Should You Visit Alaska by Land or on a Cruise?

The Alaska Range

TripSavvy / Lauren Breedlove

Across the Bering Strait sits “The Last Frontier”, a vast land so wild that bald eagles, humpback whales, moose, wolves, and grizzly bears call it home. Adventurous souls venture to the largest state in America to see Denali, the highest peak in North America; more than 3,000 rivers and over three million lakes; 100,000 glaciers; thousands of miles of rugged coastline; eight National Parks; and a rich and diverse culture made up of Alaskan Native and American Indian populations, living in villages dotted across the state.

Cruises—large and small—are best for exploring the coastal regions, while land tours, which utilize small planes, trains, or busses, are optimal for seeing the massive interior. Jet service is available from the lower 48 to Alaska’s major airports in Fairbanks and Anchorage and these airports partner with chartered carriers to get to the smaller communities and far-flung areas across the state. To help you navigate such a large territory, made up of five distinctive regions, here’s our guide to visiting Alaska by land or cruise, and everything in between.

Arctic Region

Alaska’s arctic region, made up of three subregions—Arctic Coast, Brooks Range, and Western Arctic, is where to travel for the best chance of seeing the aurora borealis, or northern lights. This Arctic Coast is where the largest Eskimo community in America, the Inupiat of Utqiagvik (Barrow), has settled. Caribou have an annual great migration across the Brooks Range, traveling through Kobuk Valley National Park, Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Western Arctic is remote and well-known for copious amounts of wildlife that live in the coastal plains, high mountain ranges, and wetland habitats.

How to Get There

Recommended by Travel Alaska, Knightly Tours offers single day and multi-day packages that make it easy to experience the Arctic Region by way of Fairbanks. For a day visit, you will travel by air, across the Arctic Circle, and then journey by road along Dalton Highway. Or, you can experience an Arctic Ocean Adventure, a multi-day land and air tour that includes a visit to the Yukon River, Brooks Range, North Slope, and Arctic Ocean.

Inside Passage Region

Alaska’s Inside Passage, shaped by glaciers millions of years ago, might be the most popular way to experience Alaska for first-time visitors. Embarking on a cruise is a good way to go to experience the region’s diverse wildlife and culture. Stopping for special excursions along the way, you’ll enjoy adventures in Glacier Bay National Park, Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka, and Skagway. 

How to Get There

Most multi-tiered large cruises begin and end in either Seattle or Vancouver. Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruises, Holland America Line, Royal Caribbean Cruises, Princess Cruises, and Celebrity Cruises all offer sailing dates between seven and 14 nights in duration. These large cruise ships take care of everything—food, activities, entertainment, and trip planning. Ideal for multi-generational family travel, large cruise ships have the ability to cater to a wide-range of interests, abilities, and comfort levels. Dining is available around the clock; you can shop on board or visit the casino, gym, night club, pool, theater, or kid’s club; and the concierge can arrange for anything your heart desires.

Alternatively, you could opt for a smaller cruise ship, with far less passengers on board, which will allow you to tailor your interests for a more intimate experience. UnCruise Adventures, for example, offers more active itineraries. Lindblad Expeditions is perfect for nature enthusiasts that want to delve deeper into wildlife experiences—the ships are equipped with a hydrophone to listen to whales as well as an undersea HD video camera to delight and educate guests on board.

Interior Region

The interior of Alaska is wild and rugged, home to Denali National Park and the highest peak—Denali—in North America. Photographers, hikers, and wildlife devotees will relish a trip here where you can spot the big five: moose, caribou, Dall sheep, wolves, and grizzly bears.

How to Get There

With a history dating back to 1903, the Alaska Railroad is one of the best modes of transportation for seeing the interior of this grand state. Travel from Anchorage, the largest city at 300,000, to the intrepid town of Talkeetna, where a cat served as mayor for more than 18 years.

Only one road travels in and out of Denali National Park, and to get from one end to the other on all 92 miles, you’ll have to enlist the services of the park system’s bus (private vehicles are only allowed on the first 15 miles). With a guided tour of the park, you’ll see Igloo Canyon, Drunken Forests, Polychrome and Sable Passes, kettle ponds, grassy flats, glaciers, and braids of river dotted with moose. 

Make the most of your time in Alaska through the trip planners at Pursuit. The Denali Backcountry Adventure includes an adventurous stay at the Denali Backcountry Lodge in Kantishna, located at the very end of the road. Here you can go on guided hikes, botany walks, mountain bike rides, and pan for gold. Pursuit can also arrange for visits to Jeff King’s Husky Homestead as well as air taxi service (Kantishna Air Taxi) between Kantishna to the Denali National Park entrance.

Southcentral Region

The Southcentral region includes the Anchorage area, Copper River Valley, Kenai Peninsula, Mat-Su Valley, and Prince William Sound. Over half of Alaska’s population calls this region home . From cultural historic tours to dog sledding to flight tours to rafting and kayaking to panning for gold, there’s much to do in this area.

How to Get There

In this region, glacier and wildlife cruising is wildly popular and there are a number of lines that can make all of your Alaska dreams come true: Stan Stephens Glacier and Wildlife Cruises, Kenai Fjords Tours via Pursuit’s Alaska Collection, Major Marine Tours, and Portage Glacier Cruises.

For active and exciting land adventures, enlist the services of a guiding outfit that can create a custom trip. Kennicott Wilderness Guides offers water adventures, ice climbing, and hiking trips. St. Elias Alpine Guides offers multi-sport adventures like glacier hikes, ice cave exploration, rafting, flightseeing, kayaking, and skiing.

Southwest Region

The landscapes in this region, which include Katmai National Park, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Bristol Bay, Alaska Peninsula, Aleutian Islands, Kodiak Archipelago, and the Pribilof Islands, is incredibly multi-faceted. The national parks and preserves in the Alaska Peninsula also includes Lake Clark National Park, where you’ll see a salmon run, volcanoes, craggy mountains, and immense lakes.

How to Get There

The Alaska Bear and Wildlife Cruise, through Adventure Kodiak, is a six day and six night all-inclusive cruise, which includes an intimate photography-lovers experience. See salmon eating brown bears, foxes, wolves, sea otters and lions, bald eagles, humpback whales, and puffins. The 58-foot boat is small enough in size that you’ll get an up-close view of Alaska’s wildlife and landscapes.

Article Sources
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  1. Travel Alaska, "Arctic Coast". 2020

  2. Smithsonian Magazine, "Small Alaska Town Mourns Loss of Stubbs the Cat, Beloved Honorary Mayor". July, 2017

  3. State of Alaska, 2020