On the Klondike Highway outside Skagway, you can bike down a mountain past rugged cliffs, your hands hurting from squeezing the brakes so often.
Or in Juneau, you can swing above the treetops on a zip line, strapped into a harness with only a clamp on a wire holding you in the sky or get in a dog sled to ride across a real glacier. Watch eagles come close enough to examine their weapon-like claws or go fishing for salmon that you can freeze-pack and ship home for a family meal.
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 Railroad to see the beautiful scenery to a hike in crampons on the crevices of a glacier.
Recognizing 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 rather hokey Lumberjack Show and Duck Tours in Ketchikan. There is truly something for every taste.
Here are our favorites among the hundreds of offerings.
The Tour: Four Glaciers by Helicopter & Dog Sled 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 in the Iditarod by getting on a real dog sled. You fly over the massive and impressive Juneau ice field and see the advancing Taku Glacier up close. You may also see the cascading Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier, the floating Dead Branch Glacier or the river-like East Twin Glacier before landing on the Norris Glacier, home to a mushing camp. Your guide will take you on a dog sled ride over the snow-covered glacier and describe the 1,000-mile Iditarod Race from Anchorage to Nome. From the helicopter, you may also view bears, moose, mountain goats and other wildlife.
Who Should Go: Those seeking adventure of the easy yet exhilarating variety. Not for people who fear the cold. Note that you may have to weigh in at the heliport so helicopters can be accurately balanced; passengers requesting an extra seat may pay a surcharge.
Why: You've never done anything like this before.
The Tour: Rainforest Canopy and Zip Line Adventure
You glide above the treetops on this zip line experience on Douglas Island. 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 4 x 4, geared up with a harness, gloves and a helmet, and with the direction of two guides, sent to glide down a mountain on a zip line 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. We actually went into one backwards; it's not as easy as it may seem. 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.
Who Should Go: Try this if you're looking for a rush and willing to answer incessant questions from friends who have not tried zip lining but really want to know what it's all about.
Why: It's fun, and Alaska is all about new experiences.
The Tour: Helicopter Flightseeing and Extended Glacier Trek
On this adventure, you'll check out the local terrain from above with a 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.
Who Should Go: This is a great tour for those who are active and enjoy slightly more extreme (read: not of the bus tour variety) excursions.
Why: It's a great opportunity for a new, look-at-me-climbing-a-glacier Facebook profile photo.
The Tour: Wildlife River Adventure
Haines will remind you of the kind of small town featured on the TV show "Northern Exposure." After a bus ride through the one-horse town (with two stop signs and no traffic lights), you head to the world famous Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. The goal is to spot as many bald eagles as you can and, if you're lucky, bears, moose and other wildlife as well -- all in their natural habitat. Enjoy a picnic by the Chilkat River then traverse the shallow and narrow channels of the glacier-fed waterway in an 18-foot inflatable raft. Your guide will take you deep into the wilderness. Check the trees for eagles and eagle nests, and look in the river for otters and beavers.
Who Should Go: Wildlife lovers looking for a relaxing viewing platform.
Why: It's the eagles, man.
The Tour:Wild Arts Artist Walk: Hot Italian Glass
On this 2.5-hour excursion, you'll walk through town with a guide, stopping at various art galleries along the way. You can witness everything from wood-carving and ceramic work to jewelry-making before trying your hand at the ancient Venetian art of glass-blowing. You'll also have free time at the end to browse the gallery to shop for souvenirs.
Who Should Go: This tour is ideal for anyone interested in art. However, because it's a walking tour, it's not ideal for passengers with mobility issues. It's also great 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.
Why: Sitka used to be known as the "Paris of the Pacific," and this tour option allows cruisers to check out a town specialty most don't know it has.
The Tour: Salmon & Halibut Fishing
There's good fishing off Sitka, and with this full-day 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 with the salmon fishing done by trolling with downriggers or anchoring and mooching. Halibut fishing is done by anchoring and jigging. You should be aware that being on a small boat on the open sea subjects you to swells and wind chops. Lunch and snacks are provided. With a limit on the number of poles on the downrigger, a rotation order may be used to allow everyone time to fish.
