A cruise to Alaska is one of the best ways to visit many parts of the 49th state, including the Inside Passage and the southeastern port towns of Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway. You can also see dozens of glaciers on a cruise, plus remote places reachable only by water, like Glacier National Park & Preserve. Traveling by ship allows you to get closer to one-of-a-kind experiences in Alaska’s interior, especially if you extend your vacation with a cruisetour (a package that includes the cruise and a land portion either before or after your voyage).
When it comes to excursions, many cruise lines offer the same experiences ashore for larger ports of call, often with a slight variation in the itinerary. The most popular tours highlight the best activities and attractions, such as the Mendenhall Glacier Ice Adventure Tour in Juneau, the Misty Fjords National Monument in Ketchikan and the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway in Skagway. You’ll also find entertaining offerings from cruise lines that call on smaller, less visited ports, like Icy Strait Point (Hoonah), Sitka, Seward and Haines.
While some tours cost less than $100, don’t be surprised to find over-the-top experiences that run about $750 per person – such as heli-flightseeing tours, where you’ll land on a glacier and go dog-sledding with a team of Alaskan huskies. If you’re comfortable with going it on your own, you might find lower prices on some excursions by booking directly with tour operators. Alaskan outfitters are used to working around cruise ship arrival and departure times, so their tours tend to fit into those schedules.
U.S. News has compiled this list to help you find the best Alaska shore excursions, from the most popular (and affordable) options to once-in-a-lifetime adventures.
Even though it’s surrounded by water and mountains – and there’s no road into town – Juneau is one of the most visited ports in Alaska, welcoming hundreds of thousands of visitors each summer. You’ll find plenty to do in Alaska’s capital, including whale watching tours, salmon bakes and more.
The Mendenhall Glacier is one of the top attractions in Juneau, so many tours include a visit to the Tongass National Forest to view the 12-mile-long sheet of blue ice. Some cruise lines, like Princess Cruises, offer self-guided trekking excursions that include a ride on the Juneau Goldbelt Tram, which affords views of the Chilkat Mountains and other panoramic scenery. You can also opt to see the glacier from the water by boat or kayak, or on a float trip.
However, if you’re going to splurge on any one excursion, it’s this one: Sign up for a helicopter landing on Mendenhall Glacier, followed by a dog-sledding adventure with a team of Alaskan huskies. During the approximately 30-minute helicopter ride, you’ll fly over rainforests and spectacular summits, but the real fun is when you arrive at the camp to go zipping through the snow led by your team of dogs and a professional musher.
The Mendenhall Glacier helicopter excursion is offered on Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Carnival Cruise Line, Viking Ocean Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and Silversea Cruises.
Whale Watching and Wildlife Quest
Whale watching is another top activity when visiting Juneau, and many cruise lines offer several options for tours. Holland America Line has a five-hour, small-group excursion for just 20 guests; you’ll search for humpback whales on a safari vessel, then hike on Mendenhall Glacier where you can look for beavers, Arctic terns, porcupines and black bears. If you prefer an even smaller group, Princess Cruises offers a 3.5-hour private whale watching tour for six people. Possible sightings include humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, eagles, harbor seals, lighthouses, glaciers and maybe even a bear along the shoreline.
One of Viking Ocean Cruises‘ excursions, the Best of Juneau, lasts more than six hours and takes guests on a naturalist-led whale watching cruise by catamaran. Before heading back to shore, you’ll have a lunch of local wild-caught Alaska salmon on remote Colt Island, followed by a scenic drive to Mendenhall Glacier to end the day.
Alaska whale watching and wildlife excursions are offered on Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, Viking Ocean Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line.
Taku Lodge Salmon Bake
Norwegian Cruise Line offers a 3.5-hour Taku Glacier Lodge Flight & Feast excursion that will tick several quintessential Alaska adventures off your bucket list. After flying over the Juneau Icefield (the fifth-largest ice field in North America) in a classic De Havilland seaplane, guests will land in the river at the historic Taku Glacier Lodge across from Juneau’s largest glacier, the 5-mile-wide Taku Glacier.
A traditional Alaska salmon bake (with all the fixings) and drinks made with glacier ice are another highlight of the day. You might even see a black bear sniffing around for leftovers after your feast. Following lunch, take a walk in the lush Tongass National Forest before heading back from the wilderness.
Salmon bake excursions are offered on Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Viking Ocean Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line.
