Points in Focus Photography

Mount Roberts Trails, Juneau Alaska

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Back in May I went on an inside passage cruise to Alaska, I’ve already written about the first two major excursions I did Misty Fjords National Monument and Mendenhall Glacier. In this post, I’m still writing about what I did in Juneau because well, frankly the last post had gotten to be more than long enough on its own.

Morning fog fills the glastineau channel on approach to juneau.
Morning fog fills the Glastineau Channel on approach to Juneau.

Mount Roberts nature area is basically right up the hill from the port where the cruise ships tie up. Actually, if your ship ties up at dock C or D then you basically can walk off the ship and board the aerial tram that takes you up to the visitor center. The tram costs $33 for a day pass, but you can ride it as much as you want, and the view over the Gastineau Channel and the port is quite nice.

The other way up to the visitor center is walking the lower half of Mount Robert’s trail. The Mount Roberts trail starts from Basin Road[1], climbs a total of 3,819 vertical feet over it’s 4.5 mile length. The Mount Roberts Tram and trail meet at the 1,760 foot level, about 2.5 miles in from the trail head. By all accounts I’ve read, though not personal experience, the trail is a difficult hike due to the nature of the terrain and steepness.

Eagle on mount roberts
Eagle on Mount Roberts

For those looking to hike up, when I was there, there was signage indicating that a reduced cost ticket allowing for 1 trip on the tramway back down to sea level was also available. However, I don’t see any mention of this on the Mount Roberts Tram’s website.

From the upper tram station and visitor center, there are a number of trails that radiate out in addition to the Mount Roberts trail. Most of these trails are out-and-back styles, and based on the information in the trail map I got they’re not all in the best of conditions. However, one of the trails, the Alpine Loop trail, is kept well maintained and offers a loop tour thorough some of the various ecosystems at the top of Mount Roberts.

Smooth wood
Smooth Wood

I wouldn’t characterize the Alpine Loop trail as being especially difficult. It’s about a half-mile long, and climbs around 150 feet from the visitor center. In the steepest sections, stairs have been built into the trail to facilitate safe passage.

That said, I would like to take brief moment to make a small plea for the Mount Roberts nature area, and these trails. Being that these high alpine trails are easily accessible to throngs of cruise ship passengers via the tram, they see a considerable amount of use. While talking to some of the staff up there I was told that the trails are maintained by volunteers and that part of their funding is from the few dollars they get from the trail maps and the funding provided in part by the tram operations.

While these trails aren’t pristine back-country areas, the volume of traffic has an impact. I’d strongly urge anyone who’s visiting and hiking the Alpine Loop trail, or any of the other Mount Roberts trails, to buy a trail map to help support their upkeep—they’re only like $1–2 and they’re a nice souvenir and reference while you’re on the trail. Even if you don’t buy a trail map you can help out by minimizing your impact on the area.

Gnarled branch
Gnarled Branch

Photographically speaking, the burning question is what’s up there to shoot?

The Alpine loop trail, and the further trails up to Mount Roberts and Glastineau Peak, move through a verity of alpine forest and more barren environments above the tree line.

At the higher elevations on the Alpine Loop Trail you’ll be above the large trees (tree line). Without large trees in the way, the higher parts of the trail offer some opportunities for some wider angle vistas. From the overlooks you should be able to find images up the Gastineau Channel. Moreover, continuing up the trails that radiate out from the Alpine Loop trail, the you’ll have vistas into the neighboring peaks and valleys.

Trunks
Trunks

The lower altitude alpine forest area provides a wealth of intimate landscape opportunities. Most every rock, stump, and root is covered in a verity of lichens and mosses. With a tripod and some patience, there’s a wealth of possibilities to be had just without 100 feet of the visitor’s center. Moreover, there are a pair of culturally modified trees near the visitors center.

One thing that I found made for an interesting subject was the distorted and twisted trees that you could find regularly as you approached the tree line. The weather in this kind of environment—much like the weather at the top of White Pass outside Skagway—is harsh and twists trees and strips them of branches in unique and interesting ways.

Moss and bark
Moss and Bark

Additionally, there are a number of places on the trail where natural drainages converge to form small creeks. At least one of which the trail is crosses on a small bridge. At the right time of year, when there’s a little more snow melt, these creeks could be interesting opportunities for smaller scale flowing water shots.

Finally there’s the ever present opportunities for wildlife. Bald Eagles extremely common, and while I can’t guarantee you’ll see one along the trail, they are something to keep your eyes open for. When I was there, there was a mature, I was told, male sitting in a tree adjacent one of the viewing decks and the gift shop where you can get the trail maps. In addition to eagles, a number of smaller rodents as well as bears.

Rock and plants
Rock and Plants

Much to my detriment, the Mount Roberts trails are a diverse enough environment that I find it hard to roll with a single lens, or at least not unless you have an ultra-large range (like a 28–300mm or 18–250mm) zoom.

Like usual on this trip, I was traveling light on gear, with only my 5D mark III and EF 24–105mm f/4L IS USM lens. This combination worked well enough for the landscape type shots, but was woefully inadequate for the Bald Eagle in the tree—though admittedly combined with the strong back lighting, there wasn’t much of a shot to be had with that particular bird and situation anyway.

Lichens and mosses
Lichens and Mosses

Moreover, I was there on an overcast day—the weather actually turned towards rain, and it ultimately started raining now long after we got down form the mountain—so the light was great in quality for the kinds of intimate landscapes you could get in the forest areas. However, with the lack of light, a tripod would have been very handy, and mine wasn’t even in the same state. It was, in fact, Mount Roberts that made me really regret not having brought my tripod. As a result, I was limited to wider apertures, higher ISOs, and relying on image stabilization to get what I could get. All of which, is a recipe for less than stellar results with this kind of imagery.

That said, on a sunny day, I could see a number of places where the harshness of undiffused sunlight would be problematic. It also wouldn’t help that there were a number of places where either due to the slope of the terrain or clearing done to insure safety and the health of the adjacent trees, there wouldn’t be much diffusion provided by the canopy itself. That said, I still think there would be a lot of opportunities.


  1. According to Alaska.org the 6th Street trailhead is no longer being maintained and the only access is the Basin road trailhead.  ↩

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