Who Should Go: Fishermen who want to add Alaska to their portfolio should sign up for this one.
Why: You may catch the "big one."
Note: You need to buy a 1-day fishing license from the captain of the small boat for $20 cash, as required by Alaska law. Also, from May-June you need a $10 king salmon stamp. If you catch a fish, you can have it packaged and shipped home for an additional fee.
The Tour: Sitka, Raptor Center & 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 the best local attraction -- the Alaska Raptor Rehabilitation Center, where you get to view birds of prey that include bald eagles, close up. In Sitka, you'll also see the tiny one-room St. Michael's, the first Russian Orthodox cathedral in America; visit the 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 Tlinget stories and songs in a traditional-style clan house.
Who Should Go: This excursion is for those who want to learn more about the area's history and culture. It's also ideal for kids and nature-lovers who don't want to miss a visit to the Raptor Center.
Why: It's a good lesson in what Alaska was way back when -- in the time of fur traders, missionaries and Indians -- and what it is today.
The Tour: White Pass Scenic Railway
This is a must-do tour, especially on a clear day. Take a ride on the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, a narrow gauge railway built into amazingly rugged and beautiful terrain 100 years ago. It's 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 amazingly did it on foot and in temperatures that in winter go down as low as -50 degrees. You travel in the comfort of old-fashioned parlor cars, and the route takes you up the 2,800-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. The trip takes three hours roundtrip, but you can also book one-way tours, with a ride back in a bus on the Klondike Highway.
Who Should Go: The train ride is appropriate for anyone who wants to see the views. The optional bike ride (see Tip section below) is for energetic types.
Why: Because it's amazing to think this is the same route taken by crazy gold-rushers who did the trek on foot. Plus the scenery on a clear day is breathtaking.
Tip: For those seeking a more active way to see the White Pass, we highly recommend you book the White Pass Rail & Bike. You take the train up the Pass and then get off at Frasier (which is in Canada) and take a van ride on the Klondike Highway up to 3,292 feet so you can bike down -- and we mean down, down, down. Your hands will hurt from hitting the handbrakes. Along the way, you stop at waterfalls and other spectacular overlooks.
The Tour:Musher's Camp and Dog Sled Experience
You'll begin this trip with a 20-minute bus ride to the nearby town of Dyea, which was Skagway's biggest competition during the gold rush days. (It's now a ghost town, with the exception of a few small cottages and the musher's camp.) Once there, you'll board an all-terrain vehicle called a unimog, which will take you up 800 more feet to where the mushers keep their dogs. Then, you'll be assigned to a sled, where you'll grab a seat and prepare to have a team of 16 eager mutts speed around twists and turns in the chilly mountain air. Your assigned musher will introduce you to his team, fill you in on the sport of sled-dog racing and snap some photos of you along the way.
Who Should Go: Anyone who loves dogs will enjoy this tour. It doesn't involve a lot of physical activity, so it's also ideal for anyone who likes a bit of adventure but who's not in the best shape.
Why: After your sledding experience, you'll return to the spot where you boarded the unimog 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 excursion in Juneau.
Note: Be aware that the sledding portion of this excursion takes place on gravel, not snow. Therefore, you'll board a type of wagon (with wheels), rather than a sled.
The Tour: Glacier Point Wilderness Safari
Board a 26-passenger high-speed expedition boat for an hourlong ride through fjords and rainforests with an abundance of wildlife and spectacular views. Upon your arrival at Glacier Point, a remote beach, you'll board a canoe for a paddle up to the face of Davidson Glacier.
Who Should Go: Consider this excursion if you'd like to see a glacier up close without spending the money on a helicopter tour.
Why: Boats allow you to get closer to the glacier than you would on land or by other, more conventional means of transportation. Plus, this excursion includes a picnic lunch at its conclusion, which is rare during many Alaska excursions.
The Tour: Bering Sea Crab Fisherman's Tour
Whether you're a fan of "Deadliest Catch" or just really like to see fishermen in action, this excursion will float your boat (no pun intended). Those who book will ride along on Aleutian Ballad, a fishing boat featured in the second season of "Deadliest Catch." For 3.5 hours, you'll witness part of a day in the life of fishermen, as they haul in their latest catch.