Ketchikan sits at the southernmost entrance to Alaska’s Inside Passage. It is one of the most visited ports in Alaska, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). Visitors come to this part of the state for the beautiful scenery, Alaska Native culture and fresh seafood, including Alaska salmon and king crab. And they just might enjoy an entertaining lumberjack show or floatplane ride to kick off their day while in town.
The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show
Watch Alaska’s hearty lumberjacks battle British Columbia’s tough woodsmen in a head-to-head competition to see who can win the title of “Bull of the Woods.” The thrill-a-minute show – a guest favorite – features a 50-foot tree climb, ax throwing, log rolling, buck sawing and springboard chopping, along with plenty of lumberjack lore. Some lines, like Princess Cruises, offer just the show; it lasts a little over an hour, so there will be plenty of time for a self-guided tour of Ketchikan before heading back to the ship. You may also be able to book a combination tour that includes the show and an ax throwing lesson (plus a competition of your own), or a trip to Totem Bright State Park, where you’ll learn about the significance of totem poles and the Native Tlingit and Haida cultures.
Holland America Line offers a tour with the lumberjack show and a feast of local Dungeness crabs. For another culinary option, check out the 3.5-hour excursion with Norwegian Cruise Line. It includes a visit to Saxman Native Village, where you’ll sample smoked wild game meats, dine on chef-selected dishes prepared with regional ingredients, and taste local wines and beers.
Lumberjack shows are offered on Alaska voyages with Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Carnival Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Silversea Cruises.
Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s Tour
Courtesy of Bering Sea Crab Fisherman’s Tour
Embark on the Aleutian Ballard, the Bering Sea fishing boat made famous by the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” television series. The approximately three-hour excursion gives guests a firsthand experience of what it’s like to sail on the vessel as a Bering Sea crab fisherman and catch massive king crabs, octopuses and other marine life with 700-pound crab pots. The boat may also stop at nearby Annette Island, where you’ll have the chance to see whales, sea lions, seals and bald eagles soaring overhead (one may even try to snag your catch!). You may also get to watch local fishermen at work.
Some lines that offer the fisherman’s tour include Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Carnival Cruise Line, Viking Ocean Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Silversea Cruises.
Misty Fjords by Floatplane or Cruise
The more than 2 million-acre Misty Fjords National Monument is one of the top attractions in Alaska. Described by naturalist and author John Muir as “the Yosemite of the North,” the awe-inspiring destination is best viewed from above on a floatplane. From the sky, you’ll see towering 1,000-foot waterfalls, the volcanic Revillagigedo Island, snowcapped peaks, verdant forests and 3,000-foot walls of granite descending into the fjords. On a floatplane tour, you’ll also have the chance to land on the water and take in the spectacular scenery from another viewpoint.
If you’re not a fan of small planes, some lines offer the option of taking a cruise from Ketchikan’s harbor. You’ll sail into Behm Canal surrounded by the scenery of Misty Fjords, and you may even see wildlife or bald eagle nests. You’ll also cruise by Eddystone Rock, a massive volcanic spire emerging from the sea, as well as waterfalls and 3,000-foot cliffs sculpted by glaciers.
Cruise lines that offer floatplane or cruisetours of Misty Fjords include Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Viking Ocean Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Silversea Cruises.
Skagway is another busy and popular cruise port in Alaska. It’s one of the most popular towns on the Inside Passage itinerary; its fascinating Klondike Gold Rush history dates back to 1897. Take notice of the historic false-front shops reminiscent of the gold rush days as you explore. Many of these buildings are part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, and you may even see people strolling down the streets dressed in period costumes.
White Pass & Yukon Route
One of the top-rated attractions in Skagway is the White Pass Summit Scenic Railroad journey through Alaska’s wilderness. The narrow-gauge railroad is an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark – an honor shared by the Panama Canal, the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. Dating back 125 years, the historic railway features vintage rail cars and climbs to a steep 2,865 feet at the summit over just 20.4 miles. Along the way to the summit – located at the official international border between the U.S. and Canada – you’ll listen to the history of the Klondike Gold Rush while passing by Inspiration Point, Dead Horse Gulch and Bridal Veil Falls. After making a loop at the top, the train will head back down the mountain. You might even see snow on the ride if your cruise to Alaska is early in the season.
