As Mendenhall Glacier hits tour capacity, Juneau visitors are opting for the city bus

a Juneau bus
Tourists get off a city bus at the Capital Transit Center on Thursday, July 20, 2023. More than a dozen tourists had taken the bus from the Dredge Lake Road bus stop back to downtown. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

For Ron Verheul and his wife, Lucy, the Mendenhall Glacier was a must-see. The question was how to get there.

“I wanted to take the city bus because I wanted to save some money. Lucy wanted to take a tour bus. So we were still kind of on the fence about which way we were going to go,” Verheul said. 

When they got off their cruise ship and went to the visitor center at the dock, the decision had already been made for them.

“They told us the tour bus was not running,” he said. “So there was no other option.”

More than a dozen other visitors joined the couple, who were visiting from Vancouver, Canada, on the 2:30 p.m. bus from the Dredge Lake Road bus stop to downtown on Thursday. 

With tour bus visits to the Mendenhall Glacier sold out halfway through the season, tourists are increasingly using the city bus to get to and from Juneau’s top destination.

Pushed to the limit

Industry leaders expected this season to be bigger than ever, as cruise ships returned to pre-pandemic capacity. And so far, Juneau’s top destination has been feeling the squeeze

The U.S. Forest Service allows 517,650 people to visit the glacier on commercial tours each tourist season. That limit is based on an environmental analysis of the area, including of the infrastructure at the glacier. Once tour companies get their allocated number of permits, they start selling tours.

“In the past, the largest provider has not used all their permits, and they’ve been able to redistribute permits in the mid-to-late season,” said Alexandra Pierce, the city’s tourism manager. “But this year they’re using all their permits.”

That means there aren’t extra permits to redistribute to other companies who sell day-of tours at the dock. Now, unless visitors booked tours in advance, they can’t take tour buses to Juneau’s most popular attraction.

“These other operators sold out, anticipating a redistribution that isn’t going to happen,” Pierce said. “We’re in a situation now where a large number of visitors who want to visit the glacier won’t have the ability to.”

Pierce said the Forest Service has an extra 50,000 permits it saves until later in the season. But even if they distributed those to tour companies, it wouldn’t be enough to meet demand.

“It’s a drop in the bucket of what we actually need,” Pierce said.

The Forest Service is also considering expanding its facilities, which would allow for more permits. The proposed project includes more parking, a new welcome center and new trails.

a Juneau bus
A Capital Transit bus bound for the Mendenhall Valley parks at the downtown transit center. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

Resident use and tourist demand collide

As tourists’ demand for the city bus increases, Juneau residents are feeling the impact. 

If buses are too full, drivers have to pass people by at stops. It’s happened at least 40 times since May, according to data compiled by Capital Transit staff. In a spreadsheet Pierce shared with the Juneau Assembly on Thursday, the number of people left behind at one time range from one to 29 at stops throughout the route. 

For example:

  • On May 8 at 2:17 p.m., 10 people were left at the Kalé Juneau-Douglas High School bus stop.
  • On June 2 at 6:50 p.m, 11 people were left at the Fred Meyer stop. 
  • On July 12 at 9:40 a.m., 25 people were left at the downtown transit center.

Juneau Assembly member Michelle Hale has ridden Capital Transit for more than a year. At an Assembly meeting earlier this month, she said availability of public transportation was vital for many of its regular riders.

“Often, the people that ride the bus are some of our most poor citizens – not always, of course – and might not have access to even figure out who to make that complaint to,” she told the Assembly. 

If the city has spare drivers, it can add them to in-demand routes. But with a statewide driver shortage straining both Capital Transit and tour companies, that can’t happen often enough to meet the demand.

Pierce said she’s heard stories of residents unable to get on a bus from Fred Meyer with their groceries or missing flights because they couldn’t take the bus to the airport. But the city can’t prevent tourists from taking public transportation.

“If you or I go to New York and ride the subway or go to London and ride the Tube, we wouldn’t get a little stop on the turnstile that says, ‘You don’t live here,’” she said. “Our duty as a local transit authority is to provide transit to everybody.”

a sign
A sign at the downtown Capital Transit center warns tourists that taking the city bus to the Mendenhall Glacier means a longer trip and a 1.5 mile walk. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

A hack for tourists

Capital Transit is a considerably cheaper alternative to tour buses, and tourists know that. While city bus tickets are just $2 for adults, tour companies charge around $50 to $70 per person.

“On the travel blogs and forums, the city bus is kind of presented as a hack,” Pierce said.

But if time is money, Capital Transit might not be such a steal. A sign at the downtown transit center warns visitors that the bus rides can take about two hours total. The bus doesn’t go all the way to the visitor center parking lot – the closest bus stop is 1.5 miles away.

“Expect the trip to take at least 4-5 hours round trip from downtown,” the sign reads, pointing out later that “private tour buses only take about 30 minutes each way.”

Verheul said, between the stops along the bus route and the walk from Dredge Lake Road, the trip took up most of their time in Juneau.

“The bus is a bit of a milk run,” he said.

The shortage of glacier tours has driven visitors to other activities, like the Mount Roberts tram and whale watching. Cheryl Zachary, who was visiting Juneau on Thursday from Ohio, was taking Capital Transit from downtown to Glacier Gardens, a botanical garden near Fred Meyer.

“Whenever I travel, I like to use public transportation,” she said. “I feel like you get to meet local people and you get a feel of what it’s like to actually live in a place.”

The price was right, too. Zachary was staying at a hotel near the airport.

“If we Uber back to the hotel, it’s like $30,” she said.

a field
The view of the Mendenhall Glacier from the Kaxdigoowu Heen Dei trailhead on Friday, July 21, 2023. (Katie Anastas/KTOO)

‘Too many people’

The city is doing what it can to provide other ways for tourists to see the glacier on tours. They’ve issued additional permits for the parking lot at the Kaxdigoowu Heen Dei Trail, which has views of the glacier.

The city has hired a consultant to look at Juneau’s public transit system. Pierce said the city originally hired them to help plan a new bus route that could help tourists spread out in downtown. Now, they’re also working on what Capital Transit might do to remain available for both residents and tourists during the season.

She said both projects point to key challenges Juneau faces when it comes to tourism.

“We have a shore excursion supply and demand problem in Juneau,” Pierce said. “We’ve always been a destination where there’s a lot of options and a lot to do, but we just have too many people now.”

Pierce said they should have recommendations for the Valley bus route ready for city leaders next month. In the meantime, she wants Juneau residents to know the city is working to find a solution.

“I think we’ll see a busier downtown with more people wandering around,” she said. “We’ll get through this season and have a lot of winter project work to do.”

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