A voyage along Alaska's Inside Passage is a must-do for most cruisers -- but what about the rest of the state? The 49th State is so vast and so beautiful in its varied geography that a typical seven-night sailing just isn't enough to take it all in.
Enter the cruise tour. These itineraries tack an overland trip onto the usual cruise, allowing passengers to leave the coast behind to explore Alaska's Interior. Central to all of these trips is Denali National Park, home of Denali -- North America's highest peak -- and numerous species of wildlife, including grizzly bears, caribou, Dall sheep and moose.
Longer cruise tours not only take in Alaska wilderness gateways, such as Anchorage, Talkeetna and Fairbanks, but might also venture into Canada's Yukon Territory. There, towns like historic Dawson City, the epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush, bring the story of the "Sourdoughs" to life. Another option is to travel through the Canadian Rockies, visiting natural wonders like Banff and Jasper (partially by train), and typically connecting with the ship in Vancouver. Still others take people south of Anchorage into the Kenai Peninsula, home to Seward (an active cruise port and access point for Kenai Fjords National Park) and Homer (a regional cultural capital); the peninsula is a sportsman's paradise for fishing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits.
The distances between towns in Alaska, Yukon and throughout the Canadian Rockies might look manageable on a map, but the sheer size of the area involved is deceiving. It takes eight hours on a train to get to Denali from Anchorage and another seven hours (or more) by bus from Dawson City to Whitehorse in the Yukon; a decent portion of a cruise tour is spent in transit.
Yet the cruise lines do their best to make the hours pleasant. Operators such as Holland America and Princess have been providing these tours for many decades now, and their operations are well organized, with plenty of excursion options for all levels of fitness. Bags are spirited from hotel to hotel with ease, and you can even send suitcases ahead to the ship, in some cases.
Even the longest of cruise tours won't get you through all of Alaska, though; the state could easily take a lifetime to explore. But a few days in the Interior will certainly give you a better perspective on what the northland is all about, and you'll return with a new appreciation for what is still America's last frontier.
Who Goes There?
Several mainstream lines run cruise tours, including Norwegian, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean. Luxury lines like Crystal, Oceania and Silversea also offer cruise tour products, as do some expedition lines, including Alaskan Dream Cruises, Lindblad and UnCruise Adventures.
Still, the Alaska cruise tour arena has been dominated for years by Alaska juggernauts Holland America and Princess. Both lines offer extensive cruise tour programs powered by locally based staff and resources (Princess alone owns five Alaskan wilderness lodges), at least a half-dozen seasonally positioned ships and innovative programming (including partnerships like HAL with BBC Earth and Princess with Discovery), as well as local food slants (HAL features beers from the Alaskan Brewing Co.; Princess has a "Cook My Catch" program focused on salmon and halibut fishing). All and all, the duration of the cruise tour season and scope of these two lines' offerings is simply unsurpassed.
Choosing an Itinerary
The most basic Alaska cruise tours usually run directly between your ship and Denali National Park, where you'll have a day or two to explore; these typically include a stay in Fairbanks or Anchorage. If your tour offers it, it's well worth the upgrade to take the longer seven-hour Tundra Wilderness Tour by bus through the park (as opposed to the standard 4.5-hour Natural History Tour). While wildlife sightings are never guaranteed, you have the potential to see bears, moose, caribou, Dall sheep and more.
With at least seven days on land, you'll have more time to build upon the classic Denali circuit cited above, with perhaps a longer stay in the Denali area. A longer cruise tour can also take you to the Kenai Peninsula, where you'll spend a night or two in a wilderness lodge or at the famed Alyeska Resort, or you might extend your trip into the Yukon instead. If you're OK with skipping out on the Denali trip altogether, several lines propose an alternative option via a Canadian Rockies trip that takes in scenic spots like Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise.
If you've got the time and money, you can surround your Alaskan cruise with a plethora of land options, like a classic Denali circuit combined with a visit to the Canadian Rockies, too.
Best Time to Go
The start of the Alaska tourist season within the state's Interior is a little later than what you'll find in the Inside Passage. Generally, the lodges open mid- to late May (while cruises on the Inside Passage can start up as early as late April). The cruise lines run their final tours in mid-September.
June through August is considered high season, and Alaska shines during this period, with endless hours of daylight due to the midnight sun. Still, the shoulder season has its advantages, beyond fewer crowds and lower prices. In May, Denali emerges from its snowfall with wildflowers and animals searching for food. Likewise, the tundra starts showing fall colors as early as mid-August, and bears are visible as they frantically beef up for the winter.
No matter when you come, prepare for changeable weather; it can be wet and chilly, even in the middle of the summer. With the exception of flightseeing, excursions generally run regardless of rain, so bring appropriate gear. Conversely, when the sun is out, it can reach the upper 70s in northerly Fairbanks. Bring plenty of layers.
Cruise Tour Destination Highlights
Many cruise tours begin or end in Anchorage, Alaska's largest city. Acclimate yourself to the state's indigenous culture by visiting the Alaska Native Heritage Center, or spend time outdoors by taking a day trip to Portage Glacier or biking the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.
Outside Anchorage in the town of Girdwood, Alyeska serves as Alaska's biggest ski resort during the winter and an activity and relaxation hub in the summer. The biggest attraction is a gondola ride to the top of 2,300-foot Mt. Alyeska, where you can get stunning views of Turnagain Arm. Other excursions include hiking, mountain biking, dog mushing or glacier trekking.
