Home TripsAcross the Country Cruising the Last Frontier – Alaska Ports of Call

Cruising the Last Frontier – Alaska Ports of Call

by Grant
Alaska Ports of Call

One of our favorite vacations and one of our consistent recommendations for others in terms of travel is an Alaskan cruise. We have been on two Alaskan cruises, one in 2010 for our honeymoon and one this summer (2018) for my Dad’s 70th birthday. There is just something about the Alaska ports of call which keep us coming back for more. 

While there are a few additional ports/activities, the vast majority of cruises stop at Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, along with a glacier area, like Glacier Bay National Park. Most will also either originate in Vancouver or stop in a Canadian city, such as Victoria, due to US regulations.

Getting the most out of the Alaska ports of call is a matter of planning and understanding what to expect in each port.

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One Way or Round Trip?

We have cruised both ways. Our first cruise was one-way from Vancouver, British Columbia to Whittier, a small port south of Anchorage. Our most recent was a round-trip from Seattle, which stopped briefly in Victoria in order to meet regulations.

Honestly, we liked the one-way cruise better. While it did require a bit of doing flight-wise, we enjoyed having the opportunity to see some of Vancouver before we left as well as doing a land tour in Alaska when we arrived.

Denali National Park is nothing short of amazing.
Denali National Park is nothing short of amazing.

The land tour was great in some parts but not great in others. We loved taking the train to Denali National Park. But afterward, we kinda felt like cattle being herded around. 

The round trip cruise was nice for us since we had the camper with us and needed to return to Seattle no matter what. We definitely, however, noticed less time in the ports, Ketchikan in particular.

Bonnie looking at the Marjorie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park. Some itineraries skip the park, but we think it is one of the best parts of the cruise.
Bonnie looking at the Marjorie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park. Some itineraries skip the park, but we think it is one of the best parts of the cruise.

Our recommendation, all things being equal: Take a one-way cruise and make a point to spend additional time exploring Alaska on your own. 

While we took a cruise tour to Denali, we don’t recommend it if you feel remotely confident in renting a car and driving yourself. The roads to Denali National Park and Talkeetna are perfectly drivable. Driving yourself will give you a lot more flexibility in seeing more of Alaska.

When to Go?

Alaskan cruises typically run from mid-May to mid-September. We recommend waiting until late July if you want to see the salmon run, though this changes year-to-year. We went in late June this year (2018) and mid-July in 2010. The salmon were just starting to run this year, but I would recommend waiting until later in July into early August.

What to Bring?

The advice I gave my sister and my father when packing for their cruise: bring layers. If the sky is overcast, which it will be a lot, the temps will be in the 50s or 60s. If the sun comes out, it will jump up into the low 70s.

Bonnie and I, plus my sister and brother-in-law at a waterfall in Ketchikan.
Bonnie and I, plus my sister and brother-in-law at a waterfall in Ketchikan.

Just before we went on our first cruise, as a wedding gift, I bought Bonnie a Marmot Precip raincoat.  She wore it the whole trip. This year, she took a more packable raincoat from Eddie Bauer and wore that the whole trip.

We both took fleeces and were glad we had them.

Bring waterproof footwear! You will be glad you did, I promise. I wore Merrell Moab shoes and Bonnie had North Face Hedgehog Fastpack GTX.

Lastly, and this goes without saying, bring a good camera! If you don’t have a DSLR you plan on bringing, I really recommend bringing a good bridge camera (or superzoom). I have used the Canon SX40HS for years and love it. You can get the most up-to-date version (the SX70HS) for not that much money. The flexibility of being able to zoom in on wildlife and take sweeping landscape shots is paramount. Yes, you sacrifice a bit of image quality to gain that flexibility but it can’t be beaten in terms of price and weight.

Looking for a bit more of a camera in terms of image quality? Take a look at Sony RX10 MkIV. This will be my next camera purchase.

