On the Klondike Highway outside Skagway, I biked down a mountain past rugged cliffs—my hands hurt from squeezing the brakes so often.
In Juneau, I swung above the treetops on a zip line, strapped into a harness with only a clamp on a wire holding me in the sky. There, I also got in a dogsled and let the dogs lead me across a real glacier. I saw an eagle close enough that I could examine its weapon-like claws. I went fishing and caught a four-and-a-half-pound salmon, had it freeze-packed and shipped home so I could share it at a family meal.
As a frequent Alaska cruise passenger, I have many memories, and some of the most striking ones have taken place on shore excursions. Alaska is one of those places where you want to get off the beaten path and experience the landscape—the real Alaska.
Alaska cruises basically follow two routes: the Inside Passage, which sticks to the Southeast, and the Gulf, which includes the South Central region. The routes take you to a variety of glaciers and natural areas that vary by itinerary, but all visit the same handful of Alaskan ports—Juneau, Skagway, Sitka, Ketchikan, Haines, and Icy Strait—though you probably won’t visit all the ports on your sailing.
Because the ports get jam-packed with visitors—some days tiny Skagway sees six ships embarking thousands of passengers, far more than the town’s resident population of 900—getting out of town can be a good idea.
The cruise lines make it easy with shore excursions that range from the sublime to the extreme—from a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad to see the beautiful scenery to a hike in crampons on the crevasses of a glacier.
Recognizing that the Alaska demographic is getting younger, cruise and excursion companies have begun to offer more active itineraries, including those of the hiking, biking and kayaking variety. But there are also tours for history lovers, those interested in native culture, and those looking for pure entertainment—like the rather hokey Lumberjack Show and Duck Tours in Ketchikan. There is truly something for every taste.
Here are our favorites among the hundreds of offerings.
The Tour: Four Glaciers by Helicopter & Dog Sled Adventure
Without exaggeration, this is a once in a lifetime experience. As if the ride in a helicopter over glaciers and a landing on an actual glacier were not exhilarating enough, you also get to at least pretend you’re in the Iditarod by getting on a real dogsled. You fly over the massive and impressive Juneau ice field and see the advancing Taku Glacier up close. You may also see the cascading Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier, the floating Dead Branch Glacier or the river-like East Twin Glacier before landing on the Norris Glacier, home to a mushing camp. Your guide will take you on a dogsled ride over the snow-covered glacier and describe the 1,000-mile Iditarod Race from Anchorage to Nome. From the helicopter, you may also view bears, moose, mountain goats and other wildlife.
Who Should Go: Those seeking adventure of the easy yet exhilarating variety. Guests weighing more than 250 pounds will pay a 50 percent surcharge. Not for people who fear the cold.
Why: Because you’ve never done anything like this before.
Tip: If you’re more the active type, another version of this tour skips the dogsled but allows you to experience the thrill of the helicopter ride and glacier views before you take a challenging glacier trek. After landing on a glacier, you are instructed in the use of the provided mountain gear, which includes boots, an ice axe, crampons, a harness and a helmet. You hike crevasses and forge streams while you are attached to other passengers for two hours over uneven and sometimes steep terrain. It’s not easy, but the experience is otherworldly.
The Tour: Rainforest Canopy and Zip Line Adventure
You really glide above the treetops on this zip-line experience on Douglas Island. And if you dare to look down, you’ll also see the flora and fauna of a rainforest and the remains of an old gold mining operation. This is a real adventure experience. You are hauled up a mountain in a 4×4, geared up with a harness, gloves and a helmet, and with the direction of two guides, sent to glide down a mountain on a zip-line that runs between platforms attached to the tops of trees.
The experience feels a lot like we’d imagine flying feels as a bird. You have a little (but not much) control of your speed and can more or less steer yourself into the platforms—we actually went into one backwards; it’s not as easy as it may seem. Be aware that once you are above the trees, there is no getting off the track. And just when you think, “Wow, I’ve done it,” you have to rappel down a rope to reach the ground.
Who Should Go: Those looking for a rush and willing to answer incessant questions from friends who have not tried zip-lining but really want to know what it’s all about.
Why: It’s fun, and Alaska is all about new experiences.
The Tour: Wildlife River Adventure
Haines will remind you of the kind of small town featured on the TV show “Northern Exposure.” After a bus ride through the one-horse town (with two stop signs and no traffic lights), you head to the world famous Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The goal here is spotting as many bald eagles as you can and, if you’re lucky, bears, moose and other wildlife as well—all in their natural habitat. Traverse the shallow and narrow channels of the glacier-fed Chilkat River in a specially designed, narrow-draft jet boat. Your guide will take you deep into the wilderness. Check the trees for eagles and eagle nests. And look in the river for otters and beaver. At the end of the trip, you’ll be offered a hot beverage around a campfire or in a heated pavilion.
Who Should Go: Wildlife lovers looking for a relaxing viewing platform.
Why: It’s the eagles, man.
The Tour: Salmon & Halibut Fishing
There’s good fishing off Sitka, and with this full-day excursion, you hit the waters in search of king, silver or chum salmon, as well as halibut. The captain will take you to known fishing spots with the salmon fishing done by trolling with downriggers or anchoring and mooching. Halibut fishing is done by anchoring and jigging. You should be aware that being on a small boat on the open sea subjects you to swells and wind chops. Lunch and snacks are provided. With a limit on the number of poles on the downrigger, a rotation order may be used to allow everyone time to fish.