A quirky fishing town on the Kenai Peninsula, Homer is known for art as it is for nature, and you can visit many galleries. That said, this part of the Kenai Peninsula offers bear-watching opportunities, as well as fishing excursions for halibut and salmon.
Denali National Park:
Alaska's premier national park, Denali National Park is prized for a reason; with more than 1.3 million acres of wilderness, it's one of the country's best-preserved swaths of forest and tundra. Most cruise tours give you a choice of one-, two- or three-night stays; you need at least two to get the most out of your experience. Hop on a Park Service bus to seek out bears, moose and caribou, splurge on a flightseeing trip around Denali, or take a rafting trip on the Nenana River. And don't be too disappointed if you never see the mountain, as only 30 percent of the park's visitors are lucky enough to glimpse it.
Fewer than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, Fairbanks is the gateway to Alaska's Far North. There, you can view the famed Trans-Alaska Pipeline, explore the state's gold-rush history at Gold Dredge No. 8 and raft along the Chena. You can also take a flight to communities at the base of the Brooks Range, such as Coldfoot or the accessible-only-by-plane Athabaskan town of Fort Yukon.
The epicenter of the Klondike Gold Rush, Dawson City has maintained its historic atmosphere by renovating its old facades and developing first-rate tours and programs. Don't miss the informative historic walks put on by the city's tourism office or the cabaret show at Diamond Tooth Gerties. If you're really adventurous, go to the Downtown Hotel, and order a "sourtoe cocktail" -- a shot with a real human toe in it. (You'll get a certificate and membership in the "sourtoe cocktail club" for your efforts.)
Yukon's capital, Whitehorse -- known as the Wilderness City -- might not be as cute as Dawson, but there are still several things to do. Meander on the Millennium Trail (the city's gorgeous paved trail along the Yukon River), watch the salmon struggle through what's considered to be the world's largest fish ladder or take one of many active excursions outside town.
Check out our slideshow of Alaska cruise tour destinations.
Alaska Cruise Tour Tips
Be prepared for long bus and train trips.
Distances between cities in Alaska are vast, and even though some cruise tours incorporate short flights, it's possible that you'll spend more time looking at the wilderness through a bus or train window than actually hiking in it. Not all train trips are created equal; we were underwhelmed by the Alaska Railroad trip between Anchorage and Denali, for example, but felt the spectacular scenery on the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad between Fraser, British Columbia, and Skagway, Alaska, made that part worthwhile. In any case, if you get antsy sitting for long periods of time, a cruise tour might not be for you.
Tour first, cruise later.
Length isn't the only decision you need to make for a cruise tour. You'll also have to decide whether you'll get on your ship before or after your land trip. We recommend the latter, as it's nice to have time to relax in your stateroom for a good run after traveling to different hotels every night.
Budget extra money.
At each stop, cruise lines offer a plethora of excursions, some of which carry extremely high price tags. Flightseeing trips, in particular, can run $400 or more. In addition, should you choose to dine ashore, note that restaurants in Alaska are generally more expensive than what you'll find in much of the Lower 48.
Get our expert tips on budgeting for your cruise.
Early starts are the rule, not the exception.
Unlike a cruise, where you can plan your day at your own pace, a cruise tour has a set schedule with little time for error. Bags were set outside as early as 6 a.m., and we were usually on the move by 7:30 a.m.
Take advantage of long days.
The midnight sun of summer means that daylight extends late into the night (or 24 hours, if you're in Fairbanks). So, even if you've had a long train ride, you'll still have plenty of sunshine left to take an excursion, go on a hike or explore local bars and restaurants -- trust us, after eight hours spent sitting, you'll be dying to stretch your legs.
Request a northern lights wake-up call.
The aurora borealis is almost impossible to see at the height of summer, as the midnight sun keeps the sky far too bright for a glimpse. In late August or September, however, you might have a shot in more northern destinations like Fairbanks. Most hotels will take requests to call your room if the lights are active. The University of Alaska Fairbanks has a website that also predicts aurora activity.
Pack for comfort.
No need to pack your formalwear; on a cruise tour, your essential wardrobe items are hiking shoes, hoodies and jeans. Layering is key, as temperatures can vary 30 degrees within a day, and rain showers are common, particularly in the temperate rainforest areas of Southeast Alaska. Some cruise lines allow you to send one bag directly to the ship, meaning you don't need to deal with dress clothes or extra baggage.
Learn more about what to pack on an Alaska vacation.
Don't expect luxury.
Alaska hotels and lodges are usually more atmospheric than luxurious, with wood interiors, taxidermy and large fireplaces that feel necessary, even in August. At wilderness lodges, travelers are often housed in out buildings that require a walk or a shuttle, and often there are few dining options other than the hotel. On our Holland America cruise tour, none of the accommodations had pools or spas, for example.
Leave the group.
At times, a cruise tour can seem so neat and packaged, you'll feel like you're in a cruise line bubble. When you have free time, get out and explore on your own, as you're likely to find some gems. For example, Parks Canada offers guided walking tours in Dawson City that tackle topics you likely won't find covered through the cruise line, such as the poems of Robert Service and the town's quirky underbelly. And Denali National Park has a daily free dogsledding demonstration at its kennels that allows you to get up-close and personal with the sled dogs that are still used for transport in the winter.
Here are six more things you need to know about Alaska cruise tours.