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Planes, Trains and Sleds, Oh My! Cruising Alaska Is Awesome!

Planes, Trains and Sleds, Oh My! Cruising Alaska Is Awesome!


avatar   Scott
Trip Date 06/16/2012
Posted On 06/01/2020 09:00:00

Destinations | Cruises | Alaska | Juneau | Skagway | Ketchikan | Glacier Bay | Victoria | Seattle | Flightseeing | Float Plane | Helicopter Tour | Whale Watching | Musher's Camp | White Pass and Yukon Railroad | DIY Shore Excursions



When you ask frequent travelers to name their all time favorite cruise, a rather high percentage respond, "Alaska". All that there is to see and do in Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway is certainly one reason for this top of the list ranking. Most cruisers enjoy itineraries which visit more than one country and, albeit short, spending a few hours in Vancouver or Victoria, Canada satisfies that requirement. The icing on the cake, however, is the unique scenery that comes with sailing through the Inside Passage and spending a day in Glacier Bay.

There's plenty of adventure to be had in Alaska. Flightseeing comes in the form of helicopter tours and float planes. Interested in wildlife? You probably already know about the many animal species who call Alaska their home. Whale watching and spending time at a musher's camp aren't offered everywhere in the world, but they are very popular here. Maybe a more relaxing scenic train ride is up your alley? Don't miss the White Pass and Yukon Railroad! No matter what your preference, there are great options for DIY Shore Excursions.

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We had an opportunity to travel with friends to Alaska and were so glad that we jumped at the chance. With the variety of options for port days, everyone can make their top choice and then spend time together on board sharing stories about your days.


Enjoying Time with Traveling Companions

Enjoying Time with Traveling Companions

Shore Excursions at Alaska Cruise Ports

The good news is that there are lots of options for spending your port hours in Alaska. Between cruise line offerings and those planned directly with local providers, there's a wide variety of shore excursions in Alaska's ports of call. Not to mention just wandering about on your own in one or more of the ports. We actually did all three on our cruise!

There's always some bad news that goes along with the good. Exploring Alaska is no exception. Unfortunately, there may even be more bad than good! First, because of all of the choices, it can sometimes be hard to decide. Secondly, the best shore excursions with the best providers do tend to fill up rather early. Third, because of the types of excursions offered, many tend to be quite pricey. Finally, a number of tours in Alaska are weather dependent. We had a tour itinerary changed at the last minute, and although safety is most important, nevertheless it is disappointing.

On the topic of weather, just like in many locations around the world, the weather in Alaska is unpredictable. It's best to plan for misty rain and cold temperatures. Be prepared, however, for bright sunshine and heat! Yes, you might be in a raincoat over heavy winter clothes one day and almost wishing you were wearing shorts the next! Layers are the key when exploring Alaska's ports.


Golden Princess Docked in Rainy Juneau

Golden Princess Docked in Rainy Juneau

We spent a lot of time researching and comparing the various options in each port. We considered reviews from previous cruisers, how best to utilize our limited time and, of course, price. To hopefully save you some time (and not let our efforts just go to waste), we're including all of our top picks in this article!

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You'll find each Alaskan port organized as follows:

  • a brief introduction to the city;
  • web links to excursions for which we had a strong interest, however not enough time during our visit (had a scheduled tour cancel, these would have been our first choices for filling the time);
  • where to find information once in port;
  • our top excursion choices including web links and an overview of our experience; and
  • do-it-yourself activities and points of interest.
If you haven't already, be sure to join our community and download your free copy of Top Tips for Discounts on Travel. Pages 28 - 37 are devoted to tips for saving money on cruises and shore excursions.

Juneau: 12:00 PM - 10:00 PM

With no road access, there are only two ways to get to Juneau, Alaska's state capital. Unlike all other capital cities within the United States, reaching Alaska's capital is possible only by boat or plane.

Many of Juneau's points of interest are located downtown, within walking distance of the cruise port. There are also an abundance of hiking opportunities on the city's many trails. In addition to our top picks detailed below, popular tourist attractions include:

Most visitors to Alaska are interested in seeing glaciers. Fortunately, there is a glacier in Tongass National Forest, just a short shuttle bus ride from the downtown area via the (Mendenhall Glacier Shuttle).

Travel Juneau

Formerly the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau, there's a satellite office of Travel Juneau at 470 S. Franklin Street. Staffed primarily by volunteers, this is a very helpful resource for travelers. If you need any Juneau tourist questions answered or want information, maps or suggested walking tours, this is your place!

