Many visitors come to a Juneau to marvel at the magnificence of the 15-million acre Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rainforest in the world. With mist meandering among its valleys and mountains, with mosses and lichens carpeting the forest floor, with old- growth conifers punctuating persistent precipitation, there is no better way to experience the Tongass than a mountain hike among the clouds.
For individuals with limited mobility, traversing steep, rugged forest trails may not be possible. There is, however, a less strenuous, more relaxing, almost magical option for experiencing the Tongass’ mountain majesty.
A 10-minute drive from downtown Juneau, Glacier Gardens offers a rainforest adventure where visitors ride a covered shuttle through 50 acres of rainforest. The 1.5-hour tour includes a naturalist-guided stroll through a botanical garden and the shuttle ride up Thunder Mountain. Ascending 600 feet, the shuttle stops at a viewing platform that overlooks glacially gouged Gastineau Channel, the snow-capped Chilkat Mountains, the sprawling Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge and Douglas Island.
“One reason Glacier Gardens started offering tours was to create an accessible rainforest experience for people with mobility challenges,” said Glacial Gardens’ spokesperson Eli Wray. “We offer wheelchair accessibility, including wide walkways, accessible restrooms and of course, the shuttles.”
The flower towers are an unexpected splash of color against the forest backdrop
Although Glacier Garden’s tours include a ride through the rainforest, the garden’s “upside down flower towers” elicit the most oohs and awes. Check out the garden’s website and one-minute video showcasing the beauty and bounty of the garden and rainforest : “A fantasy of flowers and streams, waterfalls, wildlife and unique, one of a kind upside down trees with their trunks planted in the ground and their roots sprouting a riotous bouquet of blooming plants.”
It was a typical Juneau day when I visited Glacier Gardens in mid-August, a soft gray day with placid rain. Touring under a towering canopy of native conifers, the drizzle was not distracting. Shuttling up the mountain, Naturalist Briana Farris pointed out less obvious features along the drive: a bald eagle’s nest, a squirrel hotel, an owl perch and non-native trees and shrubs to enhance settling ponds strategically placed to prevent mudslides.
For more information on Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure, including summer hours and ticket prices, go to http://www.glaciergardens.com/book-online. In closing, I must add at $24.95 for an adult admission, this adventure is one of the best tour values in Juneau.
Text by Aleta Walther © 2014
Naturalist, Outdoor Excursion Guide, CIG, CTA, ATG
Photos by John Stewart @ 2014