Juneau, Alaska – Is This the Last Undiscovered Ski Town in North America?

Toby Ryston-Pratt 17.06.2024

Franklin St in downtown Juneau. Making me nostalgic for how Telluride, Park City and Crested Butte used to look.

Mountainwatch | Tony Harrington (words and photos)

As the Alaskan Airlines flight drops down through the clouds my destination finally comes into sight. The view for the past couple of hours from Seattle has been a steady stream of snow-capped mountains and it’s only in the final minutes as we come up the Gastineau Channel that a small criss-cross of roads and buildings are revealed – Juneau, Alaska.

You can only get to Alaska’s state capital by air or ferry and you’d be forgiven for not realising Juneau is technically a city. The vibe here is small town, and in the winter months it’s not exactly bustling.

The main street has a rustic charm and you get the feeling it doesn’t look a hell of a lot different now to when the hunt for gold brought prospectors, including Joe Juneau, this way back in the 1880s when the town was established. Indigenous Tlingit (pron: clink-it) and Haida (pron: high-da) Indian tribes have been fishing these salmon-rich waters for centuries and as you walk through town Tlingit names are on signs, buildings and maps.

Craving epic lift-accessed backcountry terrain? Here is Theresa Peak, Hogsback and Mt Ben Stuart with unlimited options.

As I’m exploring the main drag I’m trying to picture what’s it’s like in summer when half a dozen cruise liners pull in each day and tourists swarm through town. I’m definitely here in the off-season – and that’s how I like it.

I feel like I’m getting in on a well-kept secret, because just over the bridge on Douglas Island there’s a rad ski mountain, and this whole area is surrounded by amazing heli-accessed terrain and there is barely anyone here. I made my first visit to ski Eaglecrest – they call it a ski hill, it’s 640 acres with 1620 feet of vertical – last year and I’m fired up to be back so soon.

Mt Buller’s Harry Hart slashing some Eaglecrest pow

Could this be a unicorn; a seriously good ski destination that hasn’t been overrun (yet?)  What it doesn’t have ticks a lot of my boxes – no lift lines, no traffic snarls on the 22-minute drive from town, no parking dramas, no wanker attitude and no frills. What it does have is darn good skiing, friendly locals, a huge almost empty ski area and at the end of the day plenty of great old school bars and places to get a great meal back in town.

I’m not going to spin some line or say the snow is always epic – it gets it all here; deep dry powder, creamy dreamy soft snow, a bit of crust and crud and the occasional dollop of mashed potatoes and a smattering of hard pack. As skiers we are all gamblers, but I’d put a bet on this place any day.  And that’s why after my first taste I was keen to get back, and I brought a few mates with me.

Hannes Grimus finding room to move on a snowy day in Eaglecrest

An Eaglecrest  patroller on one of those days you’d be happy with your career choice.

Our group of skiers and boarders from Mt Buller consisted of Moz Bardas, Mal and Harry Hart, Mt Buller legend Hannes Grimus and his Austrian mountain guide mate Peter Breitfuss – and it was certainly an eye opener for everyone.

It was Hannes’s first trip to Alaska and as we planned this mission he was frothing on every detail. When he’s not freeskiing or running the ski shop in his family’s business, Pension Grimus on Mt Buller, Hannes spends his life around ski race courses, initially as an FIS alpine racer and more recently as a World Cup/Olympic coach. Hannes convinced his mates Moz and Mal to join the trip. Both Moz and Mal are seasoned Alaskan heli skiers who have scored both hits and misses on heli skiing trips up this way. When you’re working with Mother Nature, the Alaskan wilderness and helicopters you know you are buckling into a rollercoaster ride that can be the biggest thrill of your life or an expensive and frustrating disappointment. Most heli trips require a willingness to accept a level of risk and reward in equal measure – but the good news for our group was, we found a way to tilt the odds a little more in our favour.

Most heliski operations in Alaska are tucked out in remote locations. A helicopter, its pilot and engineer are out in these far-flung spots every day of the heli season – which is a cost to the operation. It doesn’t matter if the heli doesn’t leave the ground, there are fixed expenses and they are passed on to clients. No surprise there.

Mos Bardass, finding what he lead him to Juneau with Alaska Powder Descents.

