My aunt and uncle told us that they were coming up to Alaska for Christmas and they were going to make a stop in Juneau. I haven’t seen them in years, so we were naturally very excited to see them and drive them around town.
We asked them what they wanted to see and they said, “Two things: the Mendenhall Glacier and the upside-down trees.”
It took me a second to remember what they were talking about since I’ve lived here for years and I sometimes forget about the trees since I haven’t been to see them in a while.
I’ll start by talking about their history, then we’ll get into how you can see them on your next adventure to Juneau, Alaska.
Why Are The Trees Upside Down?
When I first heard about the trees, my immediate thought was that it must have been some natural occurrence like glacial erosion or they were constructed hundreds of years ago in a mysterious fashion like the stone statues on Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island).
It turns out the actual story behind the trees being upside down is a lot more reasonable than “aliens did it” and more simple than “a combination of natural factors and sheer luck created upside-down trees”. It’s also, at least in my opinion, a lot funnier.
As the story goes, back in the 1990s, there was a landslide on Thunder Mountain here in Juneau and a fellow by the name of Steve Bowhay bought some of that affected land over on Glacier Highway.
His first step in developing the land was to try and rebuild the stream coming off the mountain. He caused some minor damage to the heavy equipment he was using, which understandably made him a bit upset.
In a fit of rage, he took the controls of that machine and turned one of the trees upside down, then placed it in one of the holes he had dug up.
After seeing how amazing it looked, he was inspired to turn over more trees and turn the area into a garden. Today, there are about 100 such trees in the park, most of which are Sitka spruce or hemlocks, with beautiful flowers growing on top.
Now, that area is known as the Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure and has some of the most amazing views of scenery that you’ll be able to find in all of Southeast Alaska (and that’s saying something!).
The area is particularly fascinating to look at because it is a combination of natural landscapes featuring old-growth trees, some hundreds of years old, and the manmade gardens of the upside-down forest.
How to Get to Glacier Gardens
Getting to Glacier Gardens is incredibly easy and is one of the less crowded tourist destinations in town, although it does still get many visitors every year.
It’s located about seven or eight miles from downtown, just over half the distance to the Mendenhall Glacier. They don’t offer transportation from the cruise ship docks, but there are several other ways to get there.
Both Uber and Lyft operate in the city, as well as several taxi services. The cheapest way, if you have the time, is definitely through Capital Transit, the city’s bus service.
From the cruise ship docks at Marine Park, you can walk to the front of the big blue building, which is called The Merchants’ Wharf. Across the street, you’ll see a four-story parking garage, in front of which is the Downtown Transit Center.
Buses leave every half hour, at five minutes and 35 minutes past the hour. The ride will give you great views of the Gastineau Channel, which flows between Juneau and Douglas Island. You can take either a “Route 3” or “Route 4” bus to get to the gardens for only $2.
After about 35 or 40 minutes, you’ll arrive at the Glacier Gardens bus stop. If you reach Fred Meyer, you’ve gone one stop too far and you’ll have to walk a block or two back the way you came.
About the Tour
Once you get to Glacier Gardens, you’ll have to take the hourlong tour to see the trees, which (at the time of writing) is $28.30 with tax for an adult (13+), $16.75 for children ages six to 12, and free for children five and under.
Thankfully, the tour takes place on a vehicle driven by your tour guide, so you won’t have to hike up a mountain to see them.
It is also a prime place to see bald eagles, many of which frequent the area, as well as the occasional bear or another wild animal.
After the tour, you can visit the visitor’s center atrium, take a walking tour of the lower garden outside, and have a bite to eat or some coffee at the Rainforest Cafe.
Getting Back to the Cruise Ship Docks
After your tour is over, you can go to the bus stop across the street from the one you arrived at and take a bus at about 17 or 47 minutes after the hour, which will take you on a 35 or 40-minute return ride back to the cruise ship docks.
If you have a lot of time in port, feel like a walk, and are so inclined, you could walk the 2.4 miles to the Alaskan Brewing Company. You can also get on that bus for another $2 per person and get off at Commercial Boulevard, then walk the two or three blocks.
If you really have some time, you can turn right after leaving Glacier Gardens, walk past Fred Meyer down to the bike path, turn right on Mendenhall Loop Road, and keep walking straight down to Glacier Spur Road to see the Mendenhall Glacier.
You could also take the bus on the same side of the street you came in on to Dredge Lake, which is about a 1.5-mile walk from the Mendenhall Glacier’s Visitor Center. The driver will call out “closest stop to the glacier!” and point out the bike path to you.
If you do visit the glacier on your own, however, you’ll need to get an Uber or a Lyft back or walk the 1.5 miles back to the Dredge Lake bus stop. I don’t believe any tour drivers accept one-way fares from the glacier at this time.
I know for some people (like me!) it’s easier to understand an itinerary like this if it’s written out in the standard format, so here is a sample, which might vary a little bit depending on your exact plans.
For these itineraries, we’ll assume your cruise ship docks downtown at 10:15 AM and you have at least five hours before you have to get back on board. We’ll also assume this is your only non-downtown activity.
11:05 AM – Take the Route 3 bus from the Downtown Transit Center toward Glacier Gardens
11:40 AM – Arrive at Glacier Gardens, walk up the hill to the Visitor’s Center to buy a ticket
12:00 PM – The tour begins
1:00 PM – The tour ends at the Visitor’s Center atrium
1:16 PM – Take the Capital Transit bus back downtown to the Downtown Transit Center, across the street from the bus stop you arrived at
Alternatively, if you decide to have some food at the Rainforest Cafe, you can take the 1:46 or 2:16 buses back to the cruise ship docks.
Note that you can take either a Route 3 or Route 4 bus to Glacier Gardens because the change in direction around Mendenhall Loop Road doesn’t take place for about eight stops after you get off the bus. They follow the same path until that point.
Now, there are a ton of things to do in Juneau so be sure to spend your time wisely if you’re only into port for a couple of hours! You can check out our Ultimate One Day Intinerary For Juneau to make sure you hit all the highlights.
Summary and Conclusion
If you want to see some of the most amazing trees you’ve ever encountered, Glacier Gardens in Juneau, Alaska, is the perfect spot.
I recommend taking the bus, which allows you even more beautiful scenery on the drive over. It is also very cost-efficient, with only a $2 fare (cash only!) per person each way.
After the tour is over, you can walk to the Alaskan Brewing Company, the Fred Meyer grocery store a block or two away (which is owned by Kroger), or the Mendenhall Glacier if you have time and don’t mind a walk. You can also take a bus back downtown.
If you’re pressed for time, you might want to get an Uber, Lyft, or taxi each way. It’ll be about $20 to $25 plus tip each way, depending on the part of downtown at which you get picked up or dropped off.
You should expect to spend a little over an hour at the gardens, with a little extra time added on if you’re planning to have some food at the cafe.
One last important thing is that you should definitely call the day before to make sure the tour will be operating since it’s weather-dependent. Much like most of Southeast Alaska, they often close up early on rainy days.
No matter how you choose to take the amazing Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure Tour, the City and Borough of Juneau can’t wait to welcome you on your next exciting Alaskan adventure!