When most people think of Juneau, they tend to focus on the fact that the state’s capital is near the spectacular frigid beauty of the Mendenhall Glacier. But if you expect southeast Alaska to be an icy tundra year round, then discovering the Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure will be a colorful delight.
The 50-acre botanical garden in Tongass National Forest offers fully guided tours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily from May through September. Admission is $26.95 for adults and $15.95 for children and includes a guided tour on covered trams. U.S. News and World Report ranks the garden Number Four on its list of best things to do in Juneau, while TripAdvisor ranks the garden at Number 10 on its list of 59 things to do in Juneau.
When deciding between hotels in Juneau, the Frontier Suites’ convenient location makes it easy for you to add a visit to the Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure on Thunder Mountain. The garden is located seven miles from downtown Juneau and about a mile from the airport. You can get there by driving or by taking the Capital City Transit service, a taxi or ride-share service.
An Accidental Success
Steve Bowhay, his wife Cindy, and their six children developed the garden, which opened in 1998 and continues to run it. While the garden is now a popular tourist destination, its beginning was far from auspicious.
The Bowhays bought 6.5 acres in 1994. A landslide had damaged the property, and Bowhay created the garden’s original Upside-Down Flower Tower during a fit of frustration, according to a report from Garden Destinations.
During stream restoration work on the property, Bowhay damaged a rental excavator while trying to move a boulder. Annoyed about the expected repair bill, he grabbed a tree by the root ball with the excavator’s arm and slammed it into the mud. Struck by how the roots hung like vines, Bowhay decided to plant spruce and hemlock trees that were being cleared from the property upside down to create the garden’s Flower Towers.
The trees’ roots were covered with netting and soil to create baskets for flowering plants. Bowhay now plants about 100 flowering plants in each tower every year. He and his team start growing all the garden’s flowers indoors so they can plant full grown flowering plants when spring arrives. Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure plants thousands of annuals each year to supplement the gardens perennial flower trees and shrubs.
Explore the Garden
Plan to spend about two hours at the garden, plus time for the gift shop and café. Admission covers the guided tour, access to the lower botanical garden and the Visitor Center Atrium.
The tour takes you through a series of ponds and waterfalls created during the stream restoration project to limit erosion and prevent future landslides. The water features are designed to blend and contrast the gardens with the natural rainforest.
Visitors will have a chance to enjoy a “breathtaking panoramic view” at the top of Thunder Mountain that includes the Gastineau Channel, Douglas Island and both the Mendenhall Valley and Wetlands. Don’t forget your camera so you can capture lasting memories of your views of Juneau.
Although there are a few paths in the lower botanical gardens, walking along the paved tramway paths is prohibited, and there are no unguided walking tours allowed at the garden.
The garden also is available for weddings, parties, retreats, and seminars.
Spy On The Eagles’ Nest
One of the park’s highlights is a chance to see nesting eagles. Since 2004, a pair of Alaskan Bald Eagles have nested in the garden. The couple returns each year to have and raise their eaglets. An HD stream from a camera positioned in a nearby tree.
The birds returned to their nest in April, and since then two eaglets have hatched. You can watch the eagles live on YouTube. Photos and videos also are available on the park’s Facebook page.
The gardens earn rave reviews on TripAdvisor including these:
- “I love gardens, so when I saw a cruise ship excursion offer that coupled Mendenhall Glacier with these gardens, I was glad. The glacier is spectacular, but I enjoyed the gardens tour so much more. The staff is gracious, and the entire tour is on a tram. The gardens are gorgeous, and the forest is a must-see. This tour should not be missed.”
- “Lovely tranquil and relaxing gardens with great views and the opportunity to see an eagle on a live video feed as well as take photos of it as it flew back and forth from its nest!”
- “An odd way to present a garden. They planted trees upside down, so the roots were pointing upwards. Then they planted flowers in the roots. Weird but very effective.”
- “Have never seen anything like this. The gardens and area are beautiful. … Tour takes you through the gardens and into the Tongass rainforest. You get to a high point where there is a boardwalk with amazing views of the valley.”
- “Very unique garden ideas. Loved the view from the top. Guides were very knowledgeable, and the weather was great that day.”
- “Wonderful tour to see such beautiful flowers, plants, etc., you can see the love that goes into this place! The views from the top are amazing too!”
Get Back To Nature
Not all rainforests are tropical, and that fact’s on vivid display at the Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure. During your stay in Juneau at the Frontier Suites, consider including a trip to the garden. Plan to spend at least part of a day seeing and experiencing Alaska’s natural beauty.
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