Alaska Powder Descents are a little different because the helicopters they use are based out of Juneau airport and they only pay for the time they fly. For us, it meant instead of sitting in a heli lodge waiting anxiously for those fly-days we had tonnes of options that made for an epic week’s stay. When we weren’t getting in turns at Eaglecrest we were poking about in downtown Juneau, slotting in some hunting and fishing adventures and getting up to retail mischief in the epic outfitter stores (more Carhartt and guns than you could ever imagine). It’s pretty extraordinary to have a heli trip with such low ‘skunk factor’ in the mix, and the ‘local ski hill’ here is a big part of that insurance.

Eaglecrest’s inbounds terrain is a seriously good time and on their (Alaskan) rating has about 40% advanced terrain with another 40% intermediate. Then you take a peek at the side and backcountry and realise you need a lot more time here. Once you set your sights beyond the generous amount of groomed runs and steep off-piste terrain within the marked ski area, you are tempted with a smorgasbord of big, steep, Alaska-sized peaks and terrain features where short hikes or a tour from the top of the Ptarmigan lift will put you into some of the best terrain any serious freeskier could imagine. As a bonus, you get to ski back to the lift.

Two local generations sharing the stoke on a storm day.

I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say this place is a legit adventure ski destination that I would put high on any North American list, if not at the top. The fact that it’s completely off the radar only makes it more off the hook.

Anyway, I’m getting you distracted, from the main event – the promise of heli lines that brought our posse of powder-seekers all the way from Australia. In the case of Moz, Mal and Harry they’d literally just landed when we got the call that it was on. Hannes and Peter had at least had a couple of days to get their AK bearings, but for the others we scooped them from the arrival hall fresh off their international flight and made the short drive 500m to the Temsco Heli base where Alaskan Powder Descents (APD) were ready to deliver us to the top of some fresh lines.

APD are a small operation and it gives them the advantage of being really nimble. When conditions align they can act fast. Our group hustled into action, the sky was blue, there was powder in the mountains waiting and no better way to shake jetlag than a whiff of Jet-A, the scream of a turbine and face shots to boot.

Hannes Grimus, Alaska Powder Descents.

It’s such a dance with the weather and terrain in Alaska as you strive for that ‘goldilocks’ alignment of snow falling and weather clearing and the hope that blasting wind doesn’t undo it all. It can often happen that as the low-pressure storm system moves out high pressure can build in the interior. This pressure imbalance will suck in frigid arctic air that funnels down valleys at a blistering speed, hammering whole swathes of terrain turning dreams of powder turns into nightmares. These weather events also send the mercury plummeting making for insanely cold days. Despite this exact scenario happening during our window we struck gold, just like those early pioneers, with a number of drainages that had escaped the onslaught of the wind. We feasted on bountiful, long powder-filled runs in dead-calm conditions to the valley floor. The bliss of being in these sheltered seams of powder while witnessing the gale force winds stirring up a swell on the Lynn Canal below us was mesmerising.

“We feasted on bountiful, long powder-filled runs in dead-calm conditions to the valley floor.”

After three days of flying and gorging on untracked vertical another North Pacific storm system made its way to us. It was time to say goodbye to our rotor-spinning ways and get our kicks finding fun off the Ptarmigan chair at Eaglecrest. Good times were had exploring the terrain, and fair to say that ‘local ski hill’ has plenty going for it as we slayed tree lines and kept the stoke levels sky high. I was hoping to get the boys out past “The Ridge” on to Hogs Back and over to Mt Stewart but the weather had other ideas.  I guess we’ll just have to do that next time.

I can only imagine what it would have been like to kick along Colorado Street in Telluride, Elk Avenue in Crested Butte or Main Street Park City back in the days when they were still low-key ski towns before winter tourism really took hold and changed them into the destinations they are today.

You’re not in Lygon Street anymore.

I feel pretty lucky to be strolling down South Franklin Street in Juneau, rolling into an old-school bar with no line outside and no fancy cocktails inside. It’s cool to experience somewhere special before everyone else cottons on to what a gem it is. If you like your skiing solid and simple and are up for the kind of untamed adventure that Alaska offers this might be something you’d like too – just don’t go telling too many people.

PS: The local tourism website shares a cautionary message that ‘once you visit you may not want to go home’.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

If you’re keen to explore Juneau and Eaglecrest head to  www.traveljuneau.com and skieaglecrest.com for more information. Check out Alaskan Powder Descents for its easy-accessed heli skiing.

Eaglecrest’s groomers taking in the view after nightshift

Hannes with some bounty from the harbour

Harry Hart having the time of his life!

69-year-old Eaglecrest liftie “Hooter Dave” loading the groms

Hannes revelling in the powder

Alaska Powder Descents has no shortage of terrain