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4 Best Ways to Tour Mount Etna on a Shore Excursion
4 Best Ways to Tour Mount Etna on a Shore Excursion
Best Alaska Shore Excursions
Kayaker in Alaska (Photo: Holland America)

Best Alaska Shore Excursions

Best Alaska Shore Excursions
Kayaker in Alaska (Photo: Holland America)
Elissa Garay
Contributor
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Alaska shore excursions are a blend of soft adventure, cultural explorations and tours focusing on stunning scenery and wildlife. The best Alaska cruise excursions involve all of those aspects to create a surprising experience that ticks off all of your bucket-list expectations. Think: flightseeing over Misty Fjords in Skagway, a ride on the White Pass Railway, visit to the Sitka Raptor Center or a thrilling Alaska glacier helicopter tour?

Alaska attracts a wide mix of cruisers, so cruise and excursion companies offer a blend of active itineraries -- hiking, biking and kayaking -- in addition to tours for history-lovers, those interested in Indigenous culture and those looking for pure entertainment. There is truly something for every taste.

Read on for our favorite Alaska shore excursions at some of Alaska's most visited ports.

Juneau Excursions

Alaska Helicopter Tour: Four Glaciers and Dogsled Adventure

Juneau shore excursions span a wide range on the wow-factor scale, but this combo glacier helicopter tour is undeniably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As if the ride in a helicopter over glaciers and landing on an actual glacier weren't exhilarating enough, you can also pretend you're in the Iditarod by getting on a real dogsled.

This shore excursion flies 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 could also spot 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.

Related: Everything You Need to Know for a Perfect Alaska Adventure

Rainforest Canopy and Zipline Adventure

The Juneau zipline glides above the treetops on Douglas Island (accessed by a high-speed channel crossing from Juneau aboard an expedition craft, which is an adventure of its own). 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 are sent to glide down a mountain on a zipline that runs between tree-top platforms.

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

This combo tour in Juneau includes both a helicopter tour and 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 ax and crampons. It's not easy, but the experience is otherworldly.

Skagway Excursions

Skagway (Photo:Cruise Critic)

White Pass Railway

The White Pass Scenic Railway is one of the most popular Skagway shore excursions, especially on a clear day. It’s a historic narrow gauge railway that was 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. Those prospectors did it on foot and often, in wet, muddy conditions or frigid temperatures.

These days, you'll 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 sights like 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. Along the way, you stop at waterfalls and other spectacular overlooks.

Related: Six Tips for Cruising Alaska on a Budget

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 (there's no snow at this time of year), 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. 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.

Skagway 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.

Icy Strait Point Excursions

Icy Strait (Photo:akphotoc/Shutterstock)

ZipRider Zipline Adventure

The Icy Strait Point zipline is 5,330 feet long and with a vertical drop of 1,330 feet. But this excursion begins with a narrated bus tour through the Indigenous Tlingit village of Hoonah and up a mountainside. Once you've reached 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 down the mountain at speeds of roughly 60 miles per hour. Screaming is, of course, not required (but just might make the ride more fun). At certain points, you are 300 feet above the forest floor and might also catch views of Port Frederick, Icy Strait and your cruise ship.

The ride takes only 90 seconds before your gentle, brake-activated touchdown on the beach. For even more adventure, some tours combine the Icy Straight Point zipline with an ATV ride.

Related: What I Learned on My First Cruise to Alaska

Cooking in Alaska's Wildest Kitchen

Aspiring chefs can spend one-and-a-half 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 fileting, 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.

Sitka Excursions

Sitka (Photo:Ramunas Bruzas/Shutterstock)

Sitka Raptor Center and Indigenous Tales

The Sitka, Alaska Raptor Center is home to view birds of prey, including bald eagles, up close. Sitka is also noteworthy among Alaska towns for its strong Russian and Tlingit heritage. This tour combines the work done at the raptor center with Sitka's cultural side.

In Sitka, you can see St. Michael's, the first Russian Orthodox cathedral in America and 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. Castle Hill, where the post-Alaska Purchase flag was first flown by the U.S. in 1867, is another popular spot, while Tlingit stories and songs can be seen in a traditional-style clan house in Sitka.

Wild Arts Artist Walk: Hot Italian Glass

On this two-and-a-half-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 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 their own.

Related: The Best Time to Cruise Alaska

Salmon and Halibut Fishing: Catch and Ship

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 Sitka is known for its salmon and halibut fishing trips. 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. Be aware that small boats on the open sea can make swells and wind chop feel all the stronger.

You'll need to buy a one-day fishing license from the captain of the small boat for $15 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, though your catch will not be permitted back onboard the ship.

Seward Post-Cruise Excursion

A Seward Glacier Cruise: Kenai Fjords National Park Cruise and Alaska SeaLife Center

This excursion combines a scenic cruise through Kenai Fjords National Park with a visit to the Alaska SeaLife Center. It's a full-day outing. 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 (farther below), 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.

Ketchikan Excursions

Ketchikan’s Misty Fjords Flightseeing by Floatplane

Misty Fjords National Monument is a Kethickan must-see, and on this flightseeing tour you view the magnificent scenery with a bird's-eye view from a seaplane. This pristine park encompasses nearly 2.3 million acres of 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 like eagles, bears, mountain goats, deer and wolves.

Bering Sea Crab Fishermen's Tour (The "Deadliest Catch" Tour)

Fan of the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" (or just enjoy seeing fishermen in action)? Then Ketchikan's Bering Sea Crab Fisherman's Tour is the shore excursion for you. Those who book it 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, shrimp and more.

Related: Your Cheat Sheet to Alaska Luxury Cruises

Saxman Native Village

Your experience of Alaska should include a healthy dose of Indigenous culture and history. This two-and-a-half-hour tour takes you to an Indigenous 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, where expert craftsmen pass along their skills to apprentices. Indigenous 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 65 degrees in summertime).

Once you're geared up, it's on to 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.

Haines Excursions

Wilderness River Adventure

The Wilderness River Adventure is a great Haines shore excursion for wildlife enthusiasts. The excursion begins with a narrated bus ride along the Haines Scenic Byway. You then 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. Lunch is served in a heated pavilion, and staff also stoke a roaring campfire to help you beat the chill and relax.

Whittier Post-Cruise Excursions

Whittier Glacier Cruise

This five-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.

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.

Updated June 23, 2022

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