A trip to Alaska is the experience of a lifetime. A vast land populated by wild beauty, it’s an area often overlooked by travelers seeking to explore distant lands. However, despite being a domestic destination, Alaska looks and feels like no other place on Earth.
Last week, we began discussing the benefits of booking a cruisetour of Alaska, with a focus on land excursions. Our team of vacation specialists have chosen to highlight itineraries beginning in Fairbanks that end with an Alaska cruise down through the Inside Passage. This week, we’re picking up where we left off: the start of your cruising adventure.
Why an Alaska Cruise?
Cruising is (one of) the most popular way(s) to experience Alaska – and for good reason! An Alaska cruise provides an array of benefits that are difficult to replicate independently.
For one, cruising provides unprecedented access to Alaska’s coastal cities. Ground transportation can be difficult in Alaska due to underdeveloped roadways. Even when there are roads, travelers looking to rent cars or RVs are often restricted to paved routes. This is a problem for many, as the majority of roads beyond the highways are unpaved – forcing travelers to take long, round-about routes to reach popular destinations.
On an Alaska cruise, you’ll enjoy seamless travel paired with stunning views of the state’s coast. To truly take advantage of the scenery, our vacation specialists recommend a balcony room. Alaska is one of the few cruises where the landscape is constantly changing, and you’ll appreciate the private space to comfortably watch the land unfold around you.
When you do venture onto land, you can be confident in the quality of the tour options available. Cruise lines vet any potential vendor partner in order to ensure guests have the best Alaskan experience possible. Travelers who source and book their land excursions independently may not receive the same quality assurances.
Need more convincing? Alaska is known for its diverse wildlife and rich history, and an Alaska cruise caters to these interests. Most cruises feature an Alaska naturalist who provides insight into the land and its people as you come upon it. Some cruises will even invite a National Park Service Ranger on board to provide a personal look at Glacier Bay (if your itinerary includes this area) as you pass through.
Popular Ports of Call
Click on each location to jump directly to its description:
While the specific ports you visit will depend on your itinerary, several stops are almost universal across Alaska cruise itineraries. At each location you’re sure to find attractions that appeal to every traveler, from the sight-seer to the thrill-seeker:
One of the earlier stops on your journey down Alaska’s coast, Skagway was once the state’s largest city. It was the main access point to the gold fields during the Klondike Gold Rush, and its population swelled with opportunists and fortune-seekers. However, when the gold rush dwindled in the early 20th century, so did the city.
Today, Skagway is a small town that celebrates its frontier history. As part of the Klondike Gold Rush National History Park, much of Skagway is preserved or restored to its heyday glory. Visitors can explore the sights and lore of this historical time in numerous ways:
White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad
An International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark on par with the Eiffel Tower and Panama Canal, the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad is a marvel. Built over 100 years ago to accelerate gold prospectors’ trips, its construction was thought to be impossible. Cutting a route through mountains and traversing steep inclines and cliff-hanging turns, the project was completed in just over two years.
The miraculous three-foot-wide, narrow gauge railroad still runs today, sporting restored or replica vintage rail cars. Visitors can ride all or part of the breathtaking 110-mile track. In addition, travelers can combine bonus excursions with select routes, including kayaking, snowshoeing, gold panning, hiking, and bike riding.
Those looking to explore the town have a plethora of options! Visitors can take part in a tour – both walking and streetcar excursions – that dives into the sights and history of Skagway.
We highly suggest your Skagway historical experience includes a modern Alaskan tradition: the Days of ’98 Show. Alaska’s longest-running production, the show transports its audience back to gold rush times and the antics of Soapy Smith, the notorious outlaw every Alaskan loves to hate.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
Most Alaska cruises will visit either Hubbard Glacier or Glacier National Park; if you’re lucky enough to have an itinerary that includes Glacier Bay, you’ll experience an area that rivals Denali National Park in its untouched beauty.
Known for its impressive tidewater glaciers, Glacier Bay is also home to glacial fjords, coastal mountains, and an abundance of marine life. One-fifth of the park’s 3.3 million acres are marine waters, making a cruise the best way to experience Glacier Bay. Even better, all passengers are guaranteed fantastic views regardless of their position on the ship: the boat turns around in the bay, providing both sides of the ship the opportunity to marvel at the park’s coastline.
For even more spectacular sights, adventurous travelers should consider taking a flightseeing plane over the park.