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Flightseeing

Several companies offer a selection of tours via helicopter. Options include Flightseeing Tours with a Glacier Landing, tours which include a stop at a Glacier Dog Sled Camp and even combination tours.

Our company of choice was Coastal Helicopters, and we couldn't have been more pleased with our selection. Our original reservation was for the Dog Sled Tour with Glacier Landing. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate so landing at the Herbert Glacier Dog Sled Camp was not possible.

After being transported from the port to the company office, we were fitted with special boots. These studded glacier boots helped to make sure that we had good traction as we explored the glacier on foot.


Modeling Studded Glacier Boots

Modeling Studded Glacier Boots

Although the helicopter on which we rode would accommodate up to six passengers, we lucked out with a private tour! After the mandatory safety briefing, our young (about 20 years of age) but experienced pilot-guide flew us over the Juneau Icefield. He narrated our entire flight pointing out ice formations, crevasses and more.

After landing on Herbert Glacier, we had the opportunity to get out of the helicopter to explore. Our pilot-guide continued to describe the area as he escorted us on a walk around. We were glad that we had those boots on as the studs helped to ensure that we were safe as we straddled huge crevices!


Helicopter Landing on Herbert Glacier

Helicopter Landing on Herbert Glacier

Huge Glacier Crevice

Huge Glacier Crevice

Photo Op On the Glacier

Photo Op On the Glacier

Just like anywhere else in the world, helicopter tours in Juneau are rather expensive. If your budget allows, however, seeing the beautiful blue ice and walking on the glacier is truly an amazing experience.

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Whale Watching

Both our travel companions and the two of us took Whale Watching Tours with Harv and Marv's Juneau Whale Watching. After a shuttle bus ride to the Auke Bay Harbor, we met Captain Jayleen and boarded the boat for our Outback Whale Watching Trip. The boat had both an indoor cabin with good viewing windows plus an open-air back deck for unobstructed photos.

Temperatures in the bay can be quite cold, so we were glad that we were dressed warmly. We did see some whales, but they were all quite a distance away. With the aid of other boats on the bay calling out positions of the whales, Jayleen strived to close in on their locations.


See the Air Coming out of a Whale's Blowhole?

See the Air Coming out of a Whale's Blowhole?

In addition to the whales, we saw some sea lions lazily lying on the buoy markers floating in the bay.


Sea Lions Relaxing in Auke Bay

Sea Lions Relaxing in Auke Bay

During our shuttle return back to the cruise port, we made a brief photo stop at a Mendenhall Glacier Viewing Area.


Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier

During our tour, we had the opportunity to learn about the life of our boat captain, Jayleen. She and her family lived on a remote island with no electric power (only solar). Jayleen had worked as a crew member during the summers at her father's whale watching business (Harv and Marv's) since the young age of 12. At age 18, she had the licenses required to captain whale watching boats, and she did just that.


Captain Jayleen

Captain Jayleen

Since our visit, neither Jayleen nor her father are captaining tours for Harv and Marv's any longer. Jayleen, however, has started her own company, Jayleen's Alaska offering more personalized tours for up to 6 passengers. Based on our experience with her, we would highly recommend considering Jayleen for a whale watching excursion.

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Red Dog Saloon

A stroll along historic South Franklin Street is the perfect complement to any Juneau itinerary. In addition to being filled with restaurants, bars and retail shops, the street is the city's main tourist area. You'll see a number of renovated buildings dating back to the early 1900s.

Walking through the famous swinging doors of the Red Dog Saloon, located at 278 S. Franklin St. is a must! Since the late 1940s, travelers and locals alike have made a stop to see the antiques, furs and guns on display while enjoying a drink or meal. It may be hard to pass up making a souvenir purchase at the Red Dog Mercantile!


The Swinging Doors of the Red Dog Saloon

The Swinging Doors of the Red Dog Saloon

Skagway: 6:00 AM - 8:15 PM

On June 28, 1900, Skagway became the first city to be incorporated in Alaska (one day before Juneau's incorporation). It is one of three southeastern Alaska cities accessible by road. With just 4 blocks in one direction and about 20 in the other, the city is easily walkable. It's Wild West aura gives it a rather unique feel. You'll find wooden sidewalks, restored buildings, buildings with false fronts and even hitching posts which you can use to tie up your cruise companion horse!

