Alaska is one of those places where you want to get off the beaten path and experience the landscape -- the "real" Alaska. Luckily, 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 Route Railroad to see the beautiful scenery to a hike in crampons atop a pristine glacier.
Recognising that the Alaska demographic is fairly broad, cruise and excursion companies offer active itineraries -- hiking, biking and kayaking -- in addition to tours for history-lovers, those interested in native culture and those looking for pure entertainment -- like the Lumberjack Show or Duck Tours in Ketchikan. There is truly something for every taste.
Here are our favourite Alaska shore excursions among the numerous offerings.
Four Glaciers by Helicopter and Dogsled 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 taking part in the Iditarod Sled Dog Race by getting on a real dogsled.
You fly over the massive and impressive Juneau Icefield and see the advancing Taku Glacier up close. You might also see the cascading Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier, the floating Dead Branch Glacier or the river-like East Twin Glacier before landing on Norris Glacier, home to a mushing camp. From the helicopter, you might also view bears, moose, mountain goats and other wildlife.
Once you land, 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.
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Rainforest Canopy and Zipline Adventure
You glide above the treetops on this zipline experience on Douglas Island (the isle is accessed via a high-speed channel crossing from Juneau aboard an expedition craft). 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 4x4, geared up with a harness, gloves and a helmet, and with the direction of trained guides, sent to glide down a mountain on a zipline that runs between platforms attached to the tops of trees.
The experience feels a lot like flying. You have a little (but not much) control of your speed and can more or less steer yourself into the platforms. 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.
Helicopter Flightseeing and Extended Glacier Trek
On this adventure, you'll check out the local terrain from above with a helicopter flightseeing experience. But the real action begins when you learn to climb up and rappel down glaciers using special equipment. The best part is that no experience is needed; a guide will instruct you in the use of the provided mountain gear, which includes boots, an ice axe and crampons. It's not easy, but the experience is otherworldly.
Wilderness River Adventure
After a narrated bus ride along the Haines Scenic Byway, transfer to the glacially carved Chilkat River on a flat-bottom boat where you will traverse a remote section of the renowned Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The goal of the guided boat ride is to spot as many bald eagles as you can (keep an eye out for nests in the trees) and, if you're lucky, bears, moose and other wildlife as well -- all in their natural habitat. Enjoy lunch in a heated pavillion, and then unwind with the staff by a roaring campfire.
Wild Arts Artist Walk: Hot Italian Glass
On this 2.5-hour excursion, you'll walk through the small city of Sitka, once known as the "Paris of the Pacific," with a guide, stopping at various art galleries and artisan ateliers along the way. Witness everything from wood-carving and ceramic work to jewelry-making and glass-blowing, before trying your hand at the ancient art of Venetian glass-blowing yourself. You'll also have free time at the end to browse a gallery and to shop for souvenirs. This tour is ideal for anyone who wants to take a short excursion and still have enough time left in the day to explore Sitka on his or her own.
Salmon and Halibut Fishing
There's good fishing off Sitka, and with this full-day, small-group 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 where various techniques -- weather permitting -- are employed for salmon fishing and halibut fishing. You should be aware that being on a small boat on the open sea subjects you to swells and wind chop.
Note: You need to buy a one-day fishing license from the captain of the small boat for $25 cash, as required by Alaska law. Also, in May and June, you need an additional $15 king salmon stamp. If you catch a fish, you can have it packaged and shipped home for an additional fee; note your catch will not be permitted back onboard the ship. Lunch and snacks are provided on this excursion.
Sitka, Raptor Center and Native Tales
Sitka is noteworthy among Alaska towns for its strong Russian and Tlingit heritage. This tour gets you to key historical points as well as to a top local attraction -- the Alaska Raptor Center, where you get to view birds of prey that include bald eagles, close-up.
In Sitka, you'll also see St. Michael's, the first Russian Orthodox cathedral in America; visit the forested 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 of Tlingit stories and songs in a traditional-style clan house.