Excursions on some lines combine the rail journey with other activities, like biking on the Klondike Highway from the summit or visiting Liarsville, a gold rush trail camp. Others include a stop (and a cold beer) at the Skagway Brewing Company. In addition, some cruise providers offer the train ride in a luxury class rail car, which includes complimentary beverages, snacks and a private guide who will explain the history of the railroad as you watch the scenery pass by.
Norwegian Cruise Line’s six-hour excursion features a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route, a salmon bake at Liarsville and an adult beverage with one of the “madames” at the renowned Red Onion Saloon. Meanwhile, Silversea Cruises‘ new 5.5-hour tour includes the train ride; a trip to the Yukon Suspension Bridge, which sits 65 feet above the white water rapids of the Tutshi River; and a hearty lunch of bison chili.
Cruise lines that offer the railroad (and combination) tours include Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, Silversea Cruises, Viking Ocean Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Musher’s Camp and Sled Dog Discovery
If you want to cuddle with Alaskan husky puppies, then this excursion is for you. Norwegian Cruise Line’s approximately three-hour excursion takes guests to a professional musher’s summer camp in Dyea Valley, where they train sled dogs for the Yukon Quest and Iditarod races. After a thrilling ride into the rainforest on a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you’ll head out on a summertime dog sled with 16 Alaskan huskies at the helm. Before puppy play time, you’ll learn how the mushers care for the dogs and prepare for the races. Depending on the cruise line, some tours may end with roasting s’mores by the fire.
Some lines that offer this excursion are Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, Carnival Cruise Line and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Chilkoot Trail Hike and Float Adventure
The historic Chilkoot Trail was the main route for those in search of untold riches during the famous gold rush years. Today, the trail, located in Gold Rush National Historical Park, is a rainforest full of birds and wildflowers. Excursions to the park include hikes with river floats on the Taiya River (there are no rapids) or bike tours of the trail. There are also wilderness kayaking outings to Chilkoot Lake, which is home to the five species of Pacific salmon, waterfowl, bald eagles and one of the largest brown bear populations in southeast Alaska.
Some cruise lines that offer these excursions include Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Celebrity Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, Silversea Cruises, Viking Ocean Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Sitka is the only community in the Inside Passage that sits on the Pacific Ocean. The small city – home to just 8,500 residents – was owned by Russia before the U.S. purchased the land in 1867. Today, you’ll find remnants of this Russian heritage, like onion-shaped domes and Saint Michael’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Sitka also has a strong Tlingit culture. In terms of shore excursions, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing surrounded by pristine landscapes.
Sea Otter and Wildlife Quest
Royal Caribbean International’s three-hour jet boat cruise on Sitka Sound features panoramic scenery (including snow-capped peaks) and the chance to see abundant wildlife. During the tour, look for playful sea otters, whales and brown bears walking along the coast. The line also offers another tour – Sea Otters, Raptors and Bears Oh My – that features a naturalist-guided catamaran cruise followed by visits to the Alaskan Raptor Center (a rehabilitation center for birds of prey) and the Fortress of the Bear (a rescue operation for orphaned bears).
In comparison, Carnival Cruise Line‘s VIP wildlife quest in search of whales, sea otters, coastal brown bears and more concludes with a feast of wild salmon cooked over a wood-fired grill, Alaska crab and prime rib at the Fin Island Lodge. Following a wildlife Zodiac cruise around the archipelago, Holland America Line’s version of this excursion also visits the lodge for lunch in partnership with Food & Wine magazine.
You can find this excursion on Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Viking Ocean Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line.
The Best of Sitka
Several cruise lines offer a version of this tour, which features an exploration of the top attractions in Sitka. On this excursion, you’ll visit the Fortress of the Bear in Tongass National Park to learn about the facility’s work with orphaned bears. There’s also a stop at Sitka National Historical Park, where the 1804 “Battle of Alaska” between the Russians and the Tlingits was fought. Here, you’ll see handcarved totem poles created by skilled Tlingit artists and get to meet local Native artists to learn more. The excursion also includes a visit to the Alaska Raptor Center.
Lines that offer this excursion include Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Viking Ocean Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Icy Strait Point in Hoonah may be a much smaller port than others on this list, but it is a jumping-off point for endless outdoor explorations, including whale watching tours and searching for coastal brown bears. Icy Strait Point is Alaska Native-owned and -operated and is home to the largest Native Tlingit village in Alaska. While here, explore the wilderness areas of Chichagoff Islands, visit the 1912 cannery museum, and grab lunch with fresh Alaska king and Dungeness crabs before taking a ride on the world’s largest ZipRider. (Or, play it safe and plan to take that ride down the mountain before lunch.)
