Much of America’s most rugged, untamed scenery is found in Alaska. The 49th state brims with wildlife and active adventures, with fascinating culture and the legacy of explorers.
But the sheer immensity of Alaska—it’s twice the size of Texas—along with its wildness can intimidate first-time visitors. That’s one reason cruises are so popular; an Alaskan cruise showcases the epic vistas and quiet coastal corridors of the Inside Passage and typically features three or four destinations on a weeklong journey.
Here are some highlights at the major ports.
Reachable only by air or sea, Alaska’s lively capital is also the state’s busiest port. Though just 32,000 people live here, virtually every Alaskan cruise calls on Juneau, the main reason it holds the greatest variety of shore excursions.
With Juneau’s mountain backdrop rising abruptly from the edge of town to a 1,500-square-mile ice field that hides the US–Canada border, pricey helicopter sightseeing trips are a major attraction. Another popular excursion is taking the scenic floatplane to Taku Glacier Lodge for a salmon bake; as you dine indoors, the bears reliably show up outdoors to lick the grill clean.
- Don’t miss: Venture beyond the T-shirt shops to explore the city’s frontier flavor, revealed in depth at the Alaska State Museum with its displays on native tribes, the Gold Rush, the Russian colonial era and ephemera from WWII battles in the Aleutian Islands.
- Unique excursion: Juneau Food Tours explores the city’s burgeoning dining scene, with stops along the way to sample Alaskan king crab, salmon, halibut, locally brewed beer and craft cocktails.
- Wallet-watcher’s option: The Mendenhall Glacier dominates the landscape just north of downtown.
A public bus stops one-and-a-half miles from the glacier’s visitor center, which offers excellent views of the receding ice. Toward the end of the summer, watch for bears below the visitor center along Steep Creek.
With a newly extended cruise pier to showcase, Sitka is seeing a burst of attention this year. Located on the coast just outside the Inside Passage, Sitka is the former capital of Russian America, which at one time extended almost to San Francisco. Discover this unusual history in the beautiful onion-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral and the Russian Bishop’s House.
While jewelry shops have multiplied with the recent rise in cruise visitors, Sitka is also a great port to find handcrafted herbal soaps, berry jams and jellies as well as indigenous Tlingit carvings and masks.
- Don’t miss: Wildlife shore excursions are available at every Alaskan port, but one of the most reliable is the Sea Otter and Whale Quest offered by Allen Marine Tours.
- Unique excursion: For an insider’s glimpse of Sitka, sign up for a private driving tour of the town given by local Jeff Budd in his vintage 1973 white Checker Marathon.
- Wallet-watcher’s option: It’s a short walk from downtown to the Sitka Sound Science Center, where you can tour the research lab, touch tanks and a salmon hatchery that produces more than six million salmon a year.
Sailing in Glacier Bay National Park with Holland America; Photo by David Swanson
This tiny town (year-round population 900) is where Klondike prospectors began their 500-mile journey to the gold fields of Canada’s Yukon Territory. A lawless outpost in the 1890s, modern-day Skagway boasts restored historic buildings protected by the six-block Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.
If the frontier spirit doesn’t intrigue, walk to Jewell Gardens, where glass-blowing lessons are offered and a lovely café serves delicious salmon BLTs in a garden setting.
- Don’t miss: Skagway’s top ticket is the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, built in 1898 at the height of the Gold Rush. The route offers spectacular views and a perspective on the prospectors’ arduous journey as the track climbs to 3,300 feet, crossing into Canada (bring your passport).
- Unique excursion: Sockeye Cycle Co. offers bicycling tours out of Skagway that range from gentle coastal explorations visiting the former Gold Rush town of Dyea to a thrilling ride down from White Pass.
- Wallet-watcher’s option: A steep but rewarding hiking trail leads up to Lower Dewey Lake, high above the cruise ship docks. Allow at least 90 minutes for the three-mile roundtrip.
ICY STRAIT POINT
Originally a salmon-canning plant dating to 1912 and located outside the town of Hoonah, Icy Strait was developed as a port just over a decade ago and has quickly grown in popularity. Retaining its sense of outback character, the port offers one of the state’s most authentic experiences available for cruisers: wandering the forest and exploring the area’s canning history.
- Don’t miss: The Wildlife and Bear Search travels to wild Chichagof Island, where the Spasski River Valley is renowned for having one of the highest densities of coastal brown bears in the world, along with bald eagles and Sitka black-tailed deer.
- Unique excursion: The mile-long ZipRider is one of the world’s longest zip lines, descending at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour from 1,550-foot Hoonah Mountain.
- Wallet-watcher’s option: It’s an easy one-and-a-half-mile stroll into quiet Hoonah, which provides a representative slice of life in a rural Tlingit community.
A bald eagle with its salmon dinner, spotted along Ketchikan Creek in Ketchikan; Photo by David Swanson
Alaska’s southernmost port is the first or last stop on many cruises, and it’s also the rainiest. A “Liquid Sunshine Gauge” touts the city’s average rainfall: 13.5 feet! Ketchikan also is the salmon capital of the world, and in late summer, thousands of the silver leapers can be spotted in Ketchikan Creek with a walk along pedestrian-only Creek Street. In the forests upstream, you might see bald eagles diving for their dinner.
Naturally, canned salmon is a popular souvenir, but also check out the artisans along Creek Street selling their paintings, carvings, weavings and more.
- Don’t miss: Ketchikan is the gateway to 2.3-million-acre Misty Fiords National Monument. The park’s glacier-gouged U-shaped valleys can be reached by small plane; landing at a dock on a remote lake is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
- Unique excursion: Ketchikan’s water temperatures can reach as high as 65 degrees in mid-summer. Snorkel Alaska takes wetsuit-clad tourists snorkeling in the intertidal zone, where a world of giant sunflower stars, red rock crabs and kelp forests is revealed.
- Wallet-watcher’s option: For just $1 a ride, Ketchikan’s bus system takes passengers to Saxman Totem Park, where Native dancers perform indoors and optional guided tours of the park reveal the stories behind the more than two dozen totems.
Whether your Alaskan bucket list includes breaching whales, calving glaciers or salmon-catching bears, each of these ports is primed to deliver the experiences you desire.