience but they are, more often than not, remote and expensive to visit. However Mendenhall Lake and the Mendenhall Glacier located right in Juneau’s backyard is the inexpensive exception when looking for an up close and personal visit with one of Alaska’s great glaciers.

Access to the lake is easy, just drive to the end of the Skaters Cabin Road where the West Glacier Trail starts, the lake is just a few steps from the parking lot. The lake has more to offer than just glacial ice, mountain goats, bear, wolf and beaver can be seen from water’s edge. Bird watching can also be exceptionally rewarding with a Gull and Arctic Turn nesting area located along the cliffs and sandbars that have been exposed by the retreating glacier, an abundance of other waterfowl and terrestrial birds inhabit this area as well. 

Be sure to use caution and your good judgment when approaching the terminus of the Mendenhall Glacier. You want to keep a safe distance from the large towers of ice that could come crashing down at any time. For more information on the Mendenhall Glacier and the ecology of the area you may want to visit the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center located on the opposite side of lake from the glacier or via the Glacier Spur Road if you are driving from town.

Berners Bay
There are no roads into Juneau Alaska to get there one must arrive by boat or plane. The forty mile long road that leads out of town ends at Echo Cove a two mile long bite that connects to Berners Bay. There is ample parking with easy beach access but you will need to be aware of the tides when coming and going. There are numerous good beaches and campsites located throughout the bay and a short but beautiful hike up a series of waterfalls at Sawmill Creek. There are also two cabins for rent, the Blue Mussel Cabin located at Point Bridget State Park, and the other, the Berners Bay Cabin located at the northeastern end of the bay by two lovely waterfalls that empty into the sea. The spray from the falls can be very refreshing on a hot summer’s day!

Historically Berners Bay has been the northern boundary of the Auk Kwaan Tlingit who has taken sustenance from the areas forest, rivers and sea for thousands of years. In the spring there is a large run of Hooligan in the Burners and Antler Rivers that attracts Humpback Whales, Sea Lions, seals and seabirds in the thousands to feed on the calorie rich tiny fish. An outing during this time can be especially rewarding for wildlife viewing. At the north end of the bay Lions Head Mountain stands guard over this special place, known also as Spirit Mountain by the Tlingit it is considered sacred because it is the resting place the their shaman’s spirit. 

Channel Islands State Marine Park
Have you ever dreamed of having your own island, if just for a day or two, to wander and explore? Just off of Juneau’s coast are fourteen islands that make up the Channel Islands State Marine Park. Established in 2008, the park offers an opportunity to visit a group of unspoiled islands in center of one of Alaska’s most beautiful waterways.

Despite their close proximity to Juneau the islands offer the true Alaskan experience. Located in the middle of Lynn Canal and Stephens Passage the area is home to Humpback Whales, Orca, Sea Lions and other marine mammals. The fishing around the islands is outstanding with five species of salmon, halibut and rockfish in the surrounding waters to entice the kayak angler. When kayaking around the Channel Islands Brenda admires the views of the Coast and Chilkat Mountains that provide a spectacular setting with their snow capped peaks and glaciers.

Of course getting out and exploring on foot is great fun as well, the wild and rugged coastlines are a beach comber’s natural paradise. The shorelines of most of the islands have kayak friendly beaches and camp sites and there are no permits or reservations required for tent camping. For those who do not wish to rough it there are several State owned cabins available for a very reasonable price within the park and surrounding area.


There are a number of public kayak launching sites along the Juneau road system to access the Channel Islands. Auke Bay Marina and the end of Fritz Cove Road would be closest to Battleship, Coghlan, Indian, Portland and Suedla Islands. Lena Cove and Tee Harbor are closest to South Shelter and Aaron Islands. Amalga Harbor is an excellent point to launch for Bird, Cohen, Gull, Lincoln, North, Ralston and North Shelter Islands. And the Eagle Beach State Recreational Area would be the closest spot to put in for Benjamin and North Islands.
Each of the islands has its own unique charm and beauty worth exploring so one could of course string several, or all, of the islands together into a multi day expedition.

Fritz Cove and the Mendenhall Wetlands
More than 300 species of migratory birds follow the Pacific flyway along Alaska's Panhandle and more than 280 species nest in the Juneau area. The outfall of the silt laden Mendenhall River into Fritz Cove has created a four thousand acre intertidal wetland that is an ideal feeding and resting habitat for migratory birds. Exploring by kayak in the slews and channels of the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge is a superb way to see many of these birds that are traveling to and from their Arctic breeding grounds.

The average tidal range in Juneau is seventeen feet so it is important to keep an eye on the time when paddling in the shallow waters of the refuge. Everything that is underwater in the photo below will be high and dry in six hours. There is several access points located around the wetlands but our favorite is at the end of Fritz Cove Road. The put in there is nicely sheltered from the wind and is not nearly as tidal dependant as others.

Douglas Island
Directly across from the city of Juneau is Douglas Island, this seventeen mile long island is dominated by flat muskegs and rolling forested mountains rising to 3,366 feet. Connected to Juneau by a two lane bridge its coastline along Gastineau Channel is well developed with homes and businesses but the back side of the island, the side facing Stephens Passage and Admiralty Island is pure wilderness. A trip to the back side of Douglas Island can be done in a day but to go all the way around the island covers up to forty six miles and usually takes about two days to complete by kayak.

Once you are in Stephens Passage the sounds of the city disappear and are replaced by lapping waves and the call of birds. There are sandy beaches with good campsites located near Point Hilda and the views of the rugged mountains of Admiralty Island are spectacular. Do not be surprised to see Humpback Whales bubble feeding in the channel in front of your camp. Good launching sites are located at either end of the island, at Sandy Beach just south of the City of Douglas and by False Outer Point on the North Douglas Highway.

The weather and seas around Juneau can be unpredictable, strong winds and heavy rain can appear without much warning. Quality raingear and warm layers of clothing are a must even in the summer. You may wish to view our post on Kayaking Gear for a check list of all necessary items. When you are ashore you will be traveling in bear country so please use bear awareness and take appropriate protection, see our post on the Best Defense Against Bears. Remember to stay alert, use your good judgment at all times and go prepared.