White Pass Scenic Railway
This is a must-do tour, especially on a clear day. Take a round trip ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad, a historic narrow gauge railway built into amazingly rugged and beautiful terrain some 120 years ago. It follows 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 did it on foot and often, in wet, muddy conditions or frigid temperatures.
You travel in the comfort of old-fashioned rail cars, and the route takes you up the 2,865-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.
For those seeking a more active way to see the White Pass, we highly recommend you book the White Pass Train & Bike Tour. You take the train up the Pass and then get off at Fraser (which is in British Columbia, Canada -- so bring your passports) for an additional 15-minute van ride to the White Pass summit. You'll then bike 15 miles down the Klondike Highway on a guided summit-to-sea tour back to Skagway -- and we mean down, down, down. Your hands will likely hurt from hitting the handbrakes so much. Along the way, you stop at waterfalls and other spectacular overlooks.
Musher's Camp and Sled Dog Experience
You'll begin this trip with a 35- to 40-minute bus ride to the remnants of the nearby ghost town of Dyea, which was Skagway's biggest competition during the gold rush days. It's now set within the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park as the site of a dog musher's camp. Once there, you'll board an all-terrain vehicle called a Unimog, which will take you up a rugged mountain road to where the mushers keep their dogs.
There, you'll be assigned to a special wheeled summertime sled, where you'll grab a seat and prepare to have a team of eager huskies speed around a mile of twists and turns in the crisp mountain air. (Be aware that the sledding portion of this excursion takes place on land, not snow. Therefore, you'll board a type of customized sled with wheels, rather than a traditional sled that's designed for snow.) Your assigned musher will introduce you to the dog team, fill you in on the sport of sled-dog racing and snap some photos of you along the way.
After your sledding experience, you'll have a chance to play with sled dog puppies. This is also a nice (and more affordable alternative) if you're unable to take the glacier dog-sledding flightseeing excursion in Juneau.
Glacier Point Wilderness Safari
Board a custom-built enclosed expedition boat for a 60- to 70-minute ride through fjords and rainforests with an abundance of wildlife and spectacular views. Upon your arrival at Glacier Point, a remote beach, you'll set out on a short drive and hike, before boarding a 31-foot-long canoe for a paddle up to the face of Davidson Glacier. Consider this excursion if you'd like to see a glacier up close without spending the money on a helicopter tour.
Bering Sea Crab Fishermen's Tour
Whether you're a fan of the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" or just really like to see fishermen in action, this excursion will float your boat. Those who book will ride along on Aleutian Ballad, a fishing boat featured in the second season of "Deadliest Catch."
While sailing the calm, protected waters of the Inside Passage (as opposed to the more treacherous fishing ground of the Bering Sea), you'll witness part of a day in the life of commercial fishermen, as they haul in their latest catch of Alaskan king crab, halibut, octopus, prawn and more.
Misty Fjords by Floatplane
Misty Fjords National Monument is a must-see, and on this flightseeing tour, you view the magnificent scenery with a bird's-eye view from the air on a seaplane. The pristine park encompasses nearly 2.3 million acres, where you'll gaze upon sheer granite cliffs, imposing waterfalls, sparkling fjords and thick forests. The seaplane will also briefly land on water within the park to give you a taste of the serenity down below.
The tour is not only narrated; it's also set to inspirational music. You're not likely to see any scenery prettier than this, and you'll stand a good chance of spotting wildlife including eagles, bears, mountain goats, deer and wolves.
Saxman Native Village
Your understanding of Alaska should include native culture. This 2.5-hour tour takes you to a native village just a short ride from Ketchikan where the Tlingits welcome guests and offer a taste of their culture. After a tribal ceremonial greeting and short video program, you enter the Beaver Clan House for a song, dance and storytelling presentation.
You then head to Saxman Totem Park, home to one of the largest collections of authentic totems in the world, where your guide will help explain the stories and meanings behind 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.
