From heli-hiking to whale watching: The 6 coolest things to do on an Alaska cruise

Editor’s note: Nearly all cruise lines that operate voyages to Alaska have canceled 2020 sailings due to the coronavirus outbreak. This guide is designed for those planning for 2021 trips.   

There are some cruise destinations — Barcelona, for instance, or Venice — where you really don’t need to sign up for shore excursions. You can just walk off the ship and head to the major attractions on your own.

For the most part, the ports of Alaska aren’t like that.

To get the most out of an Alaska cruise, you’ll want to sign up for a tour in most if not all of the ports you visit.

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In Alaska, many of the biggest “attractions” — breathtaking mountain landscapes, glaciers, fjords, breaching whales and feeding bears, for instance — are related to the Great Outdoors. They’re found outside of the towns where ships stop. If you just stay in the towns and explore on your own, you’ll miss a big part of what Alaska is all about.

Related: Alaska now requires visitors to pack a negative COVID-19 test

Exploring Alaska ports like a pro

People who know me know that I love talking about Alaska port towns. This isn’t just because I spent more than two decades writing about Alaska and other cruise destinations for major newspapers. For many years, I was the co-author of the Frommer’s “Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call” guide. In researching nearly half a dozen editions of that book, I spent many days exploring each of the major cruise ports in the state. I’ve tried many of the major shore excursions in places such as Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan. I’ve also poked around these towns a lot on my own.

As noted above, my biggest message to anyone planning an Alaska cruise is to get out of the towns. Sign up for something — a hike, a rafting trip, a train ride, a fishing outing — that gets you out into the spectacular outdoor settings that are all around the towns.

But I also have a few specific, top-line pro tips:

  • Get up in the air. It’ll be expensive. We’re talking $250 or more per person. But there’s nothing like seeing the grandeur of Alaska from a helicopter or floatplane. The Juneau Icefield, in particular, is a sight to behold. It covers around 1,500 square miles. You can see it on a flightseeing tour from Juneau, with some tours including landings on the ice.
  • Don’t miss the whales. Even if you’re not a big wildlife person, you’ll be mesmerized by the humpback whales of Alaska. They are huge (at up to 52 feet, longer than a Greyhound bus), and there are boat tours that will get you up close to them. The best places to do this are out of Juneau and also Icy Strait Point if your ship stops there.
  • Splurge for a trip to Misty Fjords National Monument. This glacier-carved wilderness area, not far from Ketchikan, is another don’t-miss sight. It’s everything you think of when you think of Alaska: Icy blue lakes, waterfalls, snow-capped peaks and glacial valleys. The only way to get there is on a boat or floatplane tour, and they typically start at over $200 a person.

Unfortunately, as you can see from the above, many of the most spectacular excursions in Alaskan ports are expensive. But Alaska is not a place to skimp. Alaska is a place where you may want to budget almost as much per person for your shore excursions as you do for your cabin.

That said, you don’t have to splurge for a big outing at every call. In Juneau, for instance, you can get an outdoor experience with a relatively inexpensive trip to the nearby Mendenhall Glacier. It’s just 12 miles from the cruise ship docks and reachable by bus or taxi. The bus will set you back $30 per person, roundtrip, which I find an intolerable gouge (but … it is what it is). If you have a few people, you’re probably better off with a taxi, which runs around $35 each way.

Either way you do it, you’ll find some nice hiking trails around Mendenhall Glacier and a visitor center. There’s a creek there, too, where I’ve sometimes seen salmon running. One time that I was there, there was a bear. Speaking of which: A bear is something you think you want to see in Alaska until you do see one. Then you’re just hoping you don’t get eaten.

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Skagway, Alaska. (Photo by Reinhard Pantke/Travel Alaska)
The historic main street of Gold Rush town Skagway, Alaska. (Photo by Reinhard Pantke/Travel Alaska)

I should also be clear that the towns themselves aren’t devoid of attractions. While I highly encourage Alaska-bound cruisers to get out into the wilderness, there are plenty of worthwhile things to do in each of the main port towns.

In Juneau, there are food tours that have become popular (Think: King crab bisque and Alaska salmon), and the new Alaska State Museum is beautiful. Skagway is like a Gold Rush-themed movie set; you should at least walk its main street (Broadway), with its wooden-board sidewalks. If you’re a craft beer fan, like me, you also might want to sample a Spruce Tip Blonde Ale at the Skagway Brewing Company; it’s made with Sitka spruce tips picked locally in the spring.

