If your time in Alaska is limited, then northern Southeast Alaska serves as the perfect microcosm of nearly all that Alaska has to offer: spectacular scenery, amazing wildlife, and miles of barely touched wilderness surrounding the isolated frontier communities that serve as "cities" in Alaska. It features the largest national forest in America, the 17-million acre Tongass National Forest, and hundreds of islands ranging in size from barely big enough to stand on to ones larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island.
Juneau, the state capital, holds nearly half of Southeast Alaska's 75,000 residents. It's the only state capital with no road system, though there always seems to be an expensive plan being considered to punch a road through the wilderness. It's a community with a dual personality, politics in the winter and tourism in the summer, where the residents revel in the great outdoors and enjoy fishing, hiking, and hunting most of the year.
Surrounded by tall mountains ringing the coastline, Juneau is also on the edge of the 1,500-square mile Juneau Icefield, home to more than 140 glaciers. Just a few miles north of downtown is the Mendenhall Glacier, arguably the most accessible glacier in Alaska. The coastline itself is a cornucopia of wildlife, with everything from 1,500-pound brown bears to 70-foot-long humpback whales. The Japanese current that warms the coastline also brings with it millions of salmon that return each summer to spawn in the hundreds of streams.
Because Juneau is the third-largest city in Alaska, it has a greater variety of dining experiences than most island communities in Alaska, but all are casual and fun; dressing up means a clean pair of jeans. Local favorites range from the handcrafted comfort foods at the Sandpiper Cafe to pub and pizza places such as Island Pub across the bridge in Douglas. The surf-and-turf selections on any menu are always a good choice, though Juneau also has surprisingly well-regarded Mexican and Asian restaurants. And since it is Alaska, the nightlife is hopping year-round, particularly at places such as the Hangar, the Triangle, and the legendary Red Dog Saloon.
Perhaps the best facet of Juneau is that it serves as a great home base for excursions into the heart of some of the most spectacular scenery in North America. Among the many (almost too many to choose) options are the whale-watching cruises up Lynn Canal, boat trips to the spectacular steep-sided fjords Tracy Arm/Fords Terror, and day trips into Glacier Bay National Park.