Whale Watching & Bear Search
The waters surrounding Icy Strait Point host the largest summer population of humpback whales in the state, especially around the Point Adolphus area. If you purchase a tour directly with the Icy Strait Point website, they’ll even guarantee you’ll see whales – or they’ll refund your money. During the tour, look for orcas, Steller sea lions, porpoises and seals. But be sure to also gaze overhead for bald eagles and search along the shore for bears; the Spasski River Valley in the remote wilderness of Chichagof Island has one of the highest densities of coastal brown bears in the world. Some cruise lines offer a variation of this excursion that includes a boiled seafood feast back on shore at Icy Strait Point.
You can find this excursion on voyages with Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, Viking Ocean Cruises, Silversea Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.
Scenic Mountain Ascent & World’s Largest ZipRider
Thrill-seekers (who love heights) will jump at the chance to ride the world’s largest and longest zip line, which sits more than 1,300 feet above sea level at the top of Icy Strait Point. The ride to the summit on the SkyGlider mountaintop gondola is also a rush, but the real excitement comes as you zoom down 5,330-foot zip lines with five other riders at 60 mph – with views of the forest below and Glacier Bay National Park in the distance. A break-activated landing on the beach brings riders safely back to the ground. The price also includes unlimited rides on the gondola.
Cruise lines that offer this excursion include Norwegian Cruise Line, Holland America Line, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, Silversea Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Viking Ocean Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line.
A less visited port than some others on this list (according to CLIA), Seward is the ancestral home to the Alutiiq, or Sugpiaq, people. Its breathtaking natural beauty – with mountains on one side and Resurrection Bay on the other – has been shaped by glaciers over thousands of years. Top attractions in Seward include the Alaska SeaLife Center and a charming downtown area. It also offers access to Kenai Fjords National Park.
Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise
During your stop in Seward, take a full-day excursion to see the astounding beauty of Kenai Fjords National Park. The impressive fjords are surrounded by mountains standing more than 6,000 feet tall and an ecosystem rich in wildlife. While there, watch for a variety of whale species, sea otters, porpoises and sea lions, and onshore, you might see bears and mountain goats. There are also 191 documented species of birds in the park and many glaciers. As you get up close to Holgate Glacier, listen as chunks of blue ice calve into the water.
Some cruise lines, such as Viking Ocean Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises, offer this as an individual tour, while others like Holland America Line include it as part of a cruisetour. You can also book the excursion directly with a local tour operator if you’re embarking or disembarking in Seward.
Haines, a small port about 20 miles north of Skagway, is best known for its Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The 49,000-acre preserve has the largest natural gathering of eagles during the late salmon runs and boasts pristine forests, marshlands and rivers brimming with wildlife.
Glacier Point Wilderness Safari
Norwegian Cruise Line’s five-hour excursion takes guests on an adventure into the wilderness by boat while cruising North America’s deepest and longest fjord, the upper Lynn Canal. You might even see breaching whales and playful sea lions en route to Glacier Point, where you’ll disembark at the beach upon arrival. After a drive through the forest and a hike in the woods, you’ll have unforgettable, up-close views of the Davidson Glacier by canoe.
Lines that offer this excursion include Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line and Silversea Cruises. Holland America Line offers this excursion from Skagway.
Eagle Preserve Rafting Float Adventure
Look for bald eagles soaring overhead as you raft down the gentle Chilkat River through the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The waters are overflowing with salmon that come to spawn, serving as food for as many as 400 bald eagles living in the Chilkat Valley. Don’t be surprised to see brown bears or 1,600-pound moose coming to feast along the riverbank during your rafting adventure.
Some lines that offer this excursion include Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Carnival Cruise Line, Silversea Cruises and Seabourn Cruise Line. Holland America Line, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Viking Ocean Cruises host this excursion from Skagway.
Why Trust U.S. News Travel
Gwen Pratesi is a U.S. News & World Report contributor and an avid travel adventurer who fell in love with Alaska on her first visit to the state many years ago. She’s returned several times both by land and sea to view wildlife and chase the northern lights in one of the best places on the planet to view them. She’s even considered moving to The Great Land as a full-time resident. Pratesi used her deep knowledge of Alaska and the cruise industry to write this article.