In Ketchikan, you should save a few minutes to stroll up Creek Street, along Ketchikan Creek, where you might spot salmon running. It’s the ultimate Alaska selfie spot.

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How to book an Alaska shore excursion

The simplest way to book an Alaska shore excursion is directly through your line. You just check a box on an online form before sailing or while onboard, and — poof! — it’s all arranged. They send a ticket to your room, and when you walk off the ship there will be a tour guide waiting for you.

Another way to go is to book directly with a tour operator in one of the ports. The thing you need to know here is that many of the tour operators you’ll find in Alaskan ports are the very same tour operators that the lines are using to operate their tours. Often, the tours that the local tour operators will sell you are the very same tours that the cruise lines are selling you, at the very same price. Shopping around isn’t necessarily going to get you anywhere.

Indeed, in some cases, the cruise lines own the tour operators in Alaska ports, or at least a piece of them. The parent company of Princess Cruises and Holland America, for instance, is a part owner of Skagway’s big attraction, the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway.

That said, you can sometimes get discounts by calling a tour operator directly. I’ve had some luck with that over the years. It’s hit-or-miss.

Six great Alaska shore excursions

Below, I’ve listed six of my all-time favorite Alaska shore excursions. These all are tours that you’ll find in the tour lineups at pretty much every major cruise line that operates in Alaska. That said, different lines sometimes have different names for these tours — and sometimes different pricing.

For the listings below, I’ve used the tour names and pricing listed in the current tour sheets at Princess, which along with sister line Holland America is the biggest cruise operator in Alaska.

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Dog-sledding and glacier adventure by helicopter

Cost: $649.95 per person

Port where available: Juneau

Cruisers arriving in Juneau can sign up for helicopter rides to a dog-sledding camp in a glacier. (Photo by Brian Adams)
Cruisers arriving in Juneau can sign up for helicopter rides to a dog-sledding camp on a glacier. (Photo by Brian Adams/Travel Alaska)

For those with a hefty bankroll, this just might be the ultimate Alaska shore excursion. Combining helicopter flightseeing over the seemingly endless Juneau Icefield with a landing on a glacier for dog sledding, it hits two of Alaska’s most iconic experiences.

It’s also insanely expensive, as I know from first-hand experience. I once took my entire family of five on this excursion, dropping more than $2,000 in the process. That’s a huge chunk of change for an outing that lasts just three hours. But I’ll tell you this: I don’t regret doing it. Not one bit. For starters, the views of the Juneau Icefield as you fly to and from the dog-sledding camp are incredible (assuming the weather cooperates). But the real joy was seeing my three young girls interacting with the teams of Alaskan huskies that live at the camp.

Once you arrive at the camp, you’ll meet the dogs and their mushers, see where they live, get a quick tutorial in mushing, and then head out for a spin around the camp on a dog-pulled sled.

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Whale watching and wildlife quest

Cost: $169.95

Port where available: Juneau

Humpback whales feeding are the highlight of a whale-watching tour out of Juneau. (Photo by Reinhard Pantke)
Seeing humpback whales is the highlight of a whale-watching tour out of Juneau. (Photo by Reinhard Pantke/Travel Alaska)

If it’s Alaska’s famous humpback whales that you want to see, this is the tour to book. The waters around Juneau are particularly known for humpback whales — so much so that the operator of this excursion offers a whale-sighting guarantee.

Setting off from the Juneau harbor in a whale-watching boat, you’ll cruise to nearby areas to see not just humpback whales but harbor seals and sea lions, too. You might even spot a killer whale or porpoises.

The boat used for this excursion has both inside and outdoor viewing areas. The trips last about four hours including transfer time from your cruise ship to the whale-watching boat.

Note that if you have a big enough group, it sometimes pays to arrange a private boat out of Juneau to take you to see humpback whales. Many lines offer a private boat charter for whale watching as a tour option, or you can arrange one through a local company.

Klondike rock climbing and rappelling

Cost: $99.95

Port where available: Skagway

Rock climbing in Skagway is a family adventure. (Photo by Stephanie Hager/HagerPhoto/Getty Images)
Rock climbing in Skagway is a family adventure. (Photo by Stephanie Hager/HagerPhoto/Getty Images)

If you’re like me, you may be a little terrified at the idea of climbing the sheer face of a rock cliff. But don’t let that scare you away from this 3 1/4-hour tour. It’s a hoot.

Experienced climbing guides will meet you at your ship and drive you up the Klondike Highway to an area of granite cliffs that’s the perfect playground for beginner and more seasoned climbers alike. Upon arrival, the guides provide you with all the gear you need — climbing shoes, helmets and harnesses — for a safe scramble up a 70-foot-high wall. They’ll also offer plenty of instruction (and encouragement) plus a snack of trail mix and hot chocolate.

If it all sounds a bit daunting, know that you don’t need any experience at climbing to do it (I sure didn’t have any when I tried it, nor did my young daughters, who absolutely loved it). There are multiple routes up the cliffs, some perfect for beginners. After making it to the top, you’ll rappel back down — an entirely different kind of thrill.

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White Pass & Yukon Route Railway ride

Cost: $139.95

Port where available: Skagway

The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway travels through the mountains around Skagway, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Travel Alaska)
The White Pass & Yukon Route Railway travels through the mountains around Skagway, Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Travel Alaska)

Call it the iconic attraction of Skagway, Alaska. A ride into the mountains on this narrow-gauge railroad is the Tour That Everybody Does when visiting the Gold Rush town-turned-tourist-hub. And for good reason. It offers an easy way to get deep into the Great Alaskan Outdoors.

I’m a fan of more active excursions. But for someone who isn’t going to hike, bike, horseback ride or raft their way through the wilderness around Skagway (there are tours for all of those things, too), a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Railway is one of the best ways to get a glimpse of the area’s classic Alaskan scenery.

Related: Get more touring ideas at TPG’s Alaska destination hub 

From the comfort of a vintage rail car, you’ll get stunning views of mountains, gorges, glacial rivers and waterfalls as you climb nearly 3,000 feet to the summit of White Pass — the headwaters to the mighty Yukon River. Designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, the 20-mile route is a marvel in its own right, with improbably steep grades at times and segments that pass over soaring wooden trestles and around tight, cliff-hanging curves.

Heli-hike and rail adventure

Cost: $399.95

Port where available: Skagway

A heli-hiking tour out of the port of Skagway takes passengers to a mountain trail into the Tongass National Forest. (Photo courtesy of Packer Expeditions)
A heli-hiking tour out of the port of Skagway takes passengers to a mountain trail along a river in the Tongass National Forest. (Photo courtesy of Packer Expeditions)

This is another tour with a sky-high cost. But, in my opinion, it’s well worth the money. Indeed, it’s one of my all-time favorite Alaska shore excursions.

The five-hour, Skagway-based outing begins with a transfer from your ship to a nearby helicopter pad, where you’ll find a helicopter waiting to whisk you high into the surrounding Sawtooth Mountain Range.

On the way to your destination — a mountain trail in the Tongass National Forest — you’ll get spectacular views of the mountains and Goat Lake. You’ll land at Glacier Station, a remote mountain helicopter pad alongside the White Pass & Yukon Railway tracks. From there, you’ll set off on a two- to six-mile guided wilderness hike on a trail along the Skagway River. The highlight of the hike: A magnificent view of Laughton Glacier.

Returning to Glacier Station, you’ll end the day with a ride back to Skagway on the White Pass & Yukon Railway, which makes a special stop just to pick you up.

Misty Fjords National Monument by seaplane

Cost: $299.95

Port where available: Ketchikan

A fjord in Misty Fjord National Monument (Photo courtesy of the Ketchikan Tourist Bureau).
A fjord in Misty Fjord National Monument (Photo courtesy of the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau).

There’s nothing that says Alaska quite like a trip in a floatplane. And, if you’re going to do a floatplane ride, there’s nowhere better than in Ketchikan. You’ll find a small armada of floatplanes awaiting to take you to nearby Misty Fjords National Monument.

Misty Fjords is one of those quintessential Alaska destinations that’s so beautiful you just want to cry. That is, if it’s not too “misty” to see it. It got its name for a reason. The area is often shrouded in clouds and drizzly rain. Ketchikan is known as one of the rainiest places in North America, with over 13 feet of rain each year. So, yeah, bring a rain jacket.

But, also get ready for lovely views of glacier-carved fjords, cliffs and rock walls jutting thousands of feet out of the ocean. The whole thing is covered with temperate rain forests and features huge waterfalls (thanks to all that rain). It’s definitely a sight to see.

Note that there often are two versions of this tour available: One that is about two hours in a length and only includes flightseeing and a slightly longer version that includes a water landing.

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Featured image courtesy of Travel Alaska