Glacier Gardens started as an accident with an excavator. Or more accurately, the temper fit as the result of the accident with an excavator.
Steve Bowhay was moving a big boulder to shape a waterfall pouring into a pond. All had gone well for weeks on the project and this heart-shaped pond, dedicated to his wife and their love of nature, was the final feature.
Anyone who has been engaged in a landscape project, big or small, can appreciate what happened next.
Operating the levers of the rented excavator ever so gently, he backed up to take a look at his handiwork. Then he backed up a little more and a little more until all of a sudden he slammed into a solid piece of granite, doing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to the rented equipment.
Angry and frustrated at himself, Bowhay grabbed the stump of a broken tree with the grapple, flipped it upside down and slammed it into the soil, roots facing the sky, their ragged edges the physical embodiment of Bowhay’s frustration with himself.
And that was the beginning of the Flower Towers that are the signature features, although certainly not the most interesting reason to visit the Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure, a botanical garden in Juneau Alaska.
All of southeast Alaska, which locals simply call “Southeast” as if it’s its own state, is located in a temperate rainforest and includes the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest. Designated a Zone 4, the growing season is not as limited as in other parts of Alaska. Winter low temperatures in Juneau average about 24 degrees with highs frequently in the 30s. The city receives about 85 inches of snow and 65 inches of rain annually.
Because of the rainfall, the steep slope of mountains and the shallow layer of soil covering the marine shale rock, combined with ‘taku’ winds that can reach 100 mph or more, landslides are very common in the Southeast. In 1984, the land that is now Glacier Gardens broke loose after several days of heavy rain and flooded the valley below Thunder Mountain, sending mud and debris onto the roadways near the airport, northwest of downtown Juneau.
The Bowhay family, which already operated a commercial gardening supply center in Juneau, bought the devastated area, cleaned up the mess and began developing what is today a treasured partnership between a private enterprise and the National Forest Service. To minimize the risk of future landslides, they developed a series of settling ponds to catch much of the topsoil run-off. They lined the ponds, the roadways and other landscaped areas with a commercial grade geo-textile fabric designed for erosion control.
And as more trees naturally uprooted as a result of those taku winds, more Flower Towers appeared around the grounds. Today about 30 Flower Towers scattered throughout the 50-acre property have become the most photographed of the many colorful sites in the gardens where rhododendrons, azalea and other rain tolerant plants grow to monstrous sizes.
Equally enjoyable is a golf cart ride up the side of Thunder Mountain on a road that borders with the Tongass National Forest. Via the trail, visitors learn about Devil’s Club, which is better known as “Alaskan cactus.” Blueberry and huckleberry bushes billow out from under towering Sitka spruce and western hemlock. Dozens of ferns, such as lady, shield and oak, cover the forest floor along with a myriad of colorful moss and flowering ground cover.
Climbing to 600 feet in elevation, the pathway ends at a look-out that, on sunny days, provides a spectacular view of the city and harbor of Juneau. Of course, the sunny days in this part of Alaska are numbered indeed. With about 240 days of rain a year, more than a day and a half without is called a “Juneau drought.”
The pathway passes near a bald eagles’ nest, which, since 2004 has hatched two or three chicks a year. Had the eagles built their nest before the Bowhays developed the gardens, the National Forest Service would have prevented the gardens from developing as it has. The nest and chicks are visible with the naked eye, but if you have binoculars, bring them for a better view.
Certainly all of Alaska is a playground for outdoor lovers, but for garden lovers and for those with limited mobility who cannot access the wilderness, a visit to Glacier Gardens is a snapshot of southeast Alaska that otherwise cannot be found elsewhere.
WHEN YOU GO
Glacier Gardens Rainforest Adventure is located on Glacier Highway just about two miles from the Juneau International Airport and about 10 minutes from downtown Juneau and the cruise ship port.
All of the major cruise lines offer a shore excursion to Glacier Gardens, including Holland America, Carnival, Princess, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Disney.
However, Glacier Gardens welcomes independent travelers to explore on their own. Devote at least 90 minutes of your day to visiting Glacier Gardens. A taxi from downtown may cost as much as $25 per person, but if you stay at the Best Western Country Lane Inn, the hotel offers free shuttle service downtown, to the airport and to the gardens.
For an authentic dining experience while in Juneau, try Salt, a popular local restaurant not often overrun with cruise ship passengers. It is located at 200 Seward Street and is open for lunch and dinner.
For ideas on other places to visit, TravelJuneau.com is the official travel resource for Alaska’s capital city.
Based in the Kansas City area, Diana Lambdin Meyer and her husband Bruce, both members of the Society of American Travel Writers, always include public gardens and arboretums on their travel itineraries.