Alaska Ports of Call

The order of the stops depends on the cruise and a handful of cruises offer alternative stops in Sitka, Haines or Prince Rupert, British Columbia. That said, the vast majority of cruises hit these three stops: Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway.

Ketchikan

Our first stop heading north is Ketchikan.

Ketchikan is the first and southernmost Alaskan city. At just over 8,000 people, it is the fifth-largest city in Alaska, the rainiest city in Alaska and the “Salmon Capital of the World.” It is also completely cut off from the mainland in terms of roads. The only ways into Ketchikan are by boat and plane.

Ketchikan
Ketchikan

We have been here twice. On our first trip, we went zip-lining and then walked around the city on our own. For our second trip, we intended to take a floatplane to Misty Fjords but, alas, the weather was too rainy.

Instead, we took a great tour of the area and got a lot of information from our tour with Renegade Tours. The tour of the area took us out to Herring Bay (tons of bald eagles), to a local waterfall and out to Potlatch Park for totem poles.

Totems in Potlatch Park
Totems in Potlatch Park

We also made a point to check out the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. Wow, what an unexpected treat. At first, I was reluctant but my stepmother really wanted to see the show as a family.

I ended up really enjoying the show. There was a lot of cornball theatre, but I laughed quite a bit and really enjoyed seeing what these lumberjacks could do.

Axe throwing at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.
Axe throwing at the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.

The cruise ships dock right in town, so getting around the town is very easy. The lumberjack show is an easy 10-15 minute walk from the docks. Honestly, only those with serious mobility issues will have a problem.

Be sure to take some time to walk Creek Street while you are in town. Creek Street is built basically over Ketchikan Creek and is home to some unique shops and restaurants plus some great views of the salmon when they are running.

What makes Creek Street cool besides the uniqueness of its location is its history. The area was the red-light district of the town and, during Prohibition, was home to more than 20 brothels. In fact, the number one industry during the early 1900s was prostitution.

Creek Street in Ketchikan
Creek Street in Ketchikan

Don’t miss Married Man’s Trail, which led into the back of Creek Street, allowing married men to sneak in and out without being seen. It is also the spot of the Salmon Ladder, which allows salmon to make their way up the waterfall.

Pro tip for Ketchikan: Don’t leave your raincoat on the boat, no matter how clear it might look.

Juneau 

Juneau is the capital of Alaska and, like Ketchikan, is only accessible by boat or by plane. Unlike Ketchikan, the docks are not quite as close to the major attractions of the town. Walking into town takes 15-20 minutes and, aside from the typical tourist shops, there is not a lot to capture interest by the dock.

Juneau
Juneau

Indeed, the best reasons to visit Juneau are located away from the city. In both visits to Juneau, we took excursions to Auke Bay to go whale watching. Both times we saw whales.

On our first trip, we found a juvenile humpback playing around, jumping out of the water left and right plus some orcas in the distance. On our second trip, we found a pod of orcas swimming right by the boat, plus a humpback in the distance. Wow! Just wow!

Seeing orcas so close!
Seeing orcas so close!

We also made a point on our first trip, with the additional time we had, to go to the Alaskan Brewing Company for a tour and a tasting. You will need a cab to get there, but its worth it!

The other awesome stop is the Mendenhall Glacier. Located near Auke Bay, you will see the glacier from the road, but getting up to the Forest Service Recreation Area is so worth it!

Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier

On our first trip, we took an excursion geared towards photographers. It took us whale watching and out to the glacier. That was easily one of my favorite excursions I have ever taken. The boat was small with the ability to completely open the windows. There was no pushing or jostling to get a good shot.

There are some other great opportunities for very adventurous tours in Juneau, like taking a helicopter or floatplane tour over the top of the Juneau Icefield or going dogsledding. When we go back to Juneau, we definitely want to try something different, but we knew how much my parents and sister’s family would love seeing the whales. 

One neat stop, especially for the kids, is the salmon hatchery. Not only can you see salmon in various stages of development, they also have a small aquarium with native sea life, including a bit where you can pet starfish. Our nieces loved it.

