Top 10 Alaska Cruise Experiences

Courtesy Safari Quest

An Alaska Cruise is a trip-of-a-lifetime for many, and rightly so. While glaciers and gold-rush history are all but guaranteed, perfect wildlife-watching timing and a clear view of Denali on your flightseeing excursion are a reminder of the state’s wild nature. After you get inspired by these images, be sure to book soon for the peak summer season. To decide which is your dream cruise, see our Tips to Choose Your Alaska Cruise, Major Cruise Line Reviews, and Small Ship Cruising in Alaska’s Inside Passage. Whether you choose a “city at sea” or an expedition-size ship, here are the best things to experience on your Alaska cruise.

Courtesy Safari Quest

Enjoy Whale-Watching

Aside from an up-close encounter with a bear, humpback whale sightings are perhaps the most thrilling wildlife encounter to be had in Alaska. To spot whales, look for their blow—a waterspout that can rise 10 feet high. Whales typically blow several times before rising gently to reveal their hump backs for a few moments. Before they start a deep dive, when they might disappear for a few minutes or nearly half an hour, they may "wave" with their fluke (tail) in the air.

Courtesy Robin Hood/Alaska Travel Industry Association

Take a Flightseeing Ride

Much of the grandeur of Alaska can only be seen from the air, and flightseeing by small plane or helicopter delivers a view of otherwise inaccessible sights, such as Misty Fjords and expansive glacial ice fields. Helicopter excursions usually make a glacier landing where, depending on your tour, you might do some glacial ice-trekking or visit a dog-mushing camp to participate in a dogsled ride over the snow-covered glacier.

Courtesy Chris McLennan / Alaska Travel Industry Association

Encounter a Grizzly Bear

Thanks to its vast stretches of wilderness, Alaska is the only state that is home to healthy populations of all three North American ursine species. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) don’t venture south of the state’s chilly Arctic coastline, while black bears (Ursus americanus) and brown bears (Ursus arctos; also known as grizzlies) live throughout the state’s many refuges and parks. Bear populations are plentiful here: the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates that Alaska is home to roughly 100,000 to 200,000 black bears and 25,000 to 38,000 brown bears. Watching a bear gorge on salmon from a chilly creek or seeing a mother bear wandering the shoreline in the early morning, her two cubs trailing behind her, is an unforgettable sight. Sure it’s a matter of luck and timing. Sightings like this are a gift from the Alaskan landscape but remember that Alaska’s bears are wild, unpredictable creatures that should never be underestimated.

Courtesy Brian Adams / Alaska Travel Industry Association

Cruise Through Glacier Bay

With approximately 5,000 glaciers in Alaska it may seem peculiar that such a fuss is made about Glacier Bay, but part of its allure is the abundant wildlife, including seals, bears, and even humpback whales. Another source of its mystique is its inaccessibility. Until 1870 it was frozen behind a wall of ice a mile high. Today, it’s designated as a national park and only a limited number of permits per season are issued to the many cruise ships plying Alaska’s coastal waters. If your cruise experience won’t be complete without seeing Glacier Bay, choose your ship and itinerary with care.

Courtesy National Park Service

Visit Denali National Park

Anchored by North America’s highest mountain, 20,320-foot Mt. McKinley, Denali is a must-see for cruisers who intend to visit Alaska only once and want a land-and-sea experience either before or after their north- or southbound cruise. Almost a million people a year enter the area by bus or train, making it Alaska’s most visited wilderness area. Aside from the spectacular scenery, Denali is the place to see wildlife. It is home to 161 species of birds, 37 species of mammals, and at least 450 plant species. Look closely for bears, caribou, and the official state bird, the willow ptarmigan.

Courtesy Brian Adams / Alaska Travel Industry Association

Explore Ketchikan’s Frontier History

Alaskans are a hardy breed and many still consider hunting and fishing an important part of everyday life. Ketchikan is almost a time capsule devoted to frontier living, offering the best salmon fishing possible, wilderness hikes, a hilarious lumberjack show that kids love, and the restored gold-rush-era Creek Street with buildings on pilings over a stream. Head to Creek Street for boutiques, eateries, and the infamous Dolly’s House; Dolly practiced the world’s oldest profession and her home stands as a bawdy museum where period-costumed docents bid passersby to enter—for a price.

Courtesy Brian Adams / Alaska Travel Industry Association

Spot A Bald Eagle

With a wingspan of six to eight feet, these grand Alaska residents are primarily fish eaters, but they will also take birds or small mammals when the opportunity presents itself. The world’s largest gathering of bald eagles occurs in Southeast Alaska each winter, along the Chilkat River near Haines.

Courtesy Jason Cannon / Alaska Travel Industry Association

Glide on a Kayak

Sea kayaking can be as thrilling or as peaceful as you want. More stable than a white-water kayak and more comfortable than a canoe, a sea kayak, even one loaded with a week’s worth of gear, is maneuverable enough to poke into hidden crevices, explore side bays, and beach on deserted spits of sand. Don’t assume, though, that if you’ve kayaked 10 minutes without tipping over you’ll be adequately prepared to circumnavigate Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. There’s a lot to learn, and until you know your way around tides, currents, and nautical charts, you should go with an experienced guide who also knows what and how to pack and where to pitch a tent.

Courtesy Brian Adams / Alaska Travel Industry Association

Experience Native Culture in Sitka

On a small cruise ship, there's a good chance you'll stop at Sitka, one of the best places in Southeast to experience Alaska Native culture. Once the capital of Russian Alaska, Sitka was where the last battle on Alaskan soil between Alaska Natives and Europeans. Head to Sitka National Historical Park to see the battlefield, and stop in at the Park's Southeast Alaska Cultural Center to watch the best of today's Alaska Native artists work on their pieces in the onsite studios. You're encouraged to look around and ask lots of questions; we bet these conversations will be the highlight of your port stop! Larger ships don't stop in Sitka but most schedule native speakers and include plenty of opportunities to shop for native crafts.

Courtesy Brian Adams / Alaska Travel Industry Association

Discover Skagway’s Gold Rush Relics

On deck at sailaway (cruise-speak for when you leave your port of embarkation), you might hear the musical theme from the John Wayne movie "North to Alaska" as a reminder that there was gold in them thar hills. Waves of fortune-seekers passed through Skagway during the gold rush of 1898, inflating the population of the small town on the northern end of Lynn Canal to more than 10,000. Today’s White Pass & Yukon Railroad follows their trail from Skagway to the goldfields of the Klondike. The spirit of the gold rush lives on in town, with wooden sidewalks, horse-drawn carriages, and old-fashioned saloons that once also housed bordellos.