Globally, Alaska is a bucket list destination, and most who venture to the Last Frontier only make the journey once. Depending on where you’re coming from and how much time you have, the best way to see Alaska is by cruise ship and adding some time on land.
If you have unlimited time and budget, exploring the wilderness with an RV and without a set itinerary can be pretty satisfying. Although, you can’t reach some areas that are only accessible by watercraft.
An Alaska trip can take some time to plan, and you’ll need a healthy budget for excursions. May to September provides the best time for visitation, although May and September are cooler months.
Unlike the 48 states further south, the months get wetter as the summer progresses. So, if you dislike rain, plan to travel in May (the driest month) or June.
Why Cruise To Alaska?
Taking a cruise to Alaska takes away some of the guesswork with planning. You can enjoy the majestic mountains, gushing waterfalls, and magnificent wildlife from a ship. Humpback whales are prolific in Alaska waters, along with harbor seals, porpoises, and orca.
Sitka, Hoonah, and Juneau (Alaska’s capital) are not accessible by road should you opt to travel by RV. So, by cruising, you can see towns and the all-important tidewater glaciers, which are not reachable by road.
While larger cruise ships tend to lean toward floating resorts, book a smaller vessel for a more intimate experience. Should you cruise to Alaska from Vancouver, you’ll enjoy the calmer waters of the inside passage, which are incredibly scenic.
Unlike the Caribbean, vessels sail close to land so that you can savor the views of picturesque islands canopied with evergreens.
In the summer, Alaska experiences the midnight sun, which means you’ll enjoy maximum daylight hours. In northern cities like Fairbanks and Anchorage, the sun doesn’t set until 11:42 pm (during the summer solstice) and rises less than 5 hours later.
Viewing Alaska From A Ship
Alaska cruises are all about its unique towns and tidewater glaciers or glaciers that reach the ocean. You have the option to visit a fjord or a glacier in a bay.
If you love cascading waterfalls and granite cliffs, cruising to Tracy Arm or Endicott Arm provides an idyllic fjord experience. These fjords are only accessible by watercraft due to their sheer cliffs. As you sail close to the glacier at the end of the fjord, the number of icebergs or bergy bits will increase.
In May, harbor seals gather on the icebergs beneath the towering glaciers to give birth. It’s a sight to behold to see icebergs dotted with dark spots. As ships get closer, they raise their heads, seemingly unconcerned with the presence of a large vessel.
Alternatively, Hubbard Glacier provides an unforgettable experience as Alaska’s largest tidewater glacier. At seven miles long, you can’t fit Hubbard in a photograph. In a world of climate change, Hubbard is a rarity as an advancing glacier.
Forever growing and moving, it provides the best calving action. Glacier calving happens when a piece of ice breaks off a glacier’s toe and falls into the ocean. Sometimes these pieces are small, but on other occasions, the vast chunks create a small tidal wave.
Choose a cruise line that sails to Glacier Bay National Park for the ultimate cruise itinerary. In 1992, Glacier Bay was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.
The park covers over three million acres of land in which you can see multiple tidewater and valley glaciers (glaciers that don’t reach the ocean). With changeable weather conditions, the landscape is greener than the US national parks further south.
Most people visit Alaska to see those mesmerizing blue hues of glacial ice. Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay and Hubbard Glacier are the most photogenic of them all.
Exploring Alaska’s Land
While you may be on a ship with thousands of other guests, you’re free to explore the land on port days. Alaska has so much untouched wilderness; the best way to see it is to get outdoors and be one with nature.
If you take a shuttle to Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, the park offers a myriad of hiking trails and the opportunity to see another glacier. If the salmon are running in Steep Creek, you could see bears attempting to catch one.
The short, flat trail to Nugget Falls lets you feel the mist of an impressive waterfall. In the summer, depending on the amount of calving from the glacier, you could see massive icebergs floating down Mendenhall River.
Alternatively, take the gondola to the top of Mount Roberts from Juneau’s waterfront. At the peak, hikers have a few options to explore the mountaintop. Relatively easy, the trail to Father Brown Cross provides terrific views of the Gastineau Channel below.
Remember to use mosquito repellent in summer and carry a lightweight jacket in case the weather changes. For a more challenging hike, the 4-hour return trail to Gastineau Peak has an elevation gain of over 1,100 feet. Even in the middle of summer, you’ll reach patches of snow.