Corinna and Sandy along with the rest of the girls at the hands-on exhibit.
Corinna and Sandy along with the rest of the girls at the hands-on exhibit.

Pro tip for Juneau: There are bald eagles everywhere. Keep your eyes open. If you see a white spot in the trees, that’s an eagle. Also, keep an eye on the inlets as the tide goes out. Eagles love to feast on seafood left exposed by the retreating tide. The local Tlingit people have a saying: “When the tide is out, the table is set.”

Skagway

Skagway feels so much more remote than either Juneau or Ketchikan. It is a much smaller than either city, with a year-round population of little more than a 1,000 people. That said, the town doubles in size during the summer to accommodate the tourists.

The main drag of Skagway
The main drag of Skagway

Skagway, however, is not cut off from the mainland and you can drive to Skagway by going through Canada.

Despite being touristy, we really enjoyed Skagway both times. The main drag through town has some interesting shops, a couple of breweries and, most important to us, several parts of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.

Ever read The Call of the Wild by Jack London? Set in part in Skagway. In town, you can learn about how the gold rush worked, who actually made money from it and how the Mounties required three pounds of food per day for an entire year of anyone crossing into the Klondike.

White Pass
White Pass

On our first trip, we took a brief van tour up to the White Pass. We then spent the rest of the day walking around the town. In hindsight, we probably should have taken the train up to the pass, but we felt like that cut too much into seeing the rest of the town.

Depending on which dock you are at, it can be a 15-minute walk to town, but they do offer a shuttle.

Last time, we got a bite and a brew at the Skagway Brewing Company, which had some tasty beer. This time, we got off the beaten path a bit to the Skagway Spirits. Located a few blocks off the main drag, this small, family-owned distillery produces vodka and gin with whiskey to come.

Bonnie talking drinks at Skagway Spirits.
Bonnie talking drinks at Skagway Spirits.

The owner fixed us some delicious cocktails and we were particularly impressed by their gin.

My sister and her family found glass blowing at Jewell Gardens, which they really enjoyed for my niece’s birthday.

Pro tip for Skagway: Wear good walking shoes. There is a lot to see in this town.

Haines

For our second trip, we actually took a trip to Haines from Skagway for a wildlife viewing tour. Haines is about a 45-minute ferry ride on the fast ferry, which includes narration by a naturalist.

I have wanted to visit Haines since I read Heather Lende’s book, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name, about living in this small Alaska town. The town is also famous for the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, where nearly 4,000 bald eagles congregate in the fall.

Haines
Haines

Haines is definitely not as touristy as the main three ports, but there is still a lot to see. We took a small wildlife tour which amounted to seven of us in a Toyota Land Cruiser going to various spots throughout the area where wildlife is often present.

To be honest, we saw little in the way of wildlife. We caught a glimpse of a brown bear and saw some bald eagles off in the distance, but that is mostly due to the time of year. If we had gone later in the year, we likely would have seen plenty more bears out in the Chilkoot Lake area or in the Chilkat Inlet area.

Rainbow Glacier
Rainbow Glacier

Still, our guide kept us entertained with some amazing scenery, local arts and crafts plus took us to her own home for lunch on her deck. On the way back to the ferry, she took us by remains of Fort Seward, which was built during the gold rush and deactivated in 1945.

Our biggest disappointment was not having time to explore the town more on our own. It seemed like a really cool town with a lot character. According to our guide, it has the most artists per capita of any city in Alaska and I believe it based upon what I saw. The upside is we were able to spend time walking around Skagway when we got back.

On the ferry to Haines
On the ferry to Haines

Pro tip for Haines: Bring a book for the ride back to Skagway if your cruise ship is not docked here.

Glacier Bay National Park

Calling Glacier Bay National Park a port of call is a little disingenuous. The ship does not actually dock in Glacier Bay NP. Instead, the Park Service sends a crew of rangers to board the ship to guide the tour.

While in the park, the rangers operate a pseudo ranger station in the lounge and one of the rangers narrates the trip through the inlet over the ship’s PA system.