You'll find the basic details about our favorite picks below. Two additional attractions that ranked near the top of our list included:

Upon docking in Skagway, many people want to take out on foot to explore the city and then venture further to see the surrounding natural beauty. There are a variety of hiking options ranging from an easy just over 1 1/2 mile round trip hike to much longer and more strenuous hikes for those with more than a day. The Skagway Trail Map can help you choose one (or more) for your visit.

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Skagway Tourism

The Skagway Visitor Center is located at 245 Broadway inside the Arctic Brotherhood Hall. The building, Alaska's most photographed, was originally built in 1899. The exterior facade, consisting of almost 9,000 pieces of driftwood, was added one year later. During its 2005 restoration, every piece of driftwood was removed. Those that had rotted were replaced, but about 60% of them were able to be preserved.


Arctic Brotherhood Hall

Arctic Brotherhood Hall

White Pass & Yukon Route Railway

The White Pass and Yukon Route Railway is one of 250+ international landmarks that have earned the title of International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. There are multiple options on most days to join the White Pass Summit Excursion. The 40 mile round trip ride is fully narrated and takes just under three hours. We found it to be both relaxing and picturesque.

From the train station in Skagway to the White Pass Summit, you'll gain almost 3,000 feet in elevation as you ride the rail built in 1898. During the climb, you'll pass through tunnels and over canyons on trestle bridges. In addition to historic sites, you'll see waterfalls, gorges and other amazing scenery as you make your way to a zone covered in deep snow. There's a brief photo pause (no, you won't exit the train) shortly before reaching the Canadian Yukon and then returning back to Skagway.


White Pass Railway

White Pass Railway

Passing through a Bridge

Passing through a Bridge

Old Wooden Trestle

Old Wooden Trestle

We Made it to the White Pass Summit!

We Made it to the White Pass Summit!

It's actually quite easy to make reservations directly with the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway. Making direct reservations and paying in advance will ensure the lowest price.

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Sled Dog and Musher's Camp

The Sled Dog and Musher's Camp is such a fun excursion, even for those who are not dog lovers! The excursion starts with a ride on a unimog to the Dyea camp location in the outskirts of Skagway. Upon arrival, you'll relocate to a seat in one of the wheeled sleds where you'll soon meet your musher and sled dogs.


Transportation by Unimog

Transportation by Unimog

Ready to Ride!

Ready to Ride!

Watching and learning about the dog selection and training for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is very interesting. Did you know that dogs are selected for each position on the team based on their abilities? Each position on the mushing team requires certain skills so that the team of dogs can work together to handle the challenges of the cross-country race.


Dog Mush Training Camp

Dog Mush Training Camp

Mushing Team Hard at Work

Mushing Team Hard at Work

After being pulled down a mile long trail through the Tongass National Rainforest, your visit to the camp wraps up with an opportunity to play with the pups!


Pups at Play

Pups at Play

These Puppies are Adorable!

These Puppies are Adorable!

Skagway Gold Rush Cemetery

Skagway's historic Gold Rush Cemetery is popular with cruise line bus tours. If you want to visit on your own (and avoid the crowds), go early or late in the day. Many of the famous gold rush pioneers are buried there and a short trail behind the cemetery leads to Lower Reid Falls.


Gold Rush Cemetery

Gold Rush Cemetery

Lower Reid Falls

Lower Reid Falls

Our walking route took us past a historic railyard and a house with Home of the North Wind decor on the garage door!


Historic Railyard in Skagway

Historic Railyard in Skagway

Red Onion Saloon

The historic Red Onion Saloon is located at 201 Broadway. The original dance hall, saloon and bordello was in operation in 1897. Today, guests can visit the famous saloon, restaurant, brothel museum and, of course, gift shop. There's even a first-come, first-served guided tour to learn more about the saloon's history.


The Red Onion

The Red Onion

Ketchikan: 7:00 AM - 12:30 PM

The southern entrance to the Inside Passage, one of the biggest draws to cruisers and other visitors to the state, is Ketchikan. The city is known for its colorful past which included bordellos, canneries along the waterfront, fishing and prospecting. Still recognized as the Salmon Capital of the World, both Misty Fjords National Monument and the Tongass Rainforest are two natural treasures that lure many visitors.

Just a short distance from the port, you'll find historical buildings and retail shops offering the work of local artisans in Ketchikan's downtown. Although walking is a great way to explore the city, there's also a complimentary shuttle service that operates between May and September. Starting at the cruise port, stops include downtown, Creek Street, the Stedman-Thomas National Historic District and the Totem Heritage Center.