“It’s an incredible experience,” says Atlas Travel Vacation & Cruises Director Karen McCrink. “When I went, passengers were given headphones to be able to hear the pilot talk about the area. And when we first came upon the park, they started playing Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. We hear I see fields of green, red roses too… all the passengers are humming along as we admire who awesome Glacier Bay is. I would highly recommend it.”
A common attraction for Alaska cruise-goers, Margerie Glacier is arguably the most impressive of the park’s fifty named glaciers. Twenty-one miles long, a mile wide, and with a 350-foot ice face, Margerie is MASSIVE. And, as one of the few advancing glaciers, Margerie continues to grow. The glacier’s growth spawns frequent calving, or the splitting off of ice chunks to become icebergs. Overall, Margerie is an impressive natural marvel and a great photo op.
Midway down the Inside Passage sits Juneau, the capital of Alaska. Surrounded by water, mountains, and forest, it’s a beautiful and remote city – with an emphasis on remote. There are no roads leading to Juneau and is accessible only by airplane or boat.
Juneau’s secluded location in the heart of the wilderness makes it the perfect place for outdoor adventure! And with a variety of options, there’s an excursion for every interest and skill level:
Mount Roberts Tramway
You can’t help but notice the Mount Roberts Tramway from Juneau’s port. Climbing up and down the mountain, the tram at its peak towers 1,800 feet above the cruise ship dock in the city’s downtown.
When Vacation Specialist Thecla Vis visited Juneau and spotted the tram, her first thought was, ‘I wonder if I can climb to the top and take the tram back down?’ As it turns out, you can!
“I discovered the trailhead at the edge of town, just after the wooden trestle bridge on Basin Road,” says Thecla. “The climb up was steep and quite strenuous, with lots of hairpin turns, man-made steps, and rocks and roots to maneuver around. If you have a good set of hiking shoes (and water!), the trail makes for an excellent opportunity to stretch your legs and get a workout in!
When you reach the top, you’re rewarded with some excellent views of Gastineau Channel, Juneau, and Douglas. There are also bathrooms, a gift shop and a restaurant to satisfy your well-deserved appetite. When you are done taking in the views, you can hop on the tram back to the center of town for a song. I highly recommend this hike to anyone who loves a good workout combined with the outdoors – it’s amazing!”
A trip to Juneau would be incomplete without a stop at Mendenhall Glacier. Thirteen miles long, the glacier sits along the Tongass National Forest and Mendenhall Lake and is an awesome reminder of ice ages past.
To truly appreciate the glacier’s size and majesty, we recommend a helicopter tour. Director McCrink has had the pleasure and believes it to be an impressive experience.
“The helicopter tour of Mendenhall Glacier makes you appreciate just how vast the glacier, and Alaska as a whole, truly is. I remember flying over the glacier and thinking, ‘Oh, well, it’s not that big’. But as we drew closer to the surface, I started to realize that the small speck I was seeing from above… was another helicopter. And as we drew closer still, I realized that there was a crowd of people around that helicopter. It was an eye-opening experience.
Once on the glacier, you come across these big crevasses. Running through them is the bluest water you’ll ever see – so icy blue, it’s also reminiscent of the Caribbean turquoise seas. It’s a remarkable experience and one that has stayed with me for years.”
Known as the “First City,” for being the first settlement visitors come across on the journey north, Ketchikan is the last Alaskan city you’ll see on a southbound cruise. An island town and important fishing hub, a stop in Ketchikan will most likely include some ‘liquid sunshine’; the area averages around 162 inches of rain each year and is home to a beautiful rainforest. The area’s also known for its rich Native Alaskan heritage and iconic totem poles.
Ketchikan is the totem capital of the world, with many locations across Ketchikan boasting the stunning, hand-carved recreations. Most of the originals were lost to the elements as Native Alaskans moved to more populous cities, but were lovingly replicated with traditional techniques and tools.
We recommend visiting Totem Bright State Park or Saxman Native Village; both sites host an array of totems and opportunities to engage in the culture and stories of the Alaskan Natives who carved the poles.
Ketchikan is an excellent area to explore the wilderness and its wild inhabitants. Take part in a guided tour of areas like the Alaska Rainforest Sanctuary or Tongass National Forest. More adventurous travelers can take part in a zip-line tour or am off-roading kart expedition. In addition, wildlife photographers and enthusiasts can choose from an array of bear-viewing, fishing, and eagle-spotting adventures!
An Alaska cruise is only one half of the ideal Alaskan adventure, and once you experience the Last Frontier, you’ll be planning repeat visits! To learn more about your own Alaskan opportunities, contact Atlas Travel Vacation & Cruises. Our team of specialists will match your interests with your perfect Alaska get-away!