Margerie Glacier
Margerie Glacier

While we were there, the ship visited three glaciers: the Margerie Glacier, the Grand Pacific Glacier and the Lamplugh Glacier.

Seeing the glaciers is a bit staggering once you understand the scale. When you are on the ship, the glaciers don’t seem that large, but while we were there, a tour boat was at the Lamplugh Glacier. You could just barely make out the dots of the kayaks in the water and helmets of visitors on the shore.

Lamplugh Glacier
Lamplugh Glacier

Adding that bit of perspective was staggering. They are huge. The Margerie Glacier is 250 feet tall from the waterline and a mile wide. When it calves ice off into the inlet, it is massive chunks.

We have also visited College Fjord, which has several glaciers. Honestly, while it was pretty, it was a bit anticlimactic after visiting Glacier Bay NP. If you have a choice, we recommend going to the national park.

Why balconies are great on an Alaskan cruise. Oh, don't try the sandals thing unless you have serious tolerance for cold.
Why balconies are great on an Alaskan cruise. Oh, don’t try the sandals thing unless you have serious tolerance for cold.

Pro tip for Glacier Bay NP: If you are not in a balcony stateroom, find a deck where you can walk easily from port to starboard for photographs. Cruise ships will rotate so both sides of the boat can see the glaciers from their balconies. Watching the glaciers from a balcony is more than worth the price of having a balcony in terms of never having to fight for a good picture.

Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia

We stopped in Victoria on the way back to Seattle on our second cruise. I wish I could tell you more about the town, but, alas, we didn’t do much more than get off the boat and walk along the seawall.

Our ship got here right around dinner time and we decided we would rather spend that time having a leisurely meal aboard the ship than rushing off to a tour. Honestly, the tours seemed rather limited and expensive, mostly due to the remoteness of the cruise ship docks from the main part of town.

Flotsam along the coast of Victoria
Flotsam along the coast of Victoria

I visited Victoria when I was a kid many years ago and I remember it was quite pretty and I am looking forward to returning to the town and spending time exploring Vancouver Island.

We spent a bit of time walking around Vancouver back in 2010 and I remember enjoying the city, but I can’t remember much more than that.

Whittier

There’s not much to Whittier. The town serves as a port to Anchorage and most of the nearly 200 people in town live in one of two large buildings in town.

The port allows cruise ships to transfer folks to Anchorage via bus or take the Alaska Railroad north to Denali NP. Apparently, the port does offer some nice boating opportunities but make sure you have worked out transfers to and from Anchorage on your own.

The Alaska Railroad provides some really nice views traveling from Whittier to Anchorage.
The Alaska Railroad provides some really nice views traveling from Whittier to Anchorage.

Where to Book Your Shore Excursions

On our first cruise, we booked everything through the ship and it went smoothly. This time, we decided to try the Shore Excursions Group. We found the prices to be around 10% less. We had no problems using the group. When our floatplane trip to Misty Fjords was canceled, they refunded the money promptly.

Wet Bald Eagle in Ketchikan
Wet Bald Eagle in Ketchikan

If you are doing the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show in Ketchikan, just buy your tickets directly from the show unless you require transportation from the ship.

Final Thoughts

There are very few ways to see Southeast Alaska other than cruising. Indeed, two of the three main ports are not accessible by land. So, an Alaskan cruise provides a lot of opportunities to see that part of the state.

It’s gorgeous. Seriously, it’s one of the prettiest places I have ever been. We went on our honeymoon and recommended it to my father for his 70th birthday.

Grant and his dad in Haines
Grant and his dad in Haines

But it’s not a typical cruise. The weather is rarely sunny. You will wear a fleece most of the time. A beanie is a better choice than a sunhat. But the experience of seeing Alaska’s rugged coast is more than worth it. 

Just pack a raincoat.

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An Alaska cruise has wildlife and the scenery is unlike any other cruise out there. But making the most out of Alaska ports of call requires planning.
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