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Had we had more time in the city, we had narrowed down all that there is to see and do to the following favorites from which we would have chosen:

Ketchikan Visitor Information Center

If you haven't finalized your plans before your departure, a visit to the Visitor Information Center upon your arrival is a great starting point. The main office is located at Berth 2 and a satellite summer only office is at Berth 3. While there, you can browse available brochures, pick up walking maps and other printed information and even meet representatives of local tour companies who can help you reserve any available tours.

Flightseeing

Misty Fjords National Monument, an over two million acre monument with no roads, is best seen by seaplane. We were transported from the port to the Island Wings Air Service office. After boarding the plane, each passenger tested their two-way headsets and we had a safety briefing prior to take-off.


Our Float Plane

Our Float Plane

With Michelle Masden as captain, we flew over the national monument enjoying a bird's eye view of the mountains, valley and lakes around Ketchikan on a two hour tour. Our flight included a water landing within the monument where we had the opportunity to exit the float plane and stretch our legs as we explored the wilderness during a one-half hour stop.


Bird's Eye View of Misty Fjords National Monument

Bird's Eye View of Misty Fjords National Monument

Landing at a Remote Lake

Landing at a Remote Lake

Do listen carefully to the instructions given by your pilot! Upon our water landing, the plane floated to the shore next to a huge fallen log. The pilot secured the plane and positioned a step stool on the shore. We were instructed to file out of the plane, walk down the pontoon and step over the log on to the step stool. With camera in hand, rather than stepping over the log, I stepped on the log. Since the log was covered with very slippery moss, I fell. Once down, I was straddling the log with my hands and feet in the water. (It all happened so quickly that Stacy wasn't able to snap a photo!) Fortunately I was not injured, but sadly, my camera was.

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Creek Street

Historic and picturesque Creek Street is a must visit while in Ketchikan. What was once the bordello area, shopping and dining are now two of the biggest draws to this boardwalk built along the shores of and over Ketchikan Creek.


Creek Street

Creek Street

Make sure to also walk up Married Man's Trail, used as a more discreet entrance to the "businesses" of days gone bye. Take your chance at capturing some jumping salmon at the Salmon Ladder at the end of the trail.


Married Man's Trail

Married Man's Trail

Ketchikan's Salmon Ladder

Ketchikan's Salmon Ladder

If you have a few minutes to spare, take the quick and inexpensive ride up to Cape Fox Lodge via the Cape Fox Tram. Spend a few minutes exploring the lodge and don't miss the view of the city (and your ship) from above.


Cape Fox Tramway

Cape Fox Tramway

Dolly's House Museum & Gift Shop

Make sure to visit Dolly's House Museum & Gift Shop located at Number 24 Creek Street. Dolly Arthur, a Ketchikan resident from 1919 to 1975, was the city's most famous madam. Today, a tour of the small two story green house helps to tell the story of Dolly and the red-light district which was shut down for good in 1954. In addition to watching videos, you'll feel like you went back in time when you see the period wallpaper, furniture, antiques and photos inside.


Dolly's House and Museum

Dolly's House and Museum

Posing at Dolly's House

Posing at Dolly's House

There's plenty of retail products available, so you can bring home a memory for yourself or a loved one as well!

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Sailing Glacier Bay

Did you realize that your Inside Passage cruise would include a visit to a National Park? Park Rangers and Naturalists from the Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve will board your cruise ship as it enters the bay and stay throughout the the 9 - 10 hours that you're sailing there. During that time they will narrate, offer presentations for adults and kids and even have National Park stamps available for those who are collectors. They will also be in public areas around the ship and are happy to answer any and all questions.


Glacier Bay National Park Stamp

Glacier Bay National Park Stamp

Your cruise ship will move very slowly through the bay so that you have time to see both sides. Although the ship will not dock, it will stop in front of a tidewater glacier and will likely spin slowly in circles. This will help to ensure that everyone has a chance to experience the awe and wonder of the natural scenery. Although the ice will look like a "wall", it's actually the end point of a miles long river of ice.


Tidewater Glacier

Tidewater Glacier

Close Up in Glacier Bay

Close Up in Glacier Bay

Tips for Your Glacier Bay Sailing

You'll want to be prepared for rain and cold temperatures. Glacier Bay typically only has 4 sunny days each month and gets over 80 inches of rain in a typical year. The average temperature during cruising season is in the mid-50's, but the wind can be bone-chilling cold. Here's a few other tips to ensure that you are best prepared for your day in the bay:
  • If there is ever a cruise destination when binoculars are needed, Glacier Bay is it! They'll help make seeing wildlife such as bears, birds, mountain goats, sea lions, otters and whales possible. You may even see a harbor seal lying on the ice or catch a bald eagle perched atop an iceberg waiting for an opportunity to grab a fish.


