A Day Trip to Tracy Arm
The fjords of the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness (part of Tongass National Forest) are relatively unknown outside the area, but the scenery and wildlife viewing easily rival those of Glacier Bay National Park. And for those not riding a cruise ship, Tracy Arm has a significant advantage over Glacier Bay: It costs less than half as much and is easier to get to. A Tracy Arm tour takes about 8 hours; going to Glacier Bay from Juneau is an exhausting day trip -- it's wiser to overnight there, though that adds more to the cost.
The Tracy Arm fjord is a long, narrow, twisting passageway into the coastal mountains, with peaks up to a mile high that jut straight out of the water, waterfalls tumbling thousands of feet down their sides. At its head, Sawyer Glacier and South Sawyer Glacier calve ice into the water with a rumble and a splash. Whales and other wildlife usually show up along the way. And, as at Glacier Bay, John Muir paid a visit. No second-best here!
Adventure Bound Alaska, 76 Egan Dr., across from the Goldbelt Hotel (tel. 800/228-3875 or 907/463-2509; www.adventureboundalaska.com), is a family business operating a 56-foot single-hull boat to Tracy Arm every day in the summer, with deck space all the way around. The boat leaves from the downtown Marine Park by 8am. (You have to be onboard at least 15 min. earlier.) They charge $150 adults, $95 ages 5 to 17; children must be at least 5 to go.
Another way to visit Tracy Arm is to charter your own boat. Although it may cost twice as much or more per person, you can decide when and where to linger with the animals or ice. Check with the visitor center for a referral, or with Juneau Sportfishing and Sightseeing (tel. 907/586-1887).
On Admiralty Island
Beyond Douglas Island from Juneau, near the entrance to Gastineau Channel, is 1-million-acre Admiralty Island, one of the largest virgin blocks of old-growth forest in the country. The vast majority of the island is the protected Kootznoowoo Wilderness. Kootznoowoo, Tlingits for "fortress of bears," is said to have the highest concentration of brown bears on Earth. Despite the town of Angoon on the western side of the island, there are more bears than people on Admiralty. The island's Pack Creek Bear Viewing Area is the most famous and surefire place to see bears in Southeast. The area has been managed for bear viewing since the 1930s, when hunting was outlawed. Visitors come to see bears up close as they feed on salmon spawning in the creek in July and August. Peak viewing occurs in the middle of that period. The bears generally pay no attention to the watchers, who mostly gather on a gravel bar with no barriers between people and bears. There's good bird-watching here, too, with an extraordinary abundance of bald eagles.
Only 25 miles from Juneau, Pack Creek is so popular that the Forest Service uses a permit system to keep it from being overrun during the day (9pm-9am, no humans are allowed). The great majority of people go for only a few hours. There are no facilities in this wilderness area, and you can't even camp without some kind of water craft to get to a designated area. The easiest way to go is with a tour operator who has permits. The Forest Service District Ranger Office can give you a list of guides.
Alaska Fly 'N' Fish Charters (tel. 907/790-2120; www.alaskabyair.com) has permits for its naturalist-guided, 5 1/2-hour fly-in Pack Creek visits, which cost $600 per person, with everything you need included. Twelve permits per day go to the commercial operators, but there are permits for unguided private parties, too. The Forest Service is considering changes to the permit system, using a national reservation system; check for changes, but here's how it works at press time. Daily, 12 permits are allocated to people who go without any guide; 8 of those 12 can be booked in advance with the Forest Service beginning on March 1, and the other 4 are available 3 business days before the date on which they're good, the previous Friday for Tuesday and Wednesday, at 9am at the Juneau Ranger District Office. In the peak season, July 5 to August 25, permits cost $50 for adults, $25 for those ages 16 or under or 62 and over. Lower prices and easier availability prevail outside the peak, but then you might not see any bears. After you have the permit, you'll still need a way to get there, plus your own gear (including rubber boots and binoculars). The Forest Service lists air taxi operators on its website.
Protected Seymour Canal, on the east side of the island, is good for canoeing and kayaking, and has two other sites besides Pack Creek where bears often show up: Swan Cove and Windfall Harbor. For information on the island, its 15 Forest Service cabins, and an excellent $4 map, contact the Admiralty Island National Monument, 8510 Mendenhall Loop Rd., Juneau (tel. 907/586-8800; www.fs.fed.us/r10/tongass/districts/admiralty).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.