Who Should Go: Fishermen who want to add Alaska to their portfolio.
Why: You may catch the “big one.”
Note: You need to buy a one-day fishing license from the captain of the small boat for $20 cash, as required by Alaska law. Also, from May through June you need a $10 king salmon stamp. If you catch a fish, you can have it packaged and shipped home for an additional fee.
The Tour: Historic Russian America, Raptor Center & Russian Dancers
Sitka is noteworthy among Alaska towns for its strong Russian heritage. This tour gets you to key historical points as well as the best local attraction—the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center, where you get to view birds of prey, including bald eagles, close up. In Sitka, you’ll also see the tiny one-room St. Michael’s, the first Russian Orthodox cathedral in America; visit the Sitka National Historical Park, where in 1804 the Battle of Alaska was fought between the Russians and native Tlingits (today the park houses a collection of totem poles); drive to Castle Hill, where the post-Alaska Purchase flag was first flown by the U.S. in 1867; and enjoy a performance by the local Russian Folk Dance troupe.
Who Should Go: Those who appreciate history and like to watch those energetic kicks the Russian dancers do. And kids and nature-lovers who don’t want to miss a visit to the Raptor Center.
Why: It’s a good lesson in what Alaska was way back when—in the time of fur traders, missionaries, and Indians—and what it is today.
The Tour: White Pass Scenic Railway
This is a must-do tour, especially on a clear day. Take a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, a narrow gauge railway built into amazingly rugged and beautiful terrain 100 years ago. It’s the same Trail of ’98 route taken in the late 19th century by a steady stream of gold prospectors looking for Yukon gold … except they amazingly did it on foot and in temperatures that in winter go down as low as minus 50 degrees. You travel in the comfort of old-fashioned parlor cars, and the route takes you up the 2,800-foot summit of the White Pass, through tunnels and over sky-high trestles, past remote valleys and such sights as Bridal Veil Falls, Inspiration Point and Dead Horse Gulch—so named because so many miners lost their horses there. The trip takes three hours round-trip, but you can also book one-way tours, with a ride back in a bus on the Klondike Highway.
Tip: For those seeking a more active way to see the White Pass, we highly recommend you book the White Pass Rail & Bike. You take the train up the Pass and then get off at Frasier (which is in Canada) and take a van ride on the Klondike Highway up to 3,292 feet so you can bike down. And we mean down, down, down. Your hands will hurt from hitting the handbrakes. Along the way, you stop at waterfalls and other spectacular overlooks.
Who Should Go: The train ride is appropriate for anyone who wants to see the views. The optional bike ride is for energetic types.
Why: Because it’s amazing to think this is the same route taken by crazy gold-rushers who did the trek on foot. Plus the scenery on a clear day is breathtaking.
The Tour: Misty Fjords by Floatplane
Misty Fjords National Monument is a must-see, but big ships can’t get in there (some smaller ships can). On this tour, you view the magnificent scenery from the air with a window seat on a seaplane. The pristine park encompasses 2.3 million acres, which is roughly the size of Connecticut. You’ll view sheer granite cliffs, imposing waterfalls, sparkling fjords and thick forests. The seaplane will also land to give you a taste of the serenity of the park. The tour is not only narrated; it’s also choreographed to music.
Who Should Go: Those who can afford the rather steep floatplane prices.
Why: You’ll not see any scenery prettier than this, and you’ll stand a good chance of spotting wildlife including eagles, brown bears, mountain goats, whales, and sea lions.
The Tour: Saxman Native Village
Your understanding of Alaska should include native culture. This tour takes you to a village three miles from Ketchikan where the Tlingits welcome guests and offer a taste of their culture. After a short video program, you enter the Beaver Clan House for a song and dance presentation. You then head to Saxman Totem Park, home to one of the largest collections of totems in the world, where your guide will help unravel the mysteries and explain the stories of the poles. Poles are still created here at the Village Carving Center, with expert craftsmen passing along their skills to apprentices. Native art and souvenirs are offered for sale.
Who Should Go: Those interested in understanding native culture and learning about totem poles.
Why: Because this is the best place on the itinerary to get a feel for native culture. And visitors themselves are encouraged to participate in the final dance at the Beaver Clan House.
Icy Strait Point
The Tour: ZipRider Zip Line
Get an adrenaline rush on the longest and highest zip-line cable ride in the world, at 5,330 feet long and with a vertical drop of 1,300 feet. Your trip begins with a narrated bus tour through the village of Hoonah and then up a mountainside, where it’s a short walk to the launching area. This is not an extreme zip-line offering as in Ketchikan. Here you get harnessed for your ride down the mountain in a seat attached to a thick cable (there are six cables side by side, so several can do the ride at the same time). Check out the views if you dare to open your eyes as you literally zip a mile down the mountain at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. Spread your arms, and you’ll feel on top of the world.
Screaming is de rigueur.
You may spot deer and bears along the way in the woods, which will be below your feet (at the highest point on the cable, you are 300 feet above the forest floor). You may also catch views of Port Fredrick, Icy Strait, and your cruise ship. The ride takes only 1.5 minutes before your gentle touchdown on the beach.
Who Should Go: Those who like the rush of amusement park rides. Not for people who are afraid of heights.
Why: Purists may scoff, but even on this amusement park version of zip-lining, you’ll feel the rush. And the views are amazing.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Cruise Critic. SmarterTravel.com is published by Smarter Travel Media LLC, which also owns Cruise Critic.