    Posing on an Iceberg

    Posing on an Iceberg

  • During one of your first few days onboard (and before sailing through Glacier Bay), scope out several good viewing areas. Look for spots without glass between you and the open waters on the outer decks. It's best to find multiple locations on multiple decks so that you have options to hopefully avoid the biggest crowds. Try to find some places on the promenade deck as well - in case it is raining when you want to be outside.
  • When you receive your detailed schedule of events for your sailing through the bay (usually the evening before in your stateroom), you will also receive the Glacier Bay park map/guide. Be sure to take some time to become familiar with what is happening and when.
  • Don't just look - listen too! You don't want to miss the sounds that the giant "chunks of ice" make as they calve into the water creating huge splashes.

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Victoria, British Columbia, Canada: 7:00 PM - 12:00 AM

Because of the Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886, all cruise ships that are not built in the United States and owned by American citizens must make a stop in a foreign port. Due to the proximity of Canada to Alaska, British Columbia ports such as Victoria and Vancouver commonly satisfy this requirement.

As the capital of British Columbia, you'll immediately be reminded of England as you disembark in Victoria. From the double-decker buses and horse drawn carriages on the streets to the buildings that they pass by, the British influence is undeniable. Nicknamed the City of Gardens, Victoria has many wonderful gardens and parks that can be explored year round due to the city's mild climate.

Most ships have limited port hours, often in the evening. Attractions such as Butchart Gardens open only for passengers reserving excursions offered by their cruise line. The good news is that, if you are a do-it-yourself traveler, there is plenty to do to fill your few hours in port. A mostly flat loop walk around Victoria's James Bay peninsula will take you past some of the city's best sights.

Dallas Road Walkway

After leaving the port, turn to your right along the water's edge. Known as the Dallas Road Walkway, this is one of the most scenic walks in all of Victoria. When you arrive at the first small park on a cliff above the ocean, make sure to look back for a view of the port in the distance.

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Beacon Hill Park

You'll next arrive at a round-a-bout signaling the beginning of the Trans Canada Highway. Look for the entrance to Beacon Hill Park across the street. After carefully crossing the street and entering the park, take your choice of any path to follow. No matter which you choose, you'll see part of the amazingly beautiful park on your way to the opposite end.


Beacon Hill Park

Beacon Hill Park

Exit Beacon Hill Park on to Douglas Street and continue north to Belleville Street (about one block).

Thunderbird Park

A city landmark for over 50 years, you can enter Thunderbird Park at the intersection of Douglas and Belleville Streets. Take some time to get an up close look at some of the totem poles moved to the park in order to preserve them from destruction.


Thunderbird Park

Thunderbird Park

Fairmont Empress Hotel

Continue walking along Belleville for a block until you intersect with Government Street and the Fairmont Empress Hotel. No visit to Victoria is complete without a stop at this hotel which dates back over 110 years.


The Fairmont Empress Hotel

The Fairmont Empress Hotel

Victoria's Horse Drawn Carriages

A wonderful way to see the sights of downtown Victoria is on a horse drawn carriage ride. There's almost always dozens of carriages waiting for riders in the vicinity of the Empress Hotel.

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Fisherman's Wharf

Return to Belleville Street and continue walking away from Beacon Hill Park along the inner harbor. Walk and admire the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia and a statue of Queen Victoria that you will soon pass. Continue walking along the harbor that leads towards Fisherman's Wharf until you come upon an entrance to the docks.


Legislative Assembly of British Columbia

Legislative Assembly of British Columbia

Fisherman's Wharf is an often overlooked attraction. The docks are filled with dozens of boat houses and fish restaurants.


Fisherman's Wharf

Fisherman's Wharf

To return to your ship, find Dallas Road at the far end of Fisherman's Wharf Park. Follow this road for several blocks until you reach your ship.

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Seattle, Washington

Make sure to check out our article titled Explore the Heart of Seattle in 2 Days - Perfect for Cruisers! No matter if you have one day or a few in Seattle before or after your cruise, you'll find plenty of ideas to fill your time.

Alaska Cruise Ports

What is your favorite cruise port in the state of Alaska and what excursion do you recommend in that port?
Planes, Trains and Sleds, Oh My! Cruising Alaska Is Awesome!







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