Mountain Point Snorkeling Adventure
It's true: You really can snorkel in Alaska. You'll start out with a quick trip to the dive shop, where your guides will outfit you in head-to-toe wet suits thick enough to make even the most frigid waters comfortable (though temperatures here can reach as high as 18 degrees in summertime).
Once you're geared up, it's onto the shallow tide pools of Mountain Point, where you'll snorkel with your guides over kelp forests, through schools of fish and past sea stars and sea cucumbers -- with ample time to ask questions. After about an hour in the water, you'll head back to the dive shop, where a hot beverage caps a perfect day.
Icy Strait Point
ZipRider Zipline Adventure
Get an adrenaline rush on one of the largest zipline rides in the world, at 5,330 feet long and with a vertical drop of 1,330 feet. Your trip begins with a narrated bus tour through the indigenous Tlingit village of Hoonah and then up a mountainside, where it's a short walk to the launching area. You'll be harnessed for your ride down the mountain in a seat attached to a thick cable. (There are six cables side by side, so up to a half-dozen participants 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 roughly 60 miles per hour. Spread your arms, and you'll feel on top of the world. Screaming is de rigueur. Soaring above the forest below (at certain points, you are 300 feet above the forest floor), you might also catch views of Port Frederick, Icy Strait and your cruise ship.
The ride takes only 1.5 minutes before your gentle, brake-activated touchdown on the beach at Icy Strait Point. For even more adventure, some tours combine the zipline with an ATV ride.
Cooking in Alaska's Wildest Kitchen
Wannabe Alaskan chefs can spend 1.5 hours learning about Alaskan seafood, local fishing and cooking techniques on this interactive foodie outing. A local fisherwoman/"wilderness chef" will lead a demo on fish filleting, then bring you outside where you can learn to grill the day's catch over a large wood grill. While you listen and cook, nibble on salmon and halibut dishes, as well as local veggies. At the end, you'll have newfound culinary knowledge to take home as a souvenir. Plus, it leaves plenty of time for further exploration in Icy Strait Point.
This 5-hour, high-speed catamaran trip runs out of Whittier into the wilderness of Prince William Sound. Look out for 26 different glaciers en route, along with wildlife on land (like bears and mountain goats), sea (sea otters, seals, porpoises, sea lions and whales) and sky (look out for eagles and visit a bird rookery). Park ranger narration is included, as is a hot meal and a no-seasickness guarantee.
Though Whittier -- set about 65 miles southeast of Anchorage -- is most commonly used as an embarkation/debarkation port, the glacier-filled Sound is well worth making time to explore. Just note that if you're booking the tour through your cruise line, it's only open to cruisers on back-to-back voyages that both end and then begin here, or for passengers ending their cruise in Whittier, followed up by either a late-night flight out or overnight stay in Anchorage. Accordingly, passengers can opt in for a version of the excursion that includes a post-tour motor coach transfer to Anchorage hotels and its airport.
Kenai Fjords Cruise with Alaska SeaLife Center
This full-day outing combines two of Seward's top attractions: a visit to the Alaska SeaLife Center, the state's leading aquarium and an ocean wildlife rehabilitation centre, along with a scenic cruise through Kenai Fjords National Park. At the SeaLife Center, get up-close views of seals, walruses, sea otters and seabirds. Then, it's off for a 5-hour, park ranger-led sailing through the national park's Resurrection Bay, where you can view Bear Glacier and wildlife like whales and bald eagles. An all-you-can-eat salmon and prime rib lunch buffet is also included.
Like Whittier, Seward is most often used as an embarkation and debarkation port. As such, this is an excursion that's also limited to participants who are sailing on back-to-back cruises to/from Seward if you buy through the line. It's also open to those who are ending their sailing in Seward with a late-night flight out of nearby Anchorage (or with an overnight stay in the city), in which case the tour includes an airport transfer, too. Unlike Prince William Sound in Whittier, note that those with motion sickness should take precautions since the Resurrection Bay waters can be a bit choppy.