In Skagway, further north, you can relive the gold rush by hiking part of the Chilkoot Trail. It was the same route get-rich prospectors used to travel north where had been discovered gold.
Alaska’s Best Excursions
Alaska’s unique landscape offers diverse tours and experiences that are hard to find elsewhere. For those without a budget, consider a helicopter excursion and walkabout on a glacier.
For animal lovers, dog sledding on a glacier comes at a high price, but the bucket list tour creates incredible memories.
If you prefer to see marine creatures, whale watching off the west coast of Alaska allows you to see humpbacks and orcas (killer whales). In May, humpback whales migrate to Alaska from Hawaii to feed for the summer.
In southeast Alaska, humpbacks have learned the feeding technique called bubble-net feeding. A lead whale swims in a circle beneath the water, releasing air from its blowhole. The bubble net traps herring. Then, the other whales scoop up the fish with their mouth gaping open. It’s a fantastic phenomenon witnessed by some visitors.
Seeing the aurora borealis is a bucket list experience for most, especially if you combine it with a visit to one of Alaska’s National Parks. So, why not book a northern lights tour when visiting Denali? While the aurora borealis is unpredictable, Denali National Park provides the ideal location, away from light pollution.
The White Pass & Yukon Route railway offers one of the most scenic train journeys in the world. On a narrow-gauge track, the train tour from Skagway takes almost three hours in vintage rail cars. On a clear day, you can savor deep canyon views, cascading waterfalls, and towering mountains.
The journey to the Yukon travels over wooden trestles and through a tunnel. Guests can stand outside the carriage to enjoy unobstructed views. You’ll also learn the history of the railroad construction completed over a hundred years ago.
Learn Alaska’s History
Located on Baranof Island, Sitka has one of the United States’ most historic sites. In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia for USD 7.2M. The agreement was signed in Sitka, and the American flag was raised for the first time.
Should you visit Sitka, you can go to Baranof Castle State Historic Site, also known as Castle Hill, and see where it all took place. Located on a hill, you’ll enjoy picturesque views of Sitka Harbor while learning its history on informational plaques.
Alaska holds a rich history of the people who occupied the land. Numerous museums house Inuit, Haida, and Tlingit artifacts throughout the Alaskan ports.
Ketchikan, a small coastal town, has the largest collection of living totem poles worldwide. You can view them at Saxman Native Village, Totem Heritage Center, and Totem Bight State Historic Park. Sometimes, you can watch a totem pole carving demonstration.
Skagway, one of Alaska’s unique towns, allows you to step back in time. The buildings in Skagway are reminiscent of a western movie set. Dating from the Gold Rush period, you can relive the prospector days at the Skagway Museum.
You can listen to a park ranger talk at the Klondike Visitor Center, join a free walking tour, and learn about the different local hiking trails. The Gold Rush Cemetery is an easy 30-minute hike from Skagway.
As the oldest cemetery in the coastal town, you can see burial sites of many gold prospectors, including Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. Known as a swindler, he died in a gunfight with Frank H. Reid in 1898. Lower Reid Falls provides a refreshing mist on a hot day by taking a short walk through the cemetery.
Packing For Alaska
Even in summer, expect the unexpected when it comes to Alaskan weather. You may experience weather in the mid-30s at glaciers in May and September. During the peak months (July and August), highs can reach the mid-80s in ports, with lows of the 30s on glacial viewing days.
So, prepare for your trip by packing layers, a waterproof jacket, and waterproof shoes. Think casual over style; fleece and sweats work best in Alaska.
Remember a bathing suit, too, because cruise ships have indoor pools, hot tubs, saunas, and steam rooms, ideal to use on sea days.
Compact binoculars, an essential in Alaska, will help you spot whales, bald eagles, and porpoises along the way. Small umbrellas come in handle on liquid sunshine days.
If Alaska is a dream destination for you, consider taking a cruise. A cruise ship provides the best way to see its untouched wilderness, and you’ll only unpack once. Whichever way you look at it, a cruise is the best way to see Alaska.
While most people plan only one trip to Alaska, its large expanse of majestic landscapes is hard to beat and will entice you to return again.
About the Author
Story and images by Karen of Forever Karen (unless otherwise credited)
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