Who Should Go: Anyone interested in hunting, fishing or "Deadliest Catch" will enjoy this tour.
Why: You can see sea creatures up close as they're caught and put in a huge tank onboard. It will also offer insight to what fishing as a career is really like.
The Tour: Misty Fjords by Floatplane
Misty Fjords National Monument is a must-see, but big ships can't get in there like some smaller ships can. On this tour, you view the magnificent scenery from the air with a window seat on a seaplane. The pristine park encompasses 2.3 million acres, which is roughly the size of Connecticut. You'll view sheer granite cliffs, imposing waterfalls, sparkling fjords and thick forests. The seaplane will also land to give you a taste of the serenity of the park. The tour is not only narrated; it's also choreographed to music.
Who Should Go: Those who can afford the rather steep floatplane prices should give it a try.
Why: You'll not see any scenery prettier than this, and you'll stand a good chance of spotting wildlife including eagles, brown bears, mountain goats, whales and sea lions.
The Tour: Saxman Native Village
Your understanding of Alaska should include native culture. This tour takes you to a village three miles from Ketchikan where the Tlingits welcome guests and offer a taste of their culture. After a short video program, you enter the Beaver Clan House for a song and dance presentation. You then head to Saxman Totem Park, home to one of the largest collections of totems in the world, where your guide will help unravel the mysteries and explain the stories of 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.
Who Should Ago: Those interested in understanding native culture and learning about totem poles will benefit from this outing.
Why: This is the best place on the itinerary to get a feel for native culture, and visitors themselves are encouraged to participate in the final dance at the Beaver Clan House.
The Tour: 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 Neoprene thick enough to make even the most frigid waters comfortable. Once you're dressed, it's onto the bus for a quick trip to Mountain Point, where you'll swim with your guides through schools of herring and past sea stars and sea cucumbers -- with ample time to ask questions. After about 90 minutes in the water, you'll head back to the dive shop, where hot chocolate and hotter showers cap a perfect day.
Who Should Ago: Those who are looking for something a little more active and don't mind the cold.
Why: The experience -- and particularly the wildlife -- is vastly different than the one you'll get in the Caribbean. Plus, you'll get to brag that you snorkeled in Alaska.
Icy Strait Point
The Tour: ZipRider Zip Line
Get an adrenaline rush on the longest and highest zip line cable ride in the world, at 5,330 feet long and with a vertical drop of 1,300 feet. Your trip begins with a narrated bus tour through the 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 several 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 up to 60 miles per hour. Spread your arms, and you'll feel on top of the world. Screaming is de rigueur.
You may spot deer and bears along the way in the woods, which will be below your feet (at the highest point on the cable, you are 300 feet above the forest floor). You may also catch views of Port Fredrick, Icy Strait and your cruise ship. The ride takes only 1.5 minutes before your gentle touchdown on the beach.
Who Should Go: Those who like the rush of amusement park rides will get a thrill from this excursion. It's not for people who are afraid of heights.
Why: You will definitely feel the rush -- and the views are amazing. For even more adventure, some tours combine the zip line with an ATV ride.
The Tour: 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 tour. 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 an alder-wood grill. While you listen and cook, nibble on salmon and halibut dishes, as well as local veggies and one complimentary beverage. At the end, you'll have printed recipes and newfound culinary knowledge to take home as a souvenir.
Who Should Go: Foodies, fish lovers and both novice and experienced chefs will enjoy this very local cooking demo. Plus, it leaves plenty of time for further exploration in Icy Strait Point.
Why: It's a great opportunity to interact with a local Alaskan, and your fellow shipmates, while learning a new skill in a fun environment.
--by Ashley Kosciolek, Associate Editor, with additional reporting by Colleen McDaniel, Managing Editor, and Erica Silverstein, Features Editor
Photos of dog sled ride and helicopter tour appear courtesy of Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau
Photo of zipline appears courtesy of Icy Strait Point