Alaska is a haven for wildlife and untouched nature. People flock to this northern state year after year to get a glimpse of its vast glaciers, mountains, and coastal scenery. The most popular thing to do is to explore the area on a cruise.
Alaska cruises come in large and small packages. The ships mainly travel during the warmer months—May through September—with the least expensive tickets being offered at the very beginning or end of the season (when the mountainous terrain is entirely covered with snow, as an added bonus).
But one of the best things to do on a cruise to Alaska is to get off the boat and explore. Wildlife spotting, water sports, and trekking are just a few of the most popular shore excursions.
Wildlife is one of the primary draws of visiting Alaska. This state is home to grizzly bears, polar bears, bison, caribou, moose, mountain goats, and more. One of the easiest things to spot—seeing as you'll be on a boat for much of the time—are whales. If you're lucky, you might spot the resident humpback whales (most prevalent during June and July) feeding along the Inside Passage route. Bring your binoculars to get a good look at the fluke (tail) or to see them working cooperatively to bubble feed.
Ride the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
If your cruise ship stops over in Skagway, you'll find an old gold rush boomtown community complete with shops, bars, restaurants, and historical buildings. Although you can easily spend the entire day exploring Skagway, a ride on the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway is not to be skipped. This route travels up into the mountains, providing scenic views and a glimpse into former gold miners' lives. Some White Pass combination rail and bus excursions include a stop at the Yukon Suspension Bridge, which is another great photo opportunity.
It isn't too often that you can explore one of America's spectacular national parks aboard a cruise ship, but Glacier Bay is the exception. You can marvel at the unspoiled mountain scenery, glaciers, and wildlife right from the deck and there's usually a park ranger on board to explain its splendor. Most itineraries factor in a full day for this portion of the journey.
See Bald Eagles on the Chilkat River
The Chilkat River near Haines is thought to be the largest gathering of bald eagles in the world. They flock to these warmer waters to feed on salmon while tourists, of course, flock to them. There are a number of kayak, jet boat, and rafting tours of this area. You're almost guaranteed to see the majestic birds and you're likely to come by moose and other wildlife, too.
If you're keen to go from sea to sky, the helicopter ride over Juneau Icefield is downright unforgettable. You might even think you've entered another planet when you get a bird's-eye view of the vast glaciers. The land is frozen as far as you can see. Some helicopters even stop so that passengers can get out and walk around.
Dog sledding is a year-round activity in this neck of the woods. Even in August, you can book a mushing excursion from Juneau, Skagway, Denali, and Anchorage, all popular stopovers for Alaska cruises. Some tours will even put you in the driver's seat so you can say you've mushed your own sled.
Choose a cruise that embarks from Seward so that you can fly into Anchorage, then ride the Alaska Grandview Train almost right to the port. The Coastal Classic route winds through pristine mountains and ends at the sea. The ride takes four hours and rest assured, it's worth the extra time.
Misty Fjords National Monument is near Ketchikan, but is only accessible via plane or boat. This spectacular area is too far south for glaciers, but visitors get to see the results of icy giants that were in the area eons ago.
Fifteen miles south of Ketchikan is Metlakatla, the only Native American reservation in Alaska. It's located on Annette Island, 86,000 acres of dense rainforest and tranquil salmon streams that can be accessed via a 45-minute ferry ride from Ketchikan. Here, visitors get the opportunity to learn all about the Tsimshian culture and history by touring the local totem poles, embarking on a wildlife safari, or learning intertidal harvesting techniques from the natives. A side trip to Metlakatla provides a historical perspective of Alaska's complex past.
Experience Alaska's famous glaciers in another way: by kayak. There's something about being in a small, single-person vessel that makes the vast bodies of ice seem even more gigantic than they already are. The frigid waters that border them provide a serene respite from the busy cruise ship, too. You can kayak in the shadow of Spencer Glacier, a 3,500-foot iceberg in the Chugach National Forest south of Anchorage, or Icy Bay—which, always cluttered with icebergs, lives up to its name—in Prince William Sound. You don't want to get too close to glaciers, though, because they can sometimes collapse into the water below.