Last updated on August 16th, 2020
I have always felt that if you ever only take one cruise in your whole life, it should be to Alaska. It is a huge state with some of the least accessible national parks in the US, including the very popular Glacier Bay National Park which can only be visited by boat. The various ports of call and the many choices offered on Alaska cruise excursions provide opportunities to easily see more of this incredibly scenic state. Here are my Alaska cruise excursion tips based on the Alaska cruises I have taken in the last few years to help you plan your best Alaska trip possible.
Planning the Best Alaska Trip
Personally, I don’t think there is an easier, more comfortable or more economical way to see the beauty of south east Alaska than from a cruise ship. Whether it’s a calving glacier in Glacier Bay National Park or mist shrouded islands in Alaska’s Inside Passage, a cruise takes you to places that would be much more difficult to get to and much more expensive on an independent travel itinerary.
However, once you reach your Alaska ports of call, you do not have to be limited to the sightseeing options offered by your ship’s shore excursions desk. On the recent cruises I have taken to Alaska, I have done both the ships’ shore excursions and also ventured out on my own to see Alaska off the beaten path. By traveling independently, I saw sights that others on the ship did not see and stumbled onto events that I would not have experienced otherwise.
My very first cruise was with my mother to Alaska in the mid 1990’s. It was the first time that I was seeing this type of scenery “out West” and it took my breath away. I stood on the deck for hours at a time, watching in awe as we passed one misty inlet after another and I could only guess at the peaks that gave a hint of their presence above me. Glacier Bay was my first National Park visit and was the start of a lifelong quest to see all the National Parks in the US. For my mother, this cruise was the beginning of a love affair with cruising that she continued for 20 years.
My more recent Alaska cruises have been with both Holland America and Princess. The Holland America cruise was a 7 night round trip from Seattle with stops at Glacier Bay NP, Sitka, Juneau, Ketchikan and Victoria,BC. With Princess I took an 11 night combination cruise-land tour that started in Fairbanks and ended in Vancouver. On the land portion I had a day in Fairbanks, a day and a half in Denali, and a quick stop in Anchorage before boarding the ship. The ship then cruised to Glacier Bay National Park, Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, and the Inside Passage before docking in Vancouver.
I am not a cruise ship aficionado like many frequent cruisers. There were plenty of food, activities and entertainment options on both ships so, I was quite content with the choices. I am however much more particular about my sightseeing experiences in each port of call. I am sharing the activities I did in each port on these two cruises to help you decide on your best Alaska cruise excursions options.
My Alaska Cruise Excursion Tips
My Princess Alaska cruisetour started in Fairbanks, AK. I opted for the “On Your Own” version of the cruisetour which gave me the flexibility to set up my own sightseeing on the land portion of the trip. If you prefer a more escorted experience, that option was available also.
I actually spent five days prior to my cruisetour exploring Fairbanks on my own as a guest of the Explore Fairbanks visitor bureau. This gave me a chance to see and experience many of the sightseeing options available in Fairbanks during the summer months which you can read about on my post of 25 Summer Fairbanks Activities under the Midnight Sun. The Gold Dredge #8 and the Riverboat Discovery cruise on the Chena River seemed to be very popular activities with many cruise goers. The Museum of the North is also a good option for exhibits about native culture and central Alaskan life.
Should your itinerary happen to take you to Fairbanks during the third weekend in July, I highly recommend going to the World Eskimo Indian Olympics for an authentic glimpse into local native culture and athletics.
If you have the time, I suggest adding a few extra days in Fairbanks at the beginning (or end) of your cruisetour to see and enjoy the many sights and attractions the city has to offer. Also, keep in mind that if you are taking a cruisetour in Alaska towards the end of August and into September, the nights will be dark enough to make northern lights viewing possible in central Alaska. With its clear skies and prime location under the aurora oval, the area around Fairbanks is an ideal aurora borealis sighting environment. The Chena Hot Springs Resort outside of Fairbanks offers unique aurora packages.
Denali National Park
My Princess cruisetour included two nights at Denali National Park. We left early in the morning on a scenic train trip from Fairbanks to Denali on Alaska Rail. Princess definitely excelled at this portion of the trip. Those of us travelling with Princess were all in the very first glass domed car of the train so we had unobstructed views as we approached the Alaska mountain range. The train ride also included a very good brunch service in the lower level dining car.
In Denali, Princess guests stay at the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge which is conveniently located right outside the entrance to Denali National Park. This is a huge lodging complex with over 600 rooms and a number of restaurants.
Once we arrived in Denali, I took a lodge shuttle bus directly from the lodge to the Denali Visitors Center, and back. After touring the Visitors Center I grabbed one of the scheduled free park shuttle buses to the kennels for a fun and informative dog “sled” demonstration. Denali is the only national park that uses dog sled teams to routinely patrol the park during the winter months. You can walk around the kennels and enjoy time with the very friendly dogs.
Since it was light late into the night, on that first day I was also able to fit in an ATV tour that took me through the scenery just outside of the national park. This was booked as one of the excursion options offered by Princess.
Denali National Park is also a protected wilderness so not much of its 9500 square miles is easily accessible. There is only one 92 mile road in Denali NP, and only the first 15 miles are open to private vehicles. To see the sights on the park road past mile 15 you have to take an authorized bus tour.
A variety of bus tour options are offered by both the park service and through Princess. I had a full day in Deanli, so I opted for one of the longer transit bus tours (green school bus) offered by the National Park that went all the way to Wonder Lake at mile 85 and then back.
The transit buses allow you to get off to spend some time hiking or exploring and then get back on a later transit bus as long as there is room. Book your bus tour as early as you can to ensure you get a spot at the time you want, especially during peak summer season.
This was a very, very long 11 hour day that was spent mostly sitting on a school type bus and looking out the window at the scenery as we bounced along on a gravel road. (Make sure you get a window seat.) If you are prone to motion sickness, if you are very tall or if you have back issues, such a long day on a bouncy bus may not be a very comfortable option for you.
Our driver was very good about stopping for wildlife views and also provided commentary about the park and the sights during the drive. We made a few bathroom break stops along the way and at the Eilson Visitors Center (mike 65) we had the option to go hiking and catch a later bus back (as long as a seat was available). Since this was already a long day, I chose not to give up my seat on my transit bus and continued on.
The scenery was indeed expansive and big. The day was somewhat overcast so only the lower peaks were visible and I did not get to see the top of Denali on this trip.
No food or drinks are available for purchase in the park so I picked up a box lunch and drinks at the Princess Wilderness Lodge in the morning before I left.
Our park transit bus arrived back at the Denali park bus depot in the evening after the Wilderness Lodge shuttle buses stopped running for the day. I called the lodge front desk and they came to pick me up (for a minor fee) so I would not have to walk the 2.5 miles back to the hotel.
There are also narrated bus tours which are more expensive and include lunch, snacks and drinks.These are on tan school buses and they follow the same route through Denali NP but with a trained naturalist driver-guide. You can book one of these narrated tours either through Princess or on the Denali National Park website.
My Princess cruisetour did a brief stop of a few hours in Anchorage. This was long enough to grab a good lunch and walk around town for a quick browse of some of the shops (including the local quilt shop). Lunch was at the Glacier Brewhouse where I had a delicious (and huge) smoked salmon club sandwich with bacon and avocado – yum!
Glacier Bay National Park
Cruising through Glacier Bay National Park is the highlight of an Alaskan cruise. Even though this is a popular destination with all the cruise lines, the park district manages the traffic flow through the park very well. They only allow two cruise ships to enter the bay per day, so you do not see a glut of ships as you cruise through the scenery. I only briefly saw one other large cruise ship which was heading away from the glaciers as we were approaching to take our turn.
The cruise into and out of Glacier Bay was a whole day event. National Park ranges boarded the ship early in the morning and stayed all day, providing commentary over the loudspeakers about the sights, the geography, the geology and the wildlife. And for those of you who are like me and obsess about getting your National Parks Passport stamped – yes the rangers brought stamps and ink pads, along with an inventory of books, postcards and a variety of souvenir items.
Each cruise ship takes their own path through Glacier Bay National Park, but it seems like most make sure to include the Margerie and Grand Pacific Glaciers. While the Margerie glacier has the crisp white ice white with blue undertones, the larger and dingy brown Grand Pacific Glacier next door gets less attention even though it is much bigger.
From the top of the ship it can be hard to gauge the true size of the glaciers until some point of reference appears. As we took our time admiring the Margerie Glacier a group of kayakers and their support boat also approached which provided an excellent perspective on the true size of this ice sheet.
The Island Princess had an adults only seating area at the back of the ship called The Sanctuary which was a very poplar spot on Glacier Bay NP day. Reservations for these limited number of spots filled up quickly.
Both of my cruises stopped in Juneau, Alaska’s capital. On my first visit I booked an excursion to Tracy’s Arm FJord. Unlike Glacier Bay National Park, this fjord cannot be cruised by the large cruise ships, so taking a small boat for a day cruise is one of the few options to see this stunning landscape. (Smaller cruise ships often include this as part of their Alaska cruise itinerary).
A 7 hour round-trip boat ride took us up through this very long and beautiful fjord to the Sawyer Glacier. Even though it was the end of June, the waters were dotted with icebergs of all shapes and sizes which our captain skillfully avoided (no Titanic moments to worry about). We also passed many scenic waterfalls along the mist shrouded shoreline.
Near the glacier, seals were using the ice floats as a place to rest. We spent quite a bit of time at the glacier before heading back. Even though it was a long day on the boat, it was well worth the excursion.
On my second visit to Juneau I ventured off on my own. At the cruise ship dock a kiosk sold round trip shuttle bus tickets to get to the Mendenhall Glacier. I could have done this as a shore excursion organized by the ship, but by doing it on my own I could spend as much time as I wanted to at the glacier.
On this visit I also had time to wander around town and browse the shops and grab a great salmon cake sandwich for lunch (The Salmon Spot sandwich stand right by the cruise ship dock).
I also stopped in Ketchikan on both cruises. The first time I chose an excursion to Misty Fjords National Monument. There were a variety of tour options offered for this sight and I opted for a 5 hour boat tour. Over 3500 square miles of this glacially carved landscape is designated and protected as a wilderness and a small boat cruise or a float plane is the easiest way to see some of the scenery here.
The boat took us into the glacially carved canals past bald eagle’s nests, waterfalls and granite cliffs that rose up 2000 to 3000 feet above the water. Photos really cannot do this expansive scenery justice.
On my second visit to Ketchikan, I just explored the town on my own since I did not have any time for that the first time around. Not far from the cruise ship port is the historic Creek Street where the old buildings that were once used as brothels are now colorful shops.
Ketchikan is also famous for the many totem poles found throughout town. I was able to easily walk to the Totem Heritage Center which houses, protects and preserves a wonderful collections of authentic unrestored totem poles. The Tongas Historical Museum was also easy to get to and provided a nice overview of local history.
I stopped in Sitka on my Holland America cruise and here I chose one of the excursions offered by the cruise line titled “Otters, Raptors and Bears, Oh My”. I picked this particular excursion because it allowed me to see the most wildlife in the shortest amount of time. The 5 hour tour started with a boat cruise where we saw the beautiful coastal scenery along with a floating raft of sea otters which were absolutely adorable. While cruising we also saw whales breaching, bald eagles and bears on the distant shore.
After the cruise we hopped on a bus and were shuttled to the Alaska Raptor Center, a non for profit organization that takes in injured bald eagles and other birds of prey, rehabilitates them and then releases them back into the wild. Those birds that are too injured to survive on their own remain at the center and help with their educational programming. After an interesting talk about bald eagles that included an up close encounter with one of their majestic birds, we also had some free time to walk around and see many of the other birds that they take care of.
Our final stop of the tour was at the Fortress of the Bear, another non for profit organization that rescues and takes care of orphaned bears. When a mother bear dies, her orphaned cubs cannot survive on their own. This organization has taken in these cubs and given them an environment where they grow and thrive and can act like bears. This was the closest that I came to a bear where I could see them behave as they would in the wild.
My Princess cruise had a very long day in Skagway so I decided to rent a car and drive off the beaten path from Skagway to Carcross in the Yukon in Canada since this was supposed to be a very scenic route.
After stopping briefly at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park Visitors Center and at the local quilt shop, The Rushin Tailor, I picked up my rental car at Avis and took off toward Canada. The 1.5 hour drive to Carcross went by very quickly as I passed through beautiful sub alpine scenery dotted with blue lakes and distant mountain peaks.
In Carcross I stopped by the Visitor’s Center at the colorful Carcross Commons which was decorated with many First Nations’ designs. I also checked out a First Nations’ clan gathering at the local community center where I had some of the local food and caught a few native dance performances. I would have liked to stay longer to see more of the day’s events, but I had to get back to the ship.
You can also see some of this scenery and the White Horse Pass on the local train ride. Various excursion options were available through the cruise ship.
You can read my full length post: Skagway Excursions:Going Off the Beaten Path to Explore Carcross, Yukon
My final Holland America cruise stop in Victoria wasn’t very long. There wasn’t enough time to explore the city but there was time to take the evening tour of the Butchart Gardens offered by the ship’s shore excursion desk. This was the beginning of July and it was light until late into the day, so I had wonderful warm evening sunlight for strolling through the garden and for photos.
As I walked through the acres of flower beds and evergreens it was hard to believe that a little over 100 years ago this was at one time a limestone quarry.
Travelers tips for getting the most out of your Alaska shore tours
- Both my Alaska cruises were in mid summer (June and July) which provided very long days with lots of daylight. However, next time I will do a late August to early September cruisetour that includes a few days in Fairbanks so that I have the chance to see the northern lights as well.
- Booking excursions through your cruise ship line is simple and convenient. They offer a large variety of choices for all interests and they take care of all the logistics. If this is your first (or fifth) time to Alaska, this is an easy and less confusing way to see as much as possible.
- If you do plan to go on your own and rent a car, reserve it ahead of time. There are only a limited number of vehicles and each port of call has multiple ships docking each day.
- Don’t be afraid to venture off the ship on your own and take the time to explore the towns. The towns are not large and getting to them from the ships is usually quite walkable.
- Do some Google research ahead of time to learn what each town has to offer. Find the shops, restaurants, museums and attractions that interest you and bookmark them on Google maps to make them easy to find.
- Don’t shop at the stores right by the cruise ship dock. These are run by large companies that only keep the stores open during tourist season. Walk a block or two into town to find the locally owned stores. You’ll find better quality, locally made products and better prices and you’ll be supporting the locals that live in the community year round.
- I only had about a day and a half in Denali National Park and I wish I would have had at least an extra day to see more of the park and to increase my chances for having good weather so I could see the Denali peak. It would have been nice to also have some time to take a hike or two and enjoy more of the scenery.
- Each cruise excursion that I did took up most of the time the ship was in port which did not give me much time for exploring anything else. I was glad to have the opportunity to go back and see some of the other sights in each town. If your time and pocketbook can afford it, consider taking an Alaskan cruise more than once. The scenery is always beautiful and there are multiple interesting things to do in each port of call.
- The cruise ship brochures show the south east Alaska scenery with blue skies and bright sunny days. I am sure those occur in southeast Alaska, but on both my cruises, I only had cloudy and overcast days (in June and July). This did not make the scenery any less impressive.
- For excursions, plan to dress in layers including raingear and wear comfortable shoes that can handle getting wet and/or muddy.
- On the first Alaska cruise I had a balcony cabin thinking it would be nice to sit outside and watch the scenery go by, but the reality was that it was too cold to sit out there for any length of time, even in mid summer. The second time I had a much less expensive inside cabin which was fine since all I did in the cabin was sleep, shower and get dressed.
Hope this post helps you find your best Alaska excursions on your next cruise up north.
Please note that I received a media credit on my cruise with Princess